This has been a very long, and busy weekend. Not all bad (though some of it was), mind you, but long, absolutely. Over the past three days, I have been to Flagstaff, to a night visit with my wife to an emergency room in Winslow, to a chapter house meeting on the Navajo reservation (where I believe that two of us who attended on behalf of the Democratic party got to get some good work done), and today, to Albuquerque. Now, my mother lives in Albuquerque (a three and a half hour drive for us) so frequently I go there with the kids, and we did surprise her and have dinner with her tonight. However, this was a completely unplanned and unscheduled trip. It was necessitated by a search for a textbook, for a class that my wife is taking online from Northern Arizona University.
On Saturday, we checked their bookstore. It was not in. We also checked the other bookstores near the campus in Flagstaff (Barnes and Nobles, and a used book store) and neither of them had it. The class officially starts tomorrow, and my wife is supposed to take a quiz on Friday. Living in a very rural area (it takes us an hour and a half just to drive to Flagstaff), ordering it from amazon.com was not realistic since our experience is that everything takes a day or two longer to get delivered here than it takes in other places. So, when we found the book in Albuquerque, I piled the kids into the car and off we went.
Now, this got me thinking about textbooks. As a community college professor, I deal with textbooks, and their selection, all the time. I get lots of free copies, many of which I have never even requested and which we are not even considering for adoption. I've been treated to dinner at a very fine restaurant (quite a few years ago, when I didn't yet realize how this contributes to the cost of a book-- see below) by a textbook representative (and I know a lot of very good, hardworking textbook reps who try to make their case on the merits of the books, but clearly they have generous expense accounts, or at least that one did). And I know why. They work on commission, and they want us to choose their textbook. Now, we always choose the texbooks that will work the best with our courses, but it doesn't stop textbook reps from pulling out all the stops anyway.
Now, on the other end, I look at the prices that publishers charge for textbooks. For a hardcover textbook at a university, prices are generally above a hundred dollars a copy (or a bit less, say anywhere from $50-$90 for paperback). This represents a degree of inflation, though when I went to school, they were still quite expensive.
And why is this? It isn't the cost to the publisher, because if you walk into any regular bookstore in America, you can find books of similar quality, typeset and intracacy as any textbook, selling for under $20 (hardcover) or $7 (paperback). The book I bought my wife today is paperback, is about the size of a Schaum's outline (which usually costs about $7.95) and if new retails for $83.25 (I found a used one for about sixty dollars). So they are certainly raking in far more than it costs them to publish the book. Now, some of it certainly goes to pay for all those free textbooks and other expenses, but even beyond that they are clearly seeing some huge profits.
And it hurts the students the most. They have no choice-- they have to buy the textbook for the course. At the institution where I work, we try to keep our tuition affordable, but often students end up spending more on books than they do on tuition anyway. About the only thing that holds down prices is competition with other textbook publishers, but only competition for the decisions of professors, not competition from the actual consumers. And I can tell you that most of the time, cost to the student is not a factor that is strongly considered when making textbook decisions (although we are starting to think more about it).
Now what other industry does this remind you of? The prescription drug industry, of course. People have to have the particular drug that will help their condition, and they often (unless there is a generic available) have no choice except to pay for it or not. And like the textbook industry, drug prices are not regulated (as they are in other countries where the government actucally negotiates drug prices).
So, what should we do for both industries? Regulation. Conservatives would say, 'choice,' but this is not realistic when textbook publishers are protected by copywrite laws (just as pharmaceutical companies are protected by patents). Now, I do want to be very clear about one thing-- I support patent and copywrite laws as necessary to protect artistic and creative freedom, and am in favor of enforcing patent and copywrite laws to the nth degree. And while the high prices of textbooks does lead to some pirating and unauthorized copying, I oppose this and support intellectual property rights. However, regulation does not in any way infringe upon copywrite. What regulation would do, is limit the prices that people who in effect have a monopoly can charge for their product. We already do that with utility bills. So why can't we do the same for books and drugs? Don't tell anyone that they can't make a profit, but decide (with their input, as well as consumer input) what a reasonable profit is, the price which produces that profit, and then set that price.
If it is a good thing for your electric company, then why is it a bad thing for your prescription drugs, your college textbook or for that matter air travel (remember they deregulated the airline industry during the Reagan era, and if you've been watching airline after airline go under or reorganize under bankruptcy since then, you can see how well that has worked.)
Regulation-- it works, and sometimes it is necessary.