Henry Farrell is speaking some truth here about the textbook scam.
I teach international relations at a university where political science is the most popular major. As well as teaching intensive seminars, I sometimes teach big entry level courses with 300 students. Every year I do this, I get free textbooks during the summer from academic publishers who want me to assign them. I get phone calls and e-mails from publishers’ reps, asking if they can come around and talk to me about all the great books that they have on offer. Occasionally, publishers contact me to see if I’ve any interest in writing a textbook myself. I politely decline all these gracious offers on ethical grounds. I simply don’t think it’s right or fair to force college students to pay hundreds of dollars, in addition to their tuition, for books that replicate knowledge which is freely available elsewhere.
I completely agree. I teach a 125-student intro to U.S. history course every fall. For the past 2 years, I have not used a textbook at all. Why should I have my students pay $80 or $90 when the tests are based strictly on course material and the papers on outside readings? I used to assign one so they could have one to back up the lecture material, but I realized that they were spending a bunch of money for nothing. And I’m opposed to this. I do assign a rather expensive source reader, a book called Discovering the American Past. But there is a concrete reason for this. I teach discussion sections. Unlike nearly every other source reader, which is an afterthought for the textbook writers because that’s not where the real money is, this book avoids the “let’s throw together 8 documents on the American Revolution that collectively lead us nowhere” for the strategy of creating a chapter of documents on a very specific issue that helps students understand what historians do. For instance, last week they read a bunch of documents on how Jefferson and Madison thought the French of Louisiana were not smart enough to be Americans after the Louisiana Purchase and how the Cajuns had to fight for their rights. This is a good set of documents that also helps students think about what it means to be an American today. It’s about $90 new but there are so many copies of this floating around that they can get it cheaper. It’s also the only book I assign except for a separate $20 reader that allows them to write a paper through reading a book with dozens of primary sources on the same topic. This is what I assigned this semester. So that’s a total of $110 or so for the whole semester, if they buy the books new. That’s still too much. But compared to a lot of courses, it’s better. And if it was a smaller class and I was assigning 5 or 6 short books, the cost would be about the same. But it’s the best I can do. And I’m certainly not going to then drop a big textbook on top of it. Maybe I can find a way to do this cheaper without a decline in quality, but again, there aren’t many source books out there that have conceptualized the classroom effectively.
However, next year, the new edition of my reader is coming out. And about half the chapters are indeed new. So I’m not sure what to do because if I assign the new edition, the students lose the used market. I may wait a year.
Farrell wonders why economists don’t talk about this issue more seriously. And the answer is fairly obvious–because writing textbooks can be a major cash cow and a lot of leading economists are in on it.
It may be that economists are blind to the problems of this market because they are themselves involved in it. Take, for example, Gregory Mankiw, who is the Robert M. Beren Professor of Economics and former head of the Council of Economic Advisers. He has also regularly taught Harvard’s required introduction to economics course, where he has required students to buy his own textbook (which now costs a smidgeon under $300), while refusing to consider donating his profits from this captive market to charity. I suggested seven years ago, that Prof. Mankiw, who is skeptical of regulators and strongly committed to free markets, consider taking his actions to their logical economic conclusion.
If I were him, … I’d claim that I was teaching my students a valuable practical lesson in economics, by illustrating how regulatory power (the power to assign mandatory textbooks for a required credit class, and to smother secondary markets by frequently printing and requiring new editions) can lead to rent-seeking and the creation of effective monopolies. Indeed, I would use graphs and basic math in both book and classroom to illustrate this, so that students would be left in no doubt whatsoever about what was happening [to them]. This would really bring the arguments of public choice [economics] home to them in a forceful and direct way, teaching them a lesson that they would remember for a very long time.
Inexplicably, Prof. Mankiw has yet to take up this suggestion. Doubtless, he thinks that his textbook is the very best introductory textbook on the market. However, it is equally likely that the chair and vice-chair of Prof. Bourget’s department have the same opinion of their required textbook. This doesn’t change the underlying economics of the situation, or of the textbooks racket.
There’s no question that too many professors are subjecting their students to real financial burden unnecessarily. I know that there are not very many ways for academics to make extra money that is more than peanuts. Elite professors writing textbooks is one of those ways, although obviously an opportunity only for the very few. But it’s pretty awful to buy that vacation home directly on the backs of your students, especially when they have so many other financial pressures on them.