Yesterday we explained why Amazon is unlikely to tackle the market for digital textbooks: The publishers who run the textbook market have no incentive to go digital. And even if they did, they’d have no incentive to change their pricing structure.
Now comes an earnest report from the well-meaning Student PIRG group that says more or less the same thing: The students correctly point out that textbooks are crazily expensive — the average student’s annual book tab is now in the $700 to $1,000 range — and that none of the digital options students can use today offer any kind of real savings, even though the publishers aren’t paying for paper, ink, shipping, etc.
What’s the solution? “Digital textbooks [that] meet three criteria — affordable, printable and accessible,” the students declare. But now we’re back where we started: Publishers don’t need to do any of that, because publishers who sell college textbooks have a captive audience.
A freshman (or her parents) can bitch and moan about the price of a $207.95 calculus primer, but in the end, they’re going to pony up, because that’s the price of a caluculus primer. (Publishers short-circuit the used-book market by constantly reissuing their back catalogue, and you won’t hear the schools complaining, because faculty members get to augment their income by working on the revisions.)
And, as we said before, the normal time-to-go digital arguments don’t work for this market, either:
- If you go digital (and lower your prices), you can expand your market: There are a finite number of people who need a calculus primer every year. You can’t increase that number by making the books cheaper or easier to distribute.
- If you don’t provide a legal digital offering, pirates will take what you have, anyway. Better to get something out of the deal: In theory, you could photocopy and/or scan any textbook you want and sell bootlegged copies. But if there are industrious textbook piracy rings out there, we have yet to hear about them.
So what’s the solution? We hate to start the morning on a dour note. But we don’t see this problem getting solved any time soon. But we would note that there are many excellent public universities that offer quality educations at a subsantial discount to their private peers.
Photo via the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Go Badgers.
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