New York Times Attacking Textbook Makers, Veiled Attack on Capitalism


By: Warner Todd Huston

College textbooks are overpriced and something should be done. Why, Congress should even step in! That is the message that The New York Times wants us to understand and I can’t say it is, in and of itself, entirely the wrong message — save the whole bit about Congress stepping in, of course. But, as is typical of The New York Times, their story is only a small part of the whole story. In their exuberance to shake a finger at book manufacturers and in their hurry to blame capitalism the Times missed the bigger story.

The Times reports that “College students and their families are rightly outraged about the bankrupting costs of textbooks that have nearly tripled since the 1980s.” They also report that a bill is pending in Congress that would “require publishers to sell ‘unbundled’ versions of the books…” This, the Times feels, is the right move to solve the problem. Any first year economics student, however, knows there is far more to it than just slapping more regulations on book publishers.

Still, the Times thinks it has the prescription for what ails our students.

“The bill is a good first step. But colleges and universities will need to embrace new methods of textbook development and distribution if they want to rein in runaway costs. That means using digital textbooks, which can often be presented online free of charge or in hard copies for as little as one-fifth the cost of traditional books. The digital books can also be easily customized and updated.”

The Times gravely assures us that, “Right now, textbook publishers are calling the tune.” Naturally, The NYT acts as if these evil capitalist textbook companies are abusing their status as official providers of books merely to rip-off our students. But the Times doesn’t bother to fill the reader in on the full story. The greater story is far more disgusting than just that of a textbook company taking advantage of our students.

As far as our high schools go, the problem starts with the state textbook boards that create the standards that they impose on textbook manufacturers. These boards are political boards that impose political decisions on what our textbooks will be “allowed” to have in them. Textbook manufacturers spend millions of dollars a year lobbying the members of these textbook boards in states all across the country. Textbook companies wine and dine these state board members and this wasteful spending needlessly drives up the costs of manufacturing books.

These boards do not institute educational standards on the bookmakers, but political ones. So, book publishers spend millions to attempt to mollify these state textbook boards. Sometimes books are re-written many times to satisfy these political operatives.

But, the problem in many of our universities, while somewhat similar, is even more incestuous. Textbook manufacturers often shower university textbook boards with monetary gifts in the hopes that the board will award them with the textbook contract. Often, these textbook companies spend thousands of dollars sending textbook committee members to fancy resorts to “preview” the new books.

To “encourage” the use of their books, book manufacturers often send the school boxes of free books. Sometimes professors then begin to sell these books on ebay for a tidy profit or to students at slightly less than the new costs.

All these practices and restrictions drive up costs.

For its part, The New York Times appeared to be blaming over exuberant capitalism for the sky-high costs of books. But, there is no “capitalist” principle at work here at all. “Outrageous pricing” isn’t the problem so much as a complete lack of market forces in action to curb prices.

When a student enters a classroom he is told which book he will use, not which ones he can choose from. Therefore there is no competition. The student has no choice and that being the case, the book manufacturer has no forces to oppose their high prices. No market forces guide prices and book manufacturers can charge whatever they like.

Then we get to the textbooks actually written by the professors that a university then adopts for that professor’s class or his department. These, being specialty, small-run printing items are also exorbitantly high in price. And, once again, there are not market forces to put commons sense caps on pricing.

It cannot be denied that there is much that the textbook manufacturers are doing, though, to take advantage of their customers. Often times “new” editions are published that feature little change of any import over last year’s edition. Sometimes only a few graphics, or a new visual look is added from one year to the next. But these new books are always sold as “new” editions that supplant the old and schools are told that they must buy these books all over again. This prevents students from previous years from being able to sell used books to future classes and ensures that book publishers get to sell the same basic textbook fresh to every new class, each and every year.

These students are a canned audience with little or no choice but to acquiesce to the book publisher’s and the college’s demands. It’s a scam from step one.

Now, there is no doubt that the comfortable textbook publishing establishment isn’t too keen on altering the cozy arrangements they have with the schools, school boards, and professors, it’s a racket that can’t be surpassed for bundles of unearned cash all around. But, new technologies should be taken advantage of and currently they are underutilized.

The New York Times ends their piece with this line: “Cash-strapped students and their families need all the relief they can get.”

That is certainly true, but let’s not put the onus on the book publishers as if it’s all that eeeevil capitalism that is is to blame. The entire den of thieves needs to be chased out into the sunlight. From the undeserved gifts that college book boards get, to the sweetheart deals that professors get for writing and using the books, all the way to the manufacturers, the entire textbook world is a complete scam.

So, the Times is right, something should be done. But we don’t need Congress to do it. We need the whole system addressed and the place to do that is at the state level for state funded schools and with the alumni and new students who are electing to pay their tuition at the private schools.

Someone should tell The New York Times that the Federal government is not needed here.

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