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Exorbitant Prices for Textbooks Have No Justification

Column by Brett Altschul
Associate News Editor

As the semester commences, the timeless issues that plague MIT students arise again. Among the most bothersome aspects of starting a new term is buying textbooks. The most obvious difficulty of this experience is the extreme cost of some of the texts.

Personally, the required books for my classes this semester cost just over $500 at the Coop. Whatever options are available for getting books at lower cost, these prices remain exorbitant. There are many arguments that attempt to justify the extraordinary prices on textbooks. However, a little analysis reveals that they are all vacuous.

One claim is that because college texts are printed in smaller numbers than other books; the fixed overhead costs make the books more expensive. The fallacy here becomes incredibly obvious to anyone who browses through the books at the Coop. If the fixed publishing costs were simply being divided among a smaller number of books, the price difference between books of comparable circulations should be a clear function of the books' sizes. This isn't the case. Essentially all standard hardcover texts in the sciences cost the same amount, with no connection to the size of the books. There is little variation from the $70 to $90 dollar price range.

It's mathematically possible, of course, that the larger books all are more widely used, spreading the fixed costs more thinly among each copy, so they don't cost more than the less-used but smaller books. However, the probability of this happening so uniformly that all the prices fall in such a narrow range must be extremely small.

If the overhead for academic texts doesn't eat up all that money, maybe it's the authors' who need the extra money. After all, writing one of these represents a major investment of time and mental energy. The author needs a fairly significant payment to make him willing to write the book. This might explain why college texts cost such a vast amount of money.

Unfortunately, the authors' cost theory also fails. If this explanation worked, the older books would cost less. A book written in 1951 by a now-deceased mathematician hardly warrants the added cost that would be attached by this reasoning. Yet, the price of a text is largely independent of its age. In fact, many of the oldest text have passed into the public domain, still with no apparent decrease in their cost. Again, the explanation fails to justify the extreme costs for the books.

Perhaps these books cost so much because they're constructed of much tougher materials than books in the popular press. If that were the case, the textbook for Physics II (8.022) shouldn't have bled blue ink all over the inside of my backpack last year. The cover of my 1996 edition ended up in worse shape than my father's 1966 copy. Fortunately, the pigment it left behind should make a pretty pattern when mixed with the bright red color that rubs off the cover of my new text for Introduction to Topology (18.901). If the books were such high quality, the publishers of the ancient textbook for Statistical Physics I (8.044) might make new plates to print the book, as the old ones are becoming unreadable. Strangely, none of my low-quality non-academic books ever seem to suffer this problem.

Since all the other arguments used to explain the cost of academic texts seem bogus, I now venture a guess as to why these books bear such ridiculous price tags. It's because people willingly pay that much. As long as college students shell out for these overpriced treatises, the cost won't decrease.

Unfortunately, there seems to be little to be done about the problem. I'll end up paying most, if not all, of that $500, and there's little I can do about it. All I can recommend is that people make as much use as possible of used books, from various sources. Borrow them from your friends, or buy them cheap when the opportunity arises.

The prices of textbooks follow no reasonable scheme and are far too high for any kind of justification. In all likelihood, the cost of these books will make students miserable for some time to come.