Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal included a letter from my former accounting theory professor, Dr. Harry Wolk, on the topic of the high cost of textbooks. He was commenting on an article by Shearon Roberts, “Costly Textbooks Draw Scrutiny of Lawmakers” (4/25/06), which explained how complaints about high textbook costs are drawing responses from legislators with regards to state university systems. This included a measure in Virginia urging state universities to “discourage [professors] from switching to newer, more expensive texts that don’t differ substantially from the old ones.”
I had missed this article, though comments from my own students keep me aware of high costs. As with other matters of pricing, however, government meddling is likely to do little, and it may accomplish more harm than good. I value access to the most current information available, which is often difficult to accomplish through books given their long production schedules. I’m not sure why legislators would want to tell professors not to be as up to date as possible.
Dr. Wolk, whom I respect and admire immensely, suggested another approach based on compensating authors and publishers by imposing additional royalties in the used book markets. I cannot agree that this solution would be effective. Among other things, it would require an expanded bureaucracy to enforce such rights on additional sales, when we have a hard enough time doing that on the first sale. (Students would simply sell back to students, or on E-bay, for example, to avoid these costs.)
A tighter policy on examination copies might also make sense for publishers. These books may end up in the used book market through the unethical practice of reselling, which does deprive authors and publishers of the reward for their work.
However, one overlooked solution deserves attention: the distribution of books in electronic form. Despite the rapid advancement of technology, it puzzles me that we have not seen a market for electronic content downloadable and usable by students. This would allow the most up-to-date content, without all of the distribution costs and raw materials costs associated with producing the book. Licenses could even be granted for specific periods, thus avoiding Dr. Wolk’s concerns about losing out on royalties and possibly expanding the payment for usage.
My pal, Troy Johnson, who is one of our first-rate librarians here, is an expert on electronic books. You might take a look at his website, http://www.geocities.com/bibliofuture/ebooks/ which focuses on this topic. I think there is room for innovation here. And Dr. Wolk, sorry to disagree with you, though I do so with respect for one who has taught me much.