Why grad school textbooks are so expensive

2015cover392A while back, I wrote a textbook. It is now on its third edition, with the fourth edition due out in January. The book is, objectively speaking, expensive at $79, though good texts costing twice as much are not uncommon in graduate education for psychotherapists. Why are graduate textbooks so expensive? I’ll tell you. 

First, a bit of context. It is true that textbook costs have been increasing far faster than general inflation and even faster than tuition inflation. It’s also true that publishers know that if their book is required for a course, most students will buy the book regardless of how much it costs. This arguably creates incentive for publishers to price their books as highly as they can. But if you’re looking to pin the blame for rapidly-rising graduate education costs on books, you’re barking up the wrong tree. Textbooks are just a sliver of total graduate education costs for most students.

That said, paying for books is still a significant burden for many graduate students, and it is worth looking for potential savings wherever we can.

As I’ll explain here, though, your graduate textbooks are expensive for good reason. If they were cheaper, they wouldn’t be as good.

By their nature, textbooks in graduate education suffer from three issues that drive prices up, even beyond the costs of undergraduate texts. They (1) require significant specialized knowledge and research, (2) are written for a limited audience, and (3) require substantial up-front investment that may never be recouped.

1. Specialized knowledge and research

Why does it take so much money to develop a textbook? Because not just anybody can do it. Graduate textbooks require significant research and specialized knowledge. They also require very skilled writing, in order to deliver complex ideas and information effectively. My friend Sean Davis was a coauthor of Common Factors in Couple and Family Therapy, and he and his two coauthors together probably represent more than half of the total population of people in the family therapy world who could have written that book well. Of course, what makes them so well-qualified to write is also what can make writing unappealing: Each of those people is already a successful professional, able to make hundreds of dollars an hour seeing clients or engaging in other professional work.

It’s true that some university faculty members want to publish textbooks for reasons other than making money. Some are in settings that require publication of leading works in a field. Others may simply want to give back to their profession by offering their wisdom to those entering the field. But as a general rule, money is at least part of the equation for any potential author of a graduate textbook. If it isn’t worth their while, they’re less likely to do it. And of course, publishers aren’t as likely to be charitable. If they don’t think a particular textbook will sell well enough to make a profit, they won’t publish it.

2. Limited audience

Even if every single MFT, CSW, and PCC student in California bought my text, that still represents only a few thousand people each year. Consider this against mass-market books that aim to reach millions: A book that sells a million copies is considered an incredible success, even if less than one percent of those in its target market bought it. For graduate textbooks to be profitable, they need to achieve much greater share within their specific markets — doable, but not easy.

When writing textbooks for graduate-level courses, authors and publishers have to keep in mind that the total population of those who might buy the book is limited. By this standard, a graduate textbook might be considered “successful” with sales of just a few hundred copies a year. This is part of why these books are priced so expensively: Publishers need books to at least break even whenever they can.

3. Up-front investment

Obviously, you can’t just write a textbook on a random Tuesday. The process takes months or even years. The first edition of my Basics of California Law book was about a year and a half in the making. If I added up all the hours spent researching, writing, editing, rewriting, and formatting the book, it would total several hundred hours, perhaps more. That is a major commitment of time away from my other professional roles — ones that pay a bit more reliably, and faster.

It is not just the author who takes a risk with the significant up-front investment required for a graduate textbook. Publishers also must devote hundreds or even thousands of hours to reviewing, editing, and correcting the book. Then they invest further in designing, manufacturing, distributing, and marketing it. Given this investment, you can start to see why textbook authors commonly make only about 10 percent of the retail price of their book. Quite often publishers spend more money on the development of a textbook than they ever make back on sales.

Ultimately, any textbook project is a gamble for both author and publisher. Even when success is just a few hundred copies sold in a year, lots of graduate textbooks aren’t successful. And unsuccessful books lead publishers to bankruptcy, as we have seen with two of the largest academic publishers in the US.

So how do you make textbooks cheaper?

Understanding the burdens that high textbook costs place on students, a number of universities have sought ways to lower those costs. Some instructors use collections of articles rather than textbooks. Others may cobble together course readers from a number of different sources, using only the chapters they feel are critical from each book they’re using.

However, these materials come with risks. They may include pieces written at various times, making it difficult for students to know what information is current. They can be disjointed and disorganized. And they can make it more difficult for a student to get the comprehensive perspective that a textbook can deliver.

One way to make textbooks cheaper is to compromise on quality. Publishers can profit by reducing the resources they devote to reviewing and refining a book. Some independent publishers offer what is essentially glorified self-publishing for academics who need book credits. And since they can use digital and print-on-demand delivery systems, there is almost no up-front investment from these companies. But the lack of quality controls is evident.

I’ll make a bolder argument: Cheaper textbooks isn’t always a good goal. If there are multiple books from different publishers that cover the same topic area — for example, there are several good books on counseling theory — then it makes sense for student cost to be part of the decision-making as a faculty member decides what texts to require. But if there’s only one book (or only one good book) in a given area, avoiding it because of its cost seems to be to be missing the whole point of education.

Students should be learning from the best materials available. Those best materials are often expensive precisely because they are the best. They are written by authors who could easily have made more money doing other things. If you want to keep educational quality while saving students money, fire some administrators.