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The High Price of Textbooks: Can Smaller Publishers Help?

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According to surveys conducted by the University of California, students spend an average of about $900 a year on textbooks, up from about $640 seven years ago. This represents an annual increase of approximately 6 percent, far above the annual rate of inflation. It is nearly as bad as the rising costs of health care. If this trend continues, by the year 2010 the average annual cost of textbooks will be nearly $1,300.

Who is to be blamed for these increases? The news media points the finger at the traditional book publishers that publish new editions every three or four years, in most cases with only minor additions or changes. Some books–computer books, for example–must be revised often to include the latest changes in software applications. But why is it necessary to revise a calculus book so often? And why do so many texts come bundled with CD-ROMs when the average student prefers that books be sold unbundled to keep the price increases to a minimum?

Changes to Contemplate

 

Several state lawmakers have reportedly introduced legislation or are thinking of introducing legislation designed to make more unbundled textbooks available, to elicit explanations of changes in new editions, and to encourage faculty to consider price when choosing books to order.

In my view, legislation should also be introduced to mandate variable profit margins for college bookstores, since the higher-priced books result in more profit for the bookstore at a fixed profit percentage.

In addition, the text adoption policy should be modified. Naturally, professors and instructors will make the initial adoptian’ ecisions. But when they decide whether to use adopted texts in subsequent semesters or quarters, they should solicit feedback from students. The questionnaire given to students before final exams, which asks them to evaluate their teachers, should also ask for their comments on their textbooks: Was the material easy to read and understand? Were sufficient illustrative examples provided to clarify the meaning of statements, definitions, theorems, etc.? Did this book contain real-world examples to prepare students for the industry? Was it sold at a reasonable price? After all, it is the students who pay, not only for their own copies but also for a share of the cost of “free” desk copies that their professors get from publishers.

Better Prices from Smaller Houses

Judging from my own experience, small publishers can play a significant role in effecting cost saving. My goal at Orchard Publications is to provide textbooks that are at least as good as those from the traditional textbook publishers, and to price them at about 50 percent less. With help from people who have the credentials and expertise necessary for presenting topics and developments related to electrical and computer engineering, we have now published six textbooks; by the end of 2005, we should have four more. I think other small and self-publishers could replicate our pattern for other branches of engineering, mathematics (including probability), statistics, accounting, finance, physics, and more.

All our texts present relevant theory with illustrative examples, followed by end-of-chapter summaries and exercises for student/working professional solutions. Answers and detailed solutions are also included to encourage readers to solve all problems and check progress in performing all appropriate steps to obtain the correct solution. I consider this to be a great benefit to students, especially those holding full-time jobs to support their families while at the same time getting an education. Our texts are also ideal for self-study and appropriate for college and university libraries. Two of them have been adopted for class use, one by Louisiana Tech University and Bryant & Stratton College.

 

As the founder and president of Orchard Publications, my biggest challenge is to control our expenses and at the same time keep our retail prices as low as possible. We avoid expensive, multiple-color hard covers. All our texts are soft cover and yet very presentable. (We did not pay attention to the covers of our first three books but learned a good lesson from our friend Jim Cox of The Midwest Book Review and improved them on the latest titles.) We no longer send out examination copies; instead, we recommend that professors and instructors check with the college/university library for a copy to review. But we gladly give free desk copies to teachers who adopt our textbooks for class use.

The high cost of textbooks is one of the reasons that made me decide on this second career. Another reason is my admiration for the computer application known as MATLAB® (MATrix LABoratory) developed by The MathWorks™, Inc. of Natick, MA. This application and its companion Simulink® are outstanding software packages for advanced mathematical computations and simulation, and now are considered academic and industry standards. Found in most domestic and foreign colleges and universities, they are also used by large corporations such as IBM, Boeing, GM, and many more. MATLAB is simple to learn, and the Student Version is very reasonably priced, around $100, with add-ons, known as Toolboxes, priced as low as $50 each.

As I recall, when I was a college student many engineering majors dropped out or switched to other majors because of the required lengthy and tedious computations with pencil, paper, and slide-rule (a device that reduced multiplication, division, and other more complex computations to the mechanical equivalent of addition or subtraction). No such frustration now with the advent of hand calculators and especially with the introduction of MATLAB.

Pointers for Textbook Publishers

● No matter how good the content is, the cover appearance–including the spine–matters.

● Front matter, including the copyright page, a well-written preface, a meaningful table of contents, and a complete index are essentials.

● Content should be written with the averagestudent/reader in mind.

● Instead of focusing solely on profits, we and all other textbook publishers should take responsibility for what we do for the students.

● Bookseller support makes a big difference. Thanks to Marcella Smith (see “A Big Chain’s Small-Press Point Person”) of the Barnes & Noble Small Press Division, most of our titles are in B&N bookstores. Thanks to our distributor, Independent Publishers Group (IPG, www.ipgbook.com) our sales have increased dramatically over the past year.

Steven T. Karris, the founder and president of Orchard Publications, holds a BSEE degree from Christian Brothers University and an MSEE from Florida Tech and had more than 35 years of industrial experience with Boeing, NASA, and Lockheed-Martin. A registered professional engineer, he is a frequent evening instructor for the University of California, Berkeley Extension. To learn more, visit www.orchardpublications.com.

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