The price of publishing: Why are textbooks so expensive?



The recent closure of Coco’s, the print­ing business well known for printing copied textbooks, has reinvigorated the conversation around the cost of textbooks among students. The Law of Delict textbook, a prescribed book for third years studying LLB, would cost around R1100 at thebook stores around campus. At Coco’s a copied version of this book would cost students no more than R400 as the book would have been priced solely on printing and binding fees. The disparity in prices has led many students to question if textbooks are too expensive and where the rest of the money goes to.

Jana Möller, a publishing lecturer at the uni­versity, highlighted some of the aspects of the academic publishing industry in South Africa. Firstly, academic publishing is the smallest sector in the publishing industry due to the small percentage of the population that receives tertiary education. Secondly, the market has changed from being dominated by imported books to much stronger sales in South Africa, however, the international publishers still retain a strong influence. Thirdly, although student numbers have grown in tertiary institutions, the amount of students does not relate to a growth in the sale of the texts. Möller argues that according to a 2004 PA marketing report on South African publishing, academic publishers estimated that only about 25-30% of textbooks prescribed at higher education institutions are actually bought by students. Around 100 000 of the 800 000 students at tertiary institutions actually purchase books, while book sales are highest in the hard sciences and business and economics fields while they are lowest in arts and humanities.

Möller also highlighted the key aspects that go into making academic books, which involves processes such as manuscript development, proofreading, generation of images and book covers, legal permission (re use of copyright protected information), printing, production and distribution costs, VAT and marketing as well as the general overheads that are needed for run­ning a company.

In terms of how academic publishing works, Möller says that publishers follow two basic cri­teria when deciding on subject fields in which to publish. First, there must be enough students in the subject to justify a reasonable print run (number of copies of a book printed at a time) and there must be a need for local content in the subject. An order to be economical, a reason­able print run is needed to sustain a book, otherwise the book becomes too expensive for the market. Möller further says that there are not many subjects with enough students to buy so many books. Therefore, subjects such as economics may do well but a smaller degree like the publishing degree or other niche subject degrees only sustains about 30 students a year. Furthermore, the South African higher educa­tion publishers are also likely to concentrate on certain subject areas while subjects such as medicine and engineering which have universal principles are often complicated and expensive to produce and are, therefore, not often pub­lished locally. In terms of pricing a text book, Möller argues that a lot of it depends on the print-run. The higher the print run, the cheaper the cost of the book. Furthermore, some books have higher production costs than others such as the use of higher quality paper, or it may be highly illustrated. Möller argues that she does not think that textbooks are overpriced, simply because it would not be beneficial from a publisher’s point-of-view, when one considers the “making of textbooks, the problems expe­rienced, the smaller print-runs, discounts given to bookstores”, “publishers generally work out their costing as best they can to make profits but also ensure sale”. Publishing costs are worked out so that publishers make around 5% profit.

Möller further adds that photocopying is the single biggest threat to higher education publishing in this country and has been under­mining higher education publishing for years. It also deprives the publisher of sales and the author of royalties.

According to a 2014 paper by the Publisher’s Association of South Africa Academic Subcom­mittee entitled The Academic Textbook Industry and Higher Education in South Africa, South African text books “are reasonably priced and made specifically for this market”. They further argue that the price of a textbook is made up of multiple components like paying royalties to South African academics and not just the print­ing cost. The association also argues that im­ported textbooks may be more expensive due to the exchange rate and the multinational publish­ers’ student edition policies which, as a result of the US Supreme Court Case (Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons Inc), allows the reimportation of low cost editions into the United States.

In the United States a significant amount of research has been done on the pricing of textbooks. Ethan Senack, advocate for making university more affordable at the U.S Pub­lic Interest Research Group, has argued that textbooks are expensive for two main reasons. Firstly, professors assign specific editions of a textbooks that may change every two years and secondly, that around five publishers have control of the textbook market and are there­fore able to drive up prices. He further said that publishers take most of the money from textbooks. Publishers will make around 77 cents for every dollar spent with 15 cents being spent on marketing, around 32 cents on cover costs such as printing and employee salaries. The publisher would take around 18 cents as profit. Authors, on the other hand, who Senack calls, “the person who dedicated hundreds of hours of research to write the book” only receives around 12 cents per dollar.

Many groups and researchers have devel­oped ways for textbook prices to be dropped such as Textbook Revolution, a South African nongovernmental organization aimed to reduce the cost of university textbooks by 40%. The founder, Arthur Attwell, argues for changing the way textbooks are printed and distributed so that instead of buying the books, universities would buy the license to make copies of the books. This would reduce the cost of textbooks by printing on campus. Around the world there has also been a call for the creation and funding of open source libraries. Websites such as the Open Textbook Library are places whereby students can access and download textbooks at no cost. 


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