CLOSE
Vladimir Godnik/Beyond/Corbis
Vladimir Godnik/Beyond/Corbis

Why Are Textbooks So Expensive?

Vladimir Godnik/Beyond/Corbis
Vladimir Godnik/Beyond/Corbis

The beginning of a freshman’s college experience is an exciting time. Dining halls! No bedtime! Taunting your RA! Exorbitantly expensive textbooks!

Wait, that last one is no fun at all. It’s hard to make that first trip to the college bookstore for required texts without leaving with a bit of sticker shock. Why are textbooks so astonishingly expensive? Let’s take a look.

Publishers would explain that textbooks are really expensive to make. Dropping over a hundred bucks for a textbook seems like an outrage when you’re used to shelling out $10 or $25 for a novel, but textbooks aren’t made on the same budget. Those hundreds of glossy colorful pages, complete with charts, graphs, and illustrations, cost more than putting black words on regular old white paper. The National Association of College Stores has said that roughly 33 cents of every textbook dollar goes to this sort of production cost, with another 11.8 cents of every dollar going to author royalties. Making a textbook isn’t cheap.

There’s certainly some validity to this explanation. Yes, those charts and diagrams are expensive to produce, and the relatively small print runs of textbooks keep publishers from enjoying the kind of economies of scale they get on a bestselling popular novel. Any economist who has a pulse (and probably some who don’t) could poke holes in this argument pretty quickly, though.

In the simplest economic terms, the high price of textbooks is symptomatic of misaligned incentives, not exorbitant production costs. Students hold the reasonable stance that they’d like to spend as little money as possible on their books. Students don’t really have the latitude to pick which texts they need, though.

Professors pick the course materials, and faculty members don’t have any strong incentive to be price sensitive when it comes to selecting textbooks. Their out-of-pocket expense is zero whether the required texts cost $100 or $300, so there’s no real barrier to heaping on more reading material. If a student needs Class X to graduate, they’ll likely need to procure the required texts. This lack of cost-control incentives for professors is a major reason that at some point in college, everyone meets the expensive textbook’s even more maddening cousin, the Expensive Textbook You Never Even Use.

Moreover, many students aren’t all that price sensitive themselves. While the broke college kid is a beloved caricature, many students’ parents may still be footing the bill for school materials like books. Unless their parents raise a stink over a semester’s book bill, it’s easy to see how the textbook market could be one where none of the players actually have any strong incentive to be sensitive to prices.

Publishers also counter that widespread sales of used books cut into their bottom line. As eBay and Amazon have made the market for textbooks much bigger and more flexible, publishers lament that they’re losing out on sales, which necessitates higher retail prices for the new books they do sell.

Is there any truth to this argument? Maybe, but the effect may not be as great as the publishers claim. As economist Hal R. Varian wrote in The New York Times in 2005, it’s not totally clear that used textbooks are perfect substitutes for new ones. (Finding this piece absolved me of any residual guilt I may have had over selling Varian’s own excellent graduate microeconomics text on eBay last year.) As Varian puts it, used book sales probably cannibalizes less of the new book market than one might imagine.

Luckily for students, some external forces are placing downward pressure on textbook prices. Last year a new federal law went into effect that requires publishers to notify professors of textbook prices and schools to inform students of necessary course texts during registration. Online textbook rental companies could help replace outright ownership, as could electronic reserve programs. It may take a while, but in the future college students may be able to do the required reading without emptying their wallets.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Big Questions
Why Is the American Flag Displayed Backwards on Military Uniforms?
iStock
iStock

In 1968, famed activist Abbie Hoffman decided to crash a meeting of the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington by showing up in a shirt depicting the American flag. Hoffman was quickly surrounded by police, who ripped his shirt off and arrested him for desecration of the Red, White, and Blue.

Hoffman’s arrest is notable today because, while it might be unpatriotic to some, wearing the American flag, burning it, or otherwise disrespecting it is not a violation of any federal law. In 1989, the Supreme Court ruled that it would be unconstitutional to prosecute any such action. Still, Americans have very fervent and strict attitudes toward displaying the flag, a longstanding symbol of our country’s freedom. According to the U.S. Flag Code, which was first published in 1923, you shouldn’t let the flag touch the ground or hang it upside-down. While there’s no express prohibition about reversing the image, it’s probably a safe bet you shouldn’t do that, either.

Yet branches of the U.S. military are often spotted with a seeming mirror reflection of the flag on their right shoulder. If you look at a member in profile, the canton—the rectangle with the stars—is on the right. Isn’t that backwards? Shouldn’t it look like the flag on the left shoulder?

The American flag appears on a military uniform
iStock

Not really. The flag is actually facing forward, and it’s not an optical illusion.

When a service member marches or walks forward, they assume the position of a flagpole, with the flag sewn on their uniform meant to resemble a flag flapping in the breeze. With the canton on the right, the flag would be fluttering behind them. If it were depicted with the canton on the left, the flag would be flying backward—as though it had been hung by the stripes instead of the stars nearest to the pole. The position of the flag is noted in Army Regulation 670-1, mandating the star field should face forward. The official term for this depiction is “reverse side flag.”

As for Hoffman: His conviction was overturned on appeal. In 1970, while at a flag-themed art show in New York, he was invited to get up and speak. He wore a flag shirt for the occasion.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images
arrow
Big Questions
What Causes Sinkholes?
Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images
Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

This week, a sinkhole opened up on the White House lawn—likely the result of excess rainfall on the "legitimate swamp" surrounding the storied building, a geologist told The New York Times. While the event had some suggesting we call for Buffy's help, sinkholes are pretty common. In the past few days alone, cavernous maws in the earth have appeared in Maryland, North Carolina, Tennessee, and of course Florida, home to more sinkholes than any other state.

Sinkholes have gulped down suburban homes, cars, and entire fields in the past. How does the ground just open up like that?

Sinkholes are a simple matter of cause and effect. Urban sinkholes may be directly traced to underground water main breaks or collapsed sewer pipelines, into which city sidewalks crumple in the absence of any structural support. In more rural areas, such catastrophes might be attributed to abandoned mine shafts or salt caverns that can't take the weight anymore. These types of sinkholes are heavily influenced by human action, but most sinkholes are unpredictable, inevitable natural occurrences.

Florida is so prone to sinkholes because it has the misfortune of being built upon a foundation of limestone—solid rock, but the kind that is easily dissolved by acidic rain or groundwater. The karst process, in which the mildly acidic water wears away at fractures in the limestone, leaves empty space where there used to be stone, and even the residue is washed away. Any loose soil, grass, or—for example—luxury condominiums perched atop the hole in the ground aren't left with much support. Just as a house built on a weak foundation is more likely to collapse, the same is true of the ground itself. Gravity eventually takes its toll, aided by natural erosion, and so the hole begins to sink.

About 10 percent of the world's landscape is composed of karst regions. Despite being common, sinkholes' unforeseeable nature serves as proof that the ground beneath our feet may not be as solid as we think.

A version of this story originally ran in 2014.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios