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Stupidly expensive textbooks

  1. Dec 3, 2011 #1
    How can it cost $300 extra to make a hardback version of a book?


    When you can buy a hardback copy of Lang's Algebra (980 pages) from Springer for $68, this just seems insane to me. The strange thing is that Hestenes' book above is published by another arm of Springer.

    Sorry, I just felt the need to vent about book prices. I have read many interesting articles about the textbook industry. Everyone seems to know it is crooked, but I just don't see their gouging ending any time soon. If a book is good quality, I am quite happy to spend $50 on a paper version of the book (preferably hardback). However, at these prices, their customer base is going to go the way of the music industry. Paper is just too easy to scan and e-readers are now cheaper than the textbooks.

    Last edited by a moderator: May 5, 2017
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 3, 2011 #2
    $400?? o_O

    Also, many professors, lecturers, etc. write their own class notes and have them available for their students to use, and sometimes they even upload them onto the internet. I used to like owning a copy of a textbook, but recently I have been enjoying using multiple resources and libraries for what I need. I'm probably going to sell all my textbooks pretty soon, and just look for old cheap textbooks if I need a reference.

    One thing I wonder is, though: why don't departments teach out of older editions? Are they not allowed to?
  4. Dec 3, 2011 #3
    I think that kind of pricing is "institutional" pricing. Individuals aren't expected to purchase that book. The same is true of outrageously expensive journals.
  5. Dec 4, 2011 #4
    Well, if the publisher doesn't print it any more, the teacher can't guarantee that students can get copies. Getting around this means that a teacher has to know the differences between several different editions of the same book. With the worst textbook offenders (like 1st-year calculus texts), almost nothing changes between editions except the exercise numbers. For other books it can be more difficult.

    Occasionally, Profs just don't realize how much textbooks cost for the students. However, younger professors tend to be more understanding and, as you say, there is now much better availability of good quality free textbooks online.

    PS. Think very very carefully about selling your textbooks. They don't get cheaper over time.
  6. Dec 6, 2011 #5


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    I have struggled with this for a long time in the math department. The most expensive books tend to be ones of good quality, with explanations that most students find clear and easy to read, and that hence become most popular. A few extremely high quality scientific classics also remain expensive for many years, even though only the best students can read them.

    When picking a book fora course, there is usually some alternative older book that has high quality math, but is harder for today's students to read, i.e. todays students are not used to digging hard into a scholarly book to understand it. Also there were scholarships or parents available to pay the tab in the recent past, so that many students did not care enough to be troubled to obtain a cheaper book. Indeed in the 10 or 20 years I tried hard to provide cheap books, not one student ever thanked me or mentioned it on class evaluations, until I said publicly that no one had. Then exactly one person stopped me outside my building and said thanks.

    One solution that is more useful now is the availability of many excellent free math books online. they are not printed books so you have to read them on your computer, but many students do not mind this, or are able to print out as many or as few pages as needed at one time.

    I do not know if there are many good physics books free online, and have not seen any. If you think about it, an author deserves a decent monetary return on his effort for writing a good book. It takes maybe 10 years to write a really good book, and the author has spent time on it that he/she could have spent getting grants, doing research, or thinking about advanced and more interesting topics, or just enjoying his life.

    And on the same side of that coin, book selling and education is a business. Price is based on supply and demand. The demand for Lang's Algebra is small. To raise another another obvious point, how can many people justify spending money on music or alcohol or sports (or cigarettes as many do), that benefits only millionaire athletes and businessmen, and begrudge a relatively poor scholar the few hundreds of dollars that a book brings in. Unfortunately here as well, the publisher makes the most if the book sells well.

    For someone wanting only an education, that is always free. There are always freely available books in libraries that teach virtually anything. Even tuition to top schools is often free to the most dedicated and talented student in the form of grants. It is the degree that costs money, not the education. it is the wish to be certified as an educated person that costs money. If your goal is to have that certification, in order to sell it back to an employer, you will pay for that. If you just want the knowledge, that doesn't cost much.

    In answer to your simple question, point out to your professor that the books cost more than students can pay, and ask them to provide an alternative. Many have simply not thought about it. Get some other students to back you up, so the department understands that it is important to others too. Good luck.
    Last edited: Dec 6, 2011
  7. Dec 6, 2011 #6


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    Actually I don't understand the point of your question at all. Following your own link reveals that the publisher has made available a paperback copy for an affordable price. Used copies are also relatively cheap. So what's your problem? You seem to object that an expensive copy has also been made available hoping to sell it to libraries, as noted above. That does not really inconvenience you.
  8. Dec 6, 2011 #7
  9. Dec 6, 2011 #8


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  10. Dec 6, 2011 #9
    As I said in the original post, it was a rant. I wasn't seeking an instant solution. I object to the crookedness of the textbook industry as a whole. Personally, I have always been able to find ways around the issue by buying used copies, buying international editions, or finding the absolutely lowest cost version available on the planet. I also make extensive use of free textbooks as supplementary material, although I have never had a free textbook assigned for a class in my life.

    However, this kind of book search is not normal behaviour (or it shouldn't be) for students. Most wander over to the university bookstore and pay the going price. Yes, education is worth something and authors deserve to have compensation. These high prices are not about compensating authors, though. Justifying $400 for a hardback because it is for institutions is misleading. I finance those institutions through both my tuition and my tax dollars (yes, I pay taxes).

    So, in summary, yes there are (sort of) ways around the issue. That doesn't change the fact that the system is broken.

    Not this time; same price at several different retailers.

    I will link some Canadian prices because we get shafted more:

    Brown: Complex Variables $184 CAD

    Gilbert: Elements of Modern Algebra $198 CAD

    Neither of these are legendary books that every person should own.
  11. Mar 20, 2012 #10
    I completely agree with you. The content simply sucks, and it's not only because of the price. They are simply a summary of bad lecture notes. Definition followed by examples. No motivation no initiation no introductions...figures and illustrations are almost absent. And yeah only gray scale :)
  12. Mar 20, 2012 #11
    Whilst we're at it, why are 20" Box Canvas prints of Paul Ross so expensive

    My old one got destroted when I moved and now I'll have to pay £2,500 for a replacement :(

    On a more serious note I agree that a lot of textbooks are massively overpriced, I might actually be tempted to buy books rather than library ancient copies them if you could easily buy them in .djvu format
  13. Mar 20, 2012 #12
  14. Mar 20, 2012 #13
    Do courses in the US usually follow a certain book? Are students supposed to buy a given book?

    At least where I come from, the course is never completely covered by just one book, and teachers just hand out a fairly large list of books that "could" be useful. There is no "course book" if this is understood as a book that every students is supposed to buy or study with. Also "buying" books is never necessary as we have good libraries we can borrow them from.

    Answering the OP, yes, I also feel like many books are way too expensive. Of course you can talk about offer and demand, but, come on, Spivak's Calculus sells a lot and is "cheap", while this book hardly sells and is so expensive...

    I can't understand how classic books like Spivak, Apostol, Lang or Batchelor (for fluid dynamics) are reasonably prized, while books like, I don't know, Goldstein cost thrice as much.
    Last edited: Mar 20, 2012
  15. Mar 22, 2012 #14
    Yes. Professors almost always assign a particular book, then use that book, whether by structuring the class in the same fashion that the book is structured or by assigning problems out of the book. It is quite unusual for this not to be the case (I personally have only had one class, in any department which did not have an assigned book. The professor suggested one, which I bought, but it wasn't very good, so I ended up buying another, better one).

    Well, borrowing books is all well and good, but few libraries have, say, 30 copies of Sakurai's QM book that they're willing to lend out for a whole semester (that's a rough estimate of the number of people in my graduate QM course). In general, as I said, professors will structure their course around their preferred book, utilizing problems out of it, addressing much the same topics in the same order, and so on. Of course, often other books are useful (or necessary: I particularly remember my undergraduate quantum "book," which was absolutely the worst textbook I ever used. I ended up getting several other books, on my own dime, to try to get around that book's shortcomings), but they aren't required and few will buy them...
  16. Mar 22, 2012 #15
    I believe in the supply-demand rule. If these expensive books were not on high demand they would not set at such incredible prices.
    Quality and content is not guaranteed. But based on my experience some (not telling any percent :) ) professors intentionally do pick bad books that can be an obstacle in the learning course.
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