While the Fall 2011 semester does not get started until next week, I have been dutifully preparing my classes since my contract kicked in (August 8). As happens every two years, the text book I use for my Critical Inquiry class has been updated to a new edition. While new editions of text books are sometimes created for good reasons (new material, improvements, and so on) it is common for books to be “updated” just to make past editions obsolete. For example, I used a text book that “updated” by changing the cover color and removing a few of the readings I actually used. I stopped using that book and switched to creating my own custom reader.
Since publishers are in the business of making money, this practice makes sense. After all, if the books were updated only when an update was actually needed, then the folks making the money would be those selling and reselling the old books over and over again. In contrast, the publishers (and authors) would be out of the loop after the initial sale. By updating books on a regular basis the publishers are able to stay in the money chain. Being a writer myself, I understand this. However, I also expect that the update be a real update as well-I am not going to make my students go with a new edition just because it has a new cover and fewer readings. Honesty also forces me to note that I would rather not update my own class material unless there is a good reason to do so. I do not consider helping a publisher make money a good enough reason.
Another point of concern about text books is their cost. The paperback book I use for my Critical Inquiry class sells for $91.35 on Amazon. It is color and has 546 pages. By way of comparison, the Pathfinder Core Rulebook is hardcover, 30 pages longer and sells for $60 less on Amazon. I do find it increasingly hard to justify the cost of a textbook. After all, companies like Lulu can print books for very little and then there is the matter of ebooks which have incredibly low distribution costs.
When students do ask me about the cost, I am honest and say that the prices certainly seem needlessly high. I do, however, note that the process of creating a professional text book can be expensive. Such books are written by professionals and must be evaluated by other professionals before they are published. As such, part of the cost of a book is ensuring that it is a proper textbook and not junk (although there is plenty of junk out there). While cranking out fiction is challenging, producing a good textbook is a great deal of work. After all, one cannot just make stuff up (even in philosophy). As such, the difference in content can also be seen as justifying the pricing distinction between a paperback copy of Harry Potter and a physics text.
There is also the fact that some text books come with considerable online additions. For example, the text I use for Critical Inquiry includes an extensive array of online material such as interactive exercises and other educational goodies. Taken as an entire package, the price is reasonable. Almost.
There is also the matter of market size. While a popular paperback will sell a large number of copies, text books are generally not best sellers. After all, they are aimed at a small population (college students) that is made even smaller by the fact that books are field and even class specific. Also, there are many different books on each subject which means that a critical thinking text might only be used by a few professors at a few universities. To make a profit, the cost per unit must be fairly high. Of course, telling students that the publishers have to charge a lot because they cannot sell enough books to charge less does not really go over well.
One impact of the cost is, of course, that students usually try to avoid buying the book. I am, as all professors are, asked if the book is necessary for the course (weirdly enough people still ask me this when the book is a free download). Presumably the publishers have estimated how much they would make if they lowered prices to encourage purchasing. Perhaps they have found that a lower price would not result in an increase in revenue.
Because of the book problem, I use public domain works in most of my classes and make them available as a PDF “course pack.” Fortunately most of the best material in philosophy is in the public domain. Other subjects do not have this as a viable option. For example, learning engineering from books that have gone into the public domain due to time is probably not the best idea (although there are no doubt some very good old books on the fundamentals).
Yes, you do need the book.