Thursday, July 31, 2008

Where did Summer Go?

It's been a while since my last blog post...It happens every year, but the speed at which summer travels relative to the rest of the year catches me by surprise. I enjoy the 90 day respite from teaching that runs from late May through late August. It still feels early in the summer, but I realized that my first class of the semester is only a few weeks away and my department deadline for the syllabus is tomorrow. Time to get to work. Guess it's not only the students who procrastinate...

I actually enjoy the process of pulling together a selection of materials to create a complete course on Entrepreneurial Finance. Last year, I tried out a custom textbook through one of the major publishers, which seemed like a great way to go. I assembled textbook chapters, Harvard Business Review articles, cases, and notes to pull together my own textbook. It was kind of fun to add each case and see the price of the book adjust on the fly. I was able to come in around $100 and assumed with the bookstore mark-up, it would still be under $125, not outrageous for a text. However, the cost to the students ended up at over $140.

After apologizing at the first class of each semester, putting materials on reserve at the library and finding a more economical way to get just the cases, I vowed to find another solution for next time. This year, I'm giving University Readers a try. So far, the service seems great and the price is a lot better, in large part by cutting out the bookstore. This wasn't an option with the publisher I used last year (more about that later). Students order directly from University Readers and get access to the first 20% of materials online while waiting for the book to arrive at their door.

This whole process got me thinking about the textbook business model. A 2005 report by the Government Accountability Office indicates that textbook prices have outpaced inflation by more than 2-1 over the past two decades and account for 26% of tuition and fees at four-year public universities and nearly three-quarters of costs at community colleges. The producers of the content (professors) get very little of the price, new editions are constantly coming out with added bells and whistles that most faculty and students don't want. These new texts reduce the value of used books, while publishers and the bookstores reap the rewards, 64.3% and 22.4% of the sale price, respectively, according to the National Association of College Stores. Competition in the retail chain is limited as off campus bookstores have a difficult time accessing the required texts and don't typically have a complete selection for the students.

A bill pending in Congress would require publishers to sell "unbundled" versions of the books and disclose book prices to faculty in their marketing materials. Both good steps, but competition, more choices (including online, subscription, rental and other new models) will do more than regulation.

Of course, students could certainly take this in their own hands. Randy Stross, a colleague of mine at San Jose State, wrote an interesting piece on the textbook business in his Sunday New York Times column, "First it Was Song Downloads. Now It's Organic Chemistry." He describes college students as the "angriest group of captive customers to be found anywhere" and that "students who create and give away digital copies are motivated not by financial self-interest but by something more powerful: the sweet satisfaction of revenge".

One of the shrewdest groups in the music business and way ahead of their time was the Grateful Dead. Similar to the textbook business, the music business BN (before Napster) was controlled by the labels. The artists received very little of album sales, but kept concert and merchandise revenue. The Dead developed an avid fan base (aka Deadheads) who attended mutliple shows on each tour and traded bootleg tapes of their favorite shows. While the Dead did nothing to discourage the pirated music, they actively protected their trademarks to prevent unlicensed merchandise.

Let's hope that students, after graduation, saddled with debt from the high cost of tuition and textbooks aren't on the street reciting lyrics from the Dead's Touch of Grey

"I know the rent is in arrears, the dog has not been fed in years
It's even worse than it appears, but it's alright"


translation services said...

The artists received very little of album sales, but kept concert and merchandise revenue.

NCH Australia said...

It was sick of making us happy, so it packed and moved away. Do not worry when it comes back it realizes that no one can fill the gap.

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Dead did nothing to prevent pirated music, are actively protected their trademarks to prevent unauthorised merchandise.

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The artists had very few sales of albums, but gave a concert and commodity revenue. The Dead developed an ardent fan abject Dead Heads, who attended multiple shows on each bout and traded bootleg tapes of their admired programs.