Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Legislating Textbooks

TPS friend Joab Corey sends along news from the Kentucky state legislature, which is looking to regulate college textbooks. Here's a news story and here's the text of the bill. The goal, ultimately, is to lower the prices of textbooks. Let's take a look at the bill:

- Directly from the bill:

"It is the intent of the General Assembly to encourage faculty, students, bookstores, book distributors, publishers, postsecondary education institutions to work together to contain costs of essential college textbooks and supplemental materials for students in ways that still maintain the academic freedom of faculty to identify high quality course materials for students."

Objectively, this is no different than saying "...to work together to raise costs of essential college textbooks..." So anything working towards the goal of lowering textbook prices is inherantly subjective. Obvious, yes, but still worth stating. There is no overarching "good" to be achieved with this end in mind, nor any increase in welfare.

- That being said, let's see if what they propose achieves their subjective ends.

"No later than the 2009-2010 fall academic term, each Kentucky public postsecondary education institution shall implement a policy establishing a deadline for faculty adoption and public posting of the International Standard Book Number and retail price for all courses within the undergraduate course schedule."

This won't do anything to change prices, though it may do so indirectly. Failure to comply will result in "penalties to the faculty" or "fiscal relief for the students who are victims of late notifications," and since professors tend to be a bit lazy in providing book information, I can see some imposed penalties happening. And do you think departments are going to fine their professors? Students could benefit from a propensity to disobey the imposed rules, but in no way does providing book information save anyone money. At all. (Love the victims line, though.)

- What about bundling?

"No later than the 2009-2010 fall academic term, a publisher that sells a college textbook and any supplemental material in a single bundle in a college bookstore in Kentucky shall also make available the college textbook and the supplemental materials as separate and unbundled items with each priced separately."

The idea here is that students end up purchasing bundles of textbooks that they otherwise wouldn't need. A few thoughts:

1) Professors, in my experience, both as an instructor and a student, don't blindly assign books.

2) What about the possiblity that bundling-- and stay with me now-- actually saves the student money? What if these companies can lower the prices by bundling goods and sell more books? Remember, books may be required for a class, but that's by no means a guarantee that all students buy them. I'd say that the elasticity of textbooks is fairly highly; reducing price by $5 or $10 might have some significant revenue gains, and companies recognize that.

3) What about the possibility that forcing companies to unbundle their products-- and stay with me a little more-- could charge higher prices for all of their goods, sold separately, to compensate for the increase cost in offering these goods? Wait-- legislation that intends to do something actually ends up doing just the opposite?

- And what about all of those editions that seem the same?

"No later than the 2009-2010 fall academic term, publishers shall publish substantial content revisions between new editions of college textbooks from the earlier editions of the same textbooks in order for faculty to make informed adoptions and for students to determine whether it is necessary to purchase a new edition if it is adopted."

Ah, the ambiguity of law. If you teach statistics, "substantial content revisions" could be nothing more than new questions to address the same subject matter. After all, that hasn't changed much over the years. Then again, if you teach, say, Philosophy, maybe you need entire sections rewritten in order to provide a different viewpoint, or maybe different subject matter entirely. How do you judge "substantial?" It's a great way for the Kentucky state legislature to allow the state to selectively enforce and impose sanctions upon those they wish.

So, ultimately, not only is the legislation suspect in motivation, but even given this motivation, it is not clear in any regard how its provisions will achieve its ends.

2 comments:

Justin M Ross said...

The incentive to require the most cost-effective book is pretty strong. The better the textbook fits my class and the cheaper the text, then more students will have the text and use it rather than come ask me questions.

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