This morning I explained why I wasn't requiring a textbook (much to their relief) - it's absurd price ($160 in paperback on Amazon, more for the Kindle version). Then I see a link to a good graphic on price increases over time that accompanies a short piece on The Atlantic website.
There's a lot of reasons given for high textbook prices - higher than normal production costs, limited demand, the need for sturdier versions (i.e. hardcover vs. paper) to bear up under studying and note-making. But most don't hold up in a digital media marketplace. What does is the forced demand generated from us professors requiring our students to buy them.
Enter the open educational resources (i.e. textbooks & related materials) initiative, as discussed in a recent Slate/Future Tense piece. The piece discusses the efforts of academic publishers to sue a online open-access "publisher" out of the market. Not for plagiarism or copyright violation, but for ordering topics/chapters similar to how they're presented in their textbooks. Absurd, right?
(I did a post on the Free Text Movement and some of our efforts here at UTK several weeks ago)
The Slate piece suggests that academic publishers are likely to follow the path of the printed encyclopedia (and the wooly mammoth). There's a good chance of that if they follow the strategy of trying to litigate their competition out of the market. But that's not the only strategy available - several (MIT Press and Oxford University Press most notably) are putting out reasonably priced trade versions for some specialized textbooks, and smaller university presses are testing open-access online publishing.
I'm going to try to write a text for my class, and offer it though our Tennessee Journalism series. It's more work, but gives us authors the ability to add multimedia and online features, and the advantage of rapid updating, and gives our students cheap alternatives. (And as a full professor, I'm not as concerned about it qualifying as peer-reviewed research).
Traditional academic publishers could try embracing the opportunities of online and on-demand publishing, rather than trying to retain the old monopolistic business model. They still have significant value as gatekeepers and guarantors of peer-reviewed quality - and may be able to make up in reduced costs and increased demand most of revenues now based on high per-unit profit margins in shrinking markets. Just like most traditional media have had to do in recent years. There's a lot of downside for business models based on litigation, and not much of a long-term future.
Sources - Why Are College Textbooks So Absurdly Expensive?, The Atlantic
Never Pay Sticker Price for a Textbook Again, Slate/ Future Tense
The college textbook bubble and how the "open educational resources" movement is going up against the textbook cartel, AEIdeas blog (source for graphic)