The Durham Herald-Sun must be short on story ideas, since a leading local story is that textbooks are overpriced:
UNC professor Hugon Karwowski is so exasperated with the state of textbook pricing these days that he no longer assigns a particular book for the 70 or so students in his introductory physics class.
Instead, he has told the students enrolling in his course this fall to go out in search of their own physics book. As long as it is at least 700 pages long and is a study of calculus-based physics, it’s fine with him.
“They can get one on the Internet for $20, or they can use the one their brother used five years ago,” Karwowski said. “If they’re so poor they can’t afford [it], I’ll give them a book.”
I’d say that the observation that too many books are lightly revised and republished in barely-altered form is probably accurate; I’m at a loss as to how the calculus or Newtonian physics would change enough to justify a new textbook edition every few years (at least for an introductory textbook). In other disciplines, though, things change enough to justify new books—students would be suspicious of an American government textbook that was last revised in 1998 or so, and political science in general has to keep pace with history. To note a couple of examples, I’d have a hard time selling the Midterm Loss theory today, while a book covering Bowers v. Hardwick in constitutional law without Lawrence v. Texas would seem downright quaint.
My general observation is that students will almost always get most of their money back out of a book (particularly if it’s used) if the same course is being taught again the next semester by the same professor (and if the self-same professor has put in his book order in time!). Unfortunately, at small colleges that doesn’t happen much outside the introductory survey course (if I’d stayed at Millsaps, there’s a good chance I’d have had 3 new courses to prep for 2005–06), and even at the bigger schools most professors don’t want to teach the same damn course over and over again.
So, if you’re a student, my advice would be to hang onto your books if you aren’t getting most of what you paid for them back. Alternatively, check into selling them at the Amazon.com Marketplace and cut out the bookstore middleman—it’s almost guaranteed that someone will be using the same books somewhere in America next semester.
From a faculty member’s perspective, I tend to think that the cheapest readable textbook you can use is probably the best; four-color graphics of the Electoral College may be nicer than grey-and-teal to the Virgin Mobile generation, but my observation is that most of the four-color jobs are either written for idiots who shouldn’t be in college in the first place (condescending to your students with your choice of textbook—which they may very well see before they see you—is probably not the way to get off on the right foot) or otherwise bear the mark of writing-by-committee. Give me Fiorina et al. or Kernell and Jacobson any day.