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A Textbook Case

Heidi Bond is questioning a piece by Prof. Ian Ayres on textbook prices. Ayres is never short of interesting ideas. (You'll remember he's the one who wants to make reckless sexual conduct a crime.) But like most of his ideas, this one seems to protest too much.

Essentially, Ayres is suggesting that the textbook market suffers from too little competition among producers, and that universities should compensate for this problem by buying textbooks for their students and providing them as part of tuition. In a way, it's not a bad suggestion: he points out that the university will then care whether the professor assigns the most expensive textbook because it will at least partially affect the school's budget. The degree of this effect will be minimal, of course, to the extent that the money can be passed on.

But one wonders if, even excluding the pass-through, the net effect of this wouldn't be pretty marginal. First of all, universities would have to review each professor's textbook decision to make sure it meets a cost/benefit analysis. Since they already employ the professors to do precisely that, I'm not sure putting the oversight infrastructure in place won't outweigh the efficiency gains. (He contrasts this with textbooks in K-12 education, but ignores the fact that there's normally a standard statewide or local curriculum.) [1]

Prof. Ayres might be better off with a little less command and control and a little more reliance on market information. At least at Columbia Law School, the university authorities are a positive hinderance to cost competition. Every semester, I face the choice of going to our overpriced university bookstore (a Barnes & Noble affiliate with non-discount prices where I can't use my B&N membership) or Labyrinth Books, the quaint and predictably useless academic bookstore down on 112th. The former is brightly lit to the point of flourescent sterility, while the latter is cramped, untidy, and until recently forced you to leave your computer bag at the front desk if you wanted to walk in the store. (Your several thousand dollar IT investment left, of course, at your own risk.)

But these were my choices. Professors provide lists of the books they need to these two bookstores, and the only way I learn what I need is to walk over a few days before class. More annoyingly, sometimes the book only seems to be ordered by Labyrinth. Never mind that Amazon (or even B&N's online store) are usually much cheaper and offer discounts. Some of the books would have to be ordered weeks in advance, so without a booklist, I either do without the book for the first few weeks or I make my purchases bricks and mortar.

It wouldn't be difficult to get rid of these information barriers. Every book has an ISBN number that makes them exceptionally easy to index. For a trice of the administrative overhead of Ayres' system, Columbia could set up a website that lists the books required for classes and links to Froogle-like searches for the best price. (Students would also be able to see up-front which courses cost more due to pricey texts.) If you were really worried about costs to students, you could easily set up online markets in used textbooks, thus removing the middleman-costs of the used textbook market in the university bookstore. (Many of my classmates use the Amazon Marketplace or eBay for this already.)

Of course, unlike Ayres' proposal, which puts the power in the hands of professors and administrators, this lets consumers make choices and pits the producers against the power of the market. Indeed, if the system were made open and universities were encouraged to submit course lists to a central site, consumers would now be able to compare processes across universities. All without particularly high administrative costs.

[1]:He may also overemphasizes the conflict of interest involved in a professor assigning his or her own textbook: sure, Ayres earns $11 a copy on each textbook he assigns, but I have never for the life of me thought a professor assigned their casebook for the money. I usually put it down to wanting to teach from the book they helped write. Call it convenience or ego boost, as you will.

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