Bound for disappointment

I am holding a paperback book in my hands. It’s a normal book, except that the binding is made from cheap glue, kind of like a romance novel. It’s also made of cheap paper – slick, thin and easily torn.

The printing isn’t that good either, and the material covered is hackneyed at best. So, what would you expect to pay for this shoddy production?

Well, if you’re a PSU student taking a history class this term, you paid $53.90. For a book that measures five inches by eight inches and comes in at a whopping 442 pages. $53.90. Sounds like a lot of money, doesn’t it? Let’s compare that sticker price with another random selection from my rather extensive collection.

This book is Smyth sewn, a special process that insures lasting quality to the binding. The pages of this book are gilded in genuine 22 karat gold. It’s bound in exquisite, glove-soft red leather. The cover is foil embossed with even more 22 karat gold in a beautiful pattern unique to this volume. This book is also signed by the writer in a special limited edition.

So how much would you pay for this book? Remember, it’s signed, it looks wonderful and, more importantly, it smells nice. So how much would you pay? Personally, I’d pay a whole heck of a lot. But I didn’t, at least not in comparison with the textbook. I only paid $47.75, and that included shipping and handling. That’s right, my friends. You’d pay less for this signed, leather-bound edition than you would for that piece of crap textbook.

Speaking of that textbook, it’s sitting on my desk like an eyesore, making me wonder -what is so special about it that it deserves a price tag over that of the really nice book? Are the pages made from baby calves grown in Guam and shipped here in special magic containers? Is the cover an original piece of art? Will I find a little leprechaun hiding in the binding? Or maybe, if I rub it really hard a magic genie will pop out and grant me three wishes. (The first and second would be for more books and the third would involve Pamela Anderson).

I went to the PSU bookstore to find someone who could provide me with the information I sought. I found PSU Bookstore General Manager Kenneth L. Brown. He let me in on the secret of the expensive book and opened the doors of the forbidden "employees only" section of the PSU Bookstore and took me inside for a little sit-down.

I handed Ken a copy of "The Hobbit" bound in leather, a really splendid book. Ken told me right off, "You paid for the binding and the gold gilt pages, not for the content." The content had already been edited, and for the most part prepared. According to Ken, I was paying for the package of the book, not what was in the package, and this was true.

I could just have easily gone and purchased a new $8 copy of the book in paperback. But I had the book in this magnificent volume, and it didn’t stack up to the $50 paperback I dropped in front of Ken.

Ken hoisted the flimsy little book and imparted to me some wisdom. "What’s in here is a higher level of fact checking. Textbooks have to be accurate." I got that point. It made perfect sense. Tolkien has been already been edited, but come on, how can you compare the two books? One may have more fact-checking but does that overcome the massive differences in materials and workmanship, just because the ugly book is factual, and has been checked over, should it be as expensive as it is?

We also talked about edition size, how text books have a lot of incurred costs that must be made up over a small edition size, something called "sunk costs."

The textbook people have to make more money per unit to match their costs. So my textbook needed to be $50 to compensate for that small edition size of, say, 10,000 units. There’s a problem with that, though. You remember that book I was talking about at the beginning of the article, the one that was signed and gorgeous? Its edition size was 1,500 copies so, by the same logic, it should have cost me thousands of dollars.

The real problem with textbook cost, as compared to good books is that you don’t need to buy the good books (unless you’re sick like me), whereas you are forced, to a degree, to buy these textbooks. And the publishers know this. They know that books going to universities are going to be bought, and they can put out as many new editions as they like, because there will always be a captive market.

What we need is more competition among textbook publishers, more choices. With more choice would come lower prices. Then I would have more money for the books that really matter.