NY Times says textbook publishers are like drug companies: (Prozac with your Proust?)

Another article in the continuing odyssey of the nefarious publishing industry appears in today’s New York Times. It contains the usual litany of egregious behavior by the textbook oligarchy: double-digit price increases, crippled digital versions padded with empty caloric content, under-the table-kickbacks to faculty members, etc. But it also charges that the publishers are similar to drug companies in that they both benefit from the so-called “moral hazard” problem, as explained by Cal Tech economist and open source microeconomics textbook author R. Preston McAfee:

that is, the doctor who prescribes medication and the professor who requires a textbook don’t have to bear the cost and thus usually don’t think twice about it. “The person who pays for the book, the parent or the student, doesn’t choose it,” he said. “There is this sort of creep. It’s always O.K. to add $5.”

Hmm… Maybe MacMillan could throw in a free prescription for a semester’s supply of Paxil. Having been back on campus for a few weeks now and having to deal with higher tuition and outrageous textbook prices, the class of 2012 is coming to the painful realization that they can barely afford their case of Heineken, their daily Starbucks double iced frappacino, and their music downloads (oh, I forgot – they get that last one for free.)

Professor McAfee adds one more comment:

“This market is not working very well — except for the shareholders in the textbook publishers,” he said. “We have lots of knowledge, but we are not getting it out.”

This is a true but incomplete statement, at least as quoted in the article. It is accurate to point to the increasing returns to shareholders, although it is becoming increasingly difficult to track this data as the trend towards consolidation and private equity in the publishing field removes the need for public disclosure:

There is no doubt that major textbook publishers are big business. The college textbook market represents between $5 billion and $6 billion and the the last 18 months have seen the sale of two major publishers (Houghton Mifflin College and Thomson Learning) for $750 million and $7.75 billion respectively. The overall consolidation of the college textbook market has left four primary players (listed in order of size and market share): Pearson, Cengage Learning, McGraw-Hill, and Wiley.

There is little doubt that the M&A activity has resulted in the remaining publishers adding staggering amounts of debt to their balance sheets. A consequence of this new economic reality is a shift in attention from textbooks to those other books that the company produces: the ones that deal with assets, liabilities and net income. Accountants tend to focus on different assets than editorial directors do.

But another party is apparently complicit in this cozy arrangement of uncontrolled textbook price increases, according to a 2006 study by Dr. James Koch called

An Economic Analysis of Textbook Pricing and Textbook Markets.

Yet another distinctive characteristic of textbook markets is that nearly
every institution of higher education has a financial stake in higher
textbook prices.  With a few exceptions, noted below, institutions of
higher education either own and operate their own bookstores, or they
contract that responsibility to an external vendor such as Follett or Barnes
and Noble, in which case they usually receive a lump-sum payment plus a
percentage of dollar value of sales at contracted on-campus stores.

What this market structure leads to is ever increasing pressure on the producers to raise prices, which works well for as long as there are few supply alternatives for the consumers (students). As thought leaders such as Preston McAfee, enabled by disruptive innovators like Lulu and Flatworld Knowledge, (which I have blogged about frequently this year) begin to offer a viable alternative to the two extremes currently faced by most students – price gouging or illegal file sharing sites – the publishing cartel may soon find itself cozying up to the drug makers, if only to get their own supply of Prozac.