Kanye West is right: Textbooks do cost too much


Kanye West just went on a mini tweetstorm about the cost of U.S. textbooks, apparently prompted by a friend with a son struggling to pay for them.

He’s right: Textbooks do cost too much. Here’s a chart from The Economist illustrating the problem:

How did this happen? Several reasons have been presented, and together all seem to contribute.

  • In speaking with publishers, the state of California found several years ago that a principal driver is the steady clip of new editions of books that, some publishers admitted, only offer minimal updates. The publishers said these new editions were necessary to hold profit margins steady, as the used textbook market constantly undermines them.
  • The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently found that “enhanced offerings” like CD-roms and websites were driving up prices.
  • The GAO also noted that publishers have taken steps to block imports of textbooks from overseas, where they are often cheaper. While the rest of the world has become a global marketplace, which has helped lead to lower prices for basic goods, textboooks have not seen this same market exposure.
  • And The Economist has argued that some professors purposefully choose textbooks that are more expensive because, well, they wrote them.

The situation seems dire on paper, but a host of websites have sprung up that allow you to get around this sticker shock. Chegg.com, for instance, allows you to simply rent your textbook for the time you need it, while other publishers have turned their textbooks into ebooks.

So, with a little legwork, Kanye’s friend can probably find a cheap alternative.

But he’s absolutely right that something is wrong with the textbook market. Reforming it would make a great element of his 2020 platform.

Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.

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