The market for introductory economics textbooks is pretty crowded, but there is at least one new one coming onto the market soon:
If you’ve ever used a textbook as an instructor rather than as a student, you are probably aware that there are lots of supplementary materials- solutions manuals, test question banks, and so on- that serve as companions to the textbook and that are given to the instructors at no charge. (In case you were curious, copies of the textbook are also given at no charge, and, although it’s technically prohibited, there are plenty of instructors who sell the free books to the used book brokers that are constantly stopping by our offices. Yep, those exist.) If you are a student, I am not going to explicitly encourage you to try to find copies of such materials online, but I am going to mention that a lot of the materials are out there.
Have you ever wondered who writes all of these supplemental materials? People like me, apparently:
I suppose if you’re a good enough student it’s only a matter of time until you get paid to essentially read textbooks and do problem sets. I contend that there are far worse ways to earn a living.
What I found most interesting about the experience, however, was the insight that it gave me into the textbook market. On some level, I’ve always known that there is inefficiency in the textbook market due to the fact that the decision makers (i.e. instructors) aren’t the payers/end consumers (i.e. students). Among other things, this means that instructors don’t have a particularly strong incentive to care how much the textbooks that they are assigning cost, so textbooks are more expensive than they would be in a well-functioning market. (Luckily there are considerate instructors out there who do care to some degree whether they are sending students further into the poor house. Also, if this sounds familiar, it’s because you’ve been doing your reading on the healthcare industry.)
What I didn’t realize until I started teaching large courses, however, is the degree to which instructors are courted by the textbook publishers- remember the stories about how pharmaceutical companies used to heap lavish perks on doctors in order to get on their good sides so that they would prescribe more of the company’s drugs? Yeah, it’s kind of like that, except that the sales reps that are constantly contacting me are way less hot than the typical pharma girl. (No offense to the textbook reps, it’s just that the pharma girls are pretty far out there on the spectrum.) I’m not complaining about the free books, food, booze, conferences, etc., mind you, I just thought it was worth noting.
What I *am* going to complain about is the fact that the decision-making authority regarding textbooks is becoming, in an increasing number of circumstances, even more removed from the end consumer. One strategy of Pearson Education, for example, is to sign contracts with university administrators that require instructors to use Pearson textbooks (presumably only for classes where Pearson has textbook coverage). What this means, obviously, is that instructors can’t always assign the text that they think is best, and, in an important number of cases, can’t even assign textbooks they’ve written themselves, at least not without forgoing royalties and, in one case a little birdie told me about, “donate” said royalties to the university. In what may or may not be related news, Penn State signed such a contract with Pearson and the first author of the above textbook is now employed by the University of Kentucky. Students, I encourage you to play a potentially fun game- check out the textbooks you’ve used recently in various courses and see if they are disproportionately Pearson textbooks. If so, ask your professors if they are obligated to assign Pearson texts and see what they say- I’m very curious. (It’s too bad you can’t text your professors and then send me the responses a la Nathan Fielder.)
This system is obviously problematic on a number of levels, not the least of which being that it creates incentives to engage in rent-seeking behavior at the expense of actually producing products that are better for students. (I’ve used Pearson’s products, and, while a number of the textbooks themselves are quite good, the online materials leave much to be desired. And I’m not just saying that because I do review work for Pearson’s competition. 🙂 ) So, next time you’ve wondering how textbooks could possibly have started climbing over the $200 price point, just think back to this discussion.
For what it’s worth, the publisher of the above book (W. W. Norton and Company) is an independent publisher and seems pretty legit- their biggest claim to fame is that they were the ones who gave Michael Lewis a deal for Liar’s Poker, and he’s stayed with them ever since, which I figure is a good signal. Also, they throw kickass parties. 🙂
Update: I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that people are asking how this compares to the Mankiw textbook that is often featured on this site. Fair question, though it’s hard to give a fair answer because a 6th edition of Mankiw isn’t really comparable to a draft of a 1st edition of Mateer/Coppock. Like Dirk Mateer’s web site, his book is focused on giving examples related to pop culture and generally being relatable to students. I think the best way to put it is that I will probably continue to use Mankiw for my own reference but would be inclined to use Mateer/Coppock for a survey course for non-majors. It’s important to keep in mind that differentiation does in fact exist in the world of introductory economics textbooks, so both instructors and consumers should do their homework to find out which version is appropriate for them. I think the only subject where I could universally recommend a single undergraduate textbook is econometrics, where the text by Wooldridge reigns supreme, in my opinion.
Another Update: Apparently people followed up with Dirk regarding his move from Penn State. So let me see if I’ve got this straight: Penn State thinks that professors benefiting financially from writing a textbook that was customized for the course that instructor is teaching is a conflict of interest, but the university itself getting kickbacks from a publisher for mandating the use of particular textbooks is A-OK. As noted in the comments, students at Penn State really valued Dirk’s presence, and it’s sad that rent-seeking behavior by publishers (and rent-accepting behavior by universities) did in fact factor in his decision to move.