It's a fair argument, but from what I can tell (correct me if I am wrong) it based on the idea that the price publishers fetch for text books are fair market prices. They are not.
I did a bit of reading to see if I could find any logical arguments for the cost of text books, besides that of gouging. On the government's website
there was some interesting information.
Quoted from An Economic Analysis of Textbook Pricing and Textbook Markets by Dr. James V. Koch
from the site:"Between 1986 and 2004, textbook prices rose 186 percent in the United States, or slightly more than six percent per year (GAO, 2005). Meanwhile, other prices rose only about three percent per year (GAO, 2005)."
"CALPIRG (2005) found that students at California public universities spent an average of $898 on textbooks in the 2004-2005 academic year. If textbook prices have continued to rise at six percent per year, then this expenditure will rise to $1,009 in the 2006-2007 academic year and constitute 6.1 percent of the estimated annual cost of education for a resident student at a four-year public university (College Board, 2005)."
So yeah, we know the prices are rising fast. Too fast to be "natural" based on free market forces. But apparently this is true only in the United States:"For example, in mid-July 2006, Barnes and Noble’s (U.S.) website offered to sell a new copy of Krugman and Wells’ Economics textbook for $126.75, whereas Blackwell’s in Great Britain advertised the same book on its web site at $76.31. Needless to say, it does not cost $50.44 to send the book from Oxford to the United States."
As rare as it is to find a text book sold by another vendor, it's even more rare to see it sold for a market price rather than the inflated contractual price publishers require.
Now, basic economics tells us that in order to attract vendors to sell wares, there has to be a market for said wares, which means there has to be demand for said wares. My suggestion of a PDF of every book will not kill demand for books; schools and students, such as yourself, will still want to purchase books. The PDF will simply give students a choice; this choice will break the monopoly publishers currently enjoy.
I personally agree with you; I like working with a hard copy. PDF's would force publishers to charge fair prices on the books they do sell so hard copies will be cheaper for those who want them. But then, if publishers asked market prices for books, say 50 bucks or so, we wouldn't be having this conversation in the first place.
I will finish up with a quick qualitative analysis. I bought a physics text book a few years ago for my calc-based physics sequence from the school book store (the only available place for the book). It was the better part of 200 dollars. I bought a book on astronomy a year ago for my own enjoyment at a retail establishment. Let's compare the two. The astronomy book is larger and has far more images and illustrations. It has a few less pages; only about 600 where as the text book has over 900. The astronomy book is roughly one inch square larger; they are both hard backs. The astronomy book was 25 dollars at Costco.
What's the difference? Is it the 300 extra pages?
Is the physics book more costly because of the format...information followed by summary and practice tests? Well, explain this: my CompTIA A+ certification book is exactly the same format as the physics book (information in subject-specific chapters with reviews at the end of each) and is 1100 pages long. It cost about 60 at Barnes & Noble.
Back to the physics text book: this is not an issue of intellectual property; none of the information in the book is "owned." That is to say, book is filled with physics equations developed over the last few hundred years, calculus developed by Newton and others, and algebra that goes back much further still. Is it the images that makes it so expensive? This seems unlikely as the astronomy book I mentioned is filled with vast numbers of images in comparison with the physics book.
The answer I can't avoid is this: publishers charge what they can get away with.
We let them get away with a lot.
One last note: perhaps the PDF requirement I am suggesting is too aggressive. But there are other options, such as some sort of rental system on books. You pay a deposit for the book at the beginning of the term, then return it and get your deposit back if the book is in order. Those who still want to own the book can make the purchase.
But I like my idea and I thought it was worth throwing out there.