Everything depreciates, but textbooks are not like cars

Published: by

I saw - and retweeted - the following by Sean Daly: https://twitter.com/seaneveryday/status/288698071871811584

Which said:

@seaneveryday: Textbooks are like cars - they immediately start losing value as soon as you buy them. #edchat

This is, of course, true. But everything you buy loses value, or depreciates, the moment you buy it. Sure, some things can be returned within 14 or 30 days, but for all intents and purposes, the moment you buy it and use it, it loses value. This is true for textbooks, cars... and iPads, chairs, shirts and milk. Everything.

So why is it that people seem particularly perturbed by these two, cars and textbooks, but not by shirts, chairs and milk?

Twokey factors are at work, and they are shared especially by textbooks and cars, and one more for textbooks:

  • Size: For what you get, these are both big ticket items. Cars cost tens of thousands of dollars. Textbooks, nothing more than a package of cardboard, paper and ink, cost upwards of $100, whereas a similar content, size and weight book will usually cost $20-30. Textbooks and cars are, relatively speaking, big investments.
  • Rate: Both of these depreciate quickly. A car loses about a third of its value in three years, the length of a typical lease and, not coincidentally, warranty. A textbook loses all its value, except as a paperweight, in one or, at most, two semesters, less than a year. By contrast a shirt that costs $30 lasts three or more years.

Size+rate combine to create sensitivity. Something that depreciates quickly but costs little, or costs a lot but depreciates slowly, leaves people feeling that they have gotten good value. By contrast, something that costs a lot and depreciates quickly gives the sense of buyer's remorse.

However, one additional element comes to play with textbooks in a way that it does not in cars, iPads or shirts.

  • Planned Obsolescence: Planned obsolescence is a well known market strategy, wherein a manufacturer plans for their existing products to become obsolete on a given schedule. It is used in computers, cars and fashion. However, it is used in combination with one other factor that upsets consumers in a way few other markets do: captivity. When Apple plans to make its iPhone 4 obsolete within a year, it doesn't force you to retire your 4 and discard it. You can choose, of your own volition, to keep using your 4, buy a 5, or sell your 4 on the used market. The same is true for cars and most other planned obsolescence items. You are not captive to the manufacturer. For textbooks, the consumer is captive in two ways: first, the textbook is good for exactly one course you are taking, which makes it worthless after 5 months. Second, by the time a new crop of students comes in to take the course, the publisher has made your copy obsolete, and, with the collusion of the teaching staff, forced the new captive consumer base, the new students, to only buy new, eliminating your used market.

Combine planned obsolescence in a captive market with high relative cost and very high depreciation rate.... and you have a formula for customer frustration leading to the tweets above.

So what will change? Stay tuned...