IT IS STILL POSSIBLE, (it became possible in the '60s) to get a bachelor's degree without ever opening a hardcover book except possibly The Encyclopedia Britannica, but the paperback textbook publishing industry, even with its relatively recent and far-reaching conquests in the high school market, is in the middle of what may turn out to be a long period of retrenchment. Textbook trends naturally reflect trends on campuses, and according to publishes this is what's currently happening:
Verb. Sap. SAT. The decline in student achievement in SAT scores, much publicized recently, is reflected in a readjustments of reading levels in textbooks.College texts, which have traditionally been written at approximately an 11th-grade reading level, are being revised to an eight - or ninth-grade reading level. The easiest teaching job to get in college now is remedial reading.
It's All in the Book. The great curriculum-loosening of the '60s, which was a boon for paperback publishers because it got away from the all-in-one textbook and encouraged students to do their reading hors d'oeuvre-style from a whole buffet of paperback titles, is being reversed - largely in response to student demand. There was recently an incident at Princeton, for example, in which one of the university's more distinguished history professors took his turn at teaching a general survey course, assigned his students a list of paperback titles and was confronted by a rebellion; the students wanted to read an old-style history book, not a bunch of dead historians, and they took their demand to the dean's office. The professor was finally persuaded to assign a basic text with a few books for outside reading. As Princeton goes, you may be sure, so go the less selective campuses.
We Want Jobs. The orientation of liberal art courses (where the campus paperback revolution really happened) seems to be moving away from academic purism and toward a more vocational outlook. Students look at the unemployment figures - including the high jobless rates among recent graduates and people with doctorates - and they want an education that will secure them a good paycheck. This is reflected in the kind of courses they choose and in the tailoring of existing courses to attract them. Combined with the decline in the nation's college-age population (the products of the post-World War ll baby boom are nowin or beyong graduate school), the result has been a sharp decline in the number of paperbacks devoted to classic texts. The Harper Torchbook series, for example, listed over 1000 titles in the '60s; it is now down around 350.
The Price Is Wrong. Part of the problem faced by paperback textbook publishers is the decreasing differential between the price of hardcover and paperback textbooks. And to examine this, we must digress for a moment and look at the costs of publishing.
The use of a hard rather than a paper cover adds only about 60 cents to the production cost of a book - considerably less than the price differential of the final products. Why do hardcover books cost so much more? Because there are relatively so few of them; the largest production cost for a book is that of typesetting, and it is the same whether the book sells 500 copies or a million. For mathematical simplicity, let us assume that a book costs $1000 to set in type (most books cost several times that amount; some, short poetry collections, for example, cost less). If the book sells 500 copies, the cost of typesetting is $2 per book. If it sells a million copies, the cost is one-tenth of a cent per book, and paper and distribution, not typesetting, are the dominant cost factors. The economic importance of the hard cover lies not so much in its cost to the publisher, but in the fact that our publisher folkways make it an elite product and give the publisher more leeway in setting a price on it. There is, however, a limit to the leeway that can be bought with that 60 cents; the price of paper (particularly the higher grades of paper used for trade paperbacks) has been going up faster than the price of the hard cover. Some trade paperbacks have now broken through the $10 price barrier, and even further down in the spectrum prices of $3 to $5 are not uncommon. One publisher's informal estimate is that in the '60s you could buy, on the average, about six paperbacks for the price of one hard cover book. Now the price ratio is more like three paperbacks to one hardcover. This naturally makes a handful of paperbacks (compared to one basic text, which might be either paperback or hardcover) less attractive than it once was for penny-wise students.
As the price has gone up, so has the market for used paperbacks; there is now a flourishing and relatively low-cost market in this field and many students are handling their paperback texts with extra care, in consideration of their resale value.
On the Other Hand The Picture is not, of course, entirely bleak. After adjusting to the changed situation, some publishers are finding that the reduction in the number of their academic paperback titles has its blessings.Under the system of the '60s, with its stress on offering the student maximum options, a professor would sometimes produce a reading list of 25 titles or more, all of which would be ordered by the college bookstore and only two or three of which would actually be purchased and read by the students in significant quantities. The more restricted options under the system currently in favor involve considerably less of a problem with returned books.
In addition the academic paperback boom of the '60s did introduce peopl e to the book-collecting habit in larger numbers than ever before, and for many of them the habit remained after they left the campus, partly because the books they were accustomed to buy during during their college years were relatively inexpensive. There seems to be more homes with collections of books than there were 15 or 20 years ago, and if the homeowners are under 40 the odds are that most of the books will be paperbacks.
Transcending temporary trends in education and its problems, the fact remains that the existence of the paperback and the proliferation of titles that attract serious readers has significantly and favorably altered people's idea of what books are and how they are to be used.