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Textbook Price Gouging

On Monday I was trying to research what should have been a simple question: "What education would a man have needed to become a lawyer in England in the 1890s?" But as adept as I am at squeezing what I need out of the Internet, it turned out to be nigh impossible to find useful resources.

The process to become a lawyer in modern England is convoluted enough. In the US, a lawyer is a lawyer. You can't practice law without passing the bar, and that's that. But in England and Wales, you have solicitors and then you have barristers. The former does not belong to a bar association and deals with the everyday law like drawing up contracts and wills, while the latter represents parties in court. Historically, the barristers were the "gentlemen" of the profession. They had university degrees or an extensive education from the Inns of Court, which were (and still are) responsible for giving law students practical experience and admitting them to the bar...though it wasn't until 1870 or so that this became a standardized process. Solicitors, on the other hand, needed only to apprentice for a few years as teenagers before setting up an office of their own.

This took me a couple of hours to figure out, because people who write general resources on the Victorian period seem to think this is either common knowledge or irrelevant. No one clearly defined the difference or process in historical contexts. I suppose most writers can just kind of pop lawyers into their stories without paying much heed to the details, but my hero for WIP-B is a law student. The book ends a year or two after he finishes his degree at Oxford, and I need to know exactly what he would have been doing. Could he just up and practice law already? Would he have to clerk with an established barrister first? Study for a bar exam? Would he have the means to support a family yet, or would he have to delay his marriage to the heroine and live with the other students? I can't just skip all of this and move the epilogue to a future point in which he's done with all the messiness, because I've fit the narrative into a very specific segment of history (spoiler alert: it begins with Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897, the last hurrah of her reign, and ends with her death in 1901, signifying the end of the era and the first glimmer of a new one. I like my symbolism served up extra strong ;D).

There was only one resource that was concise, yet thorough enough to be useful to me: a chapter from Daily Life in Victorian England by Sally Mitchell. After reading the snippet on the law profession through the Google Books preview, I was excited to see the rest of the text on other walks of life and segments of society. So I headed to Amazon to download a copy of the eBook:

$45.10 for the Kindle version of the second edition. $47.47 for the hardcover, and $55.19 for the first edition from 1996. It wasn't until I expanded the "hardcover" options that I saw I could get an old library copy for $12.44, including shipping. The publishers are insane if they think anyone would willingly put down that chunk of change for a 336 page book; I'm pushing it by charging $4.99 for Bubbles Pop.

So where did they get the idea that they could price it so ridiculously high? From the reviews, this title is marketed as a textbook. And textbooks, while not fundamentally different from any other nonfiction books, are priced at least five times what they're worth to gouge the captive students. If you're taking a general ed course in Victorian Studies and the professor requires this book, what are you going to do about it?

When I was in college, I sometimes coughed up $120 for a single textbook, and the only ones I remember reading half of were in Organic Chemistry, Evolution, Statistics and Psychology—and then because I was interested in the content, not because it was mandatory. The last time we went to buy Sweetie's textbooks, the total came to several hundred, thanks to a mandatory bundle of history and mythology books on ancient Greece, only a few of which had snippets on the syllabus. At a certain point his professors (and mine in graduate school) just stopped assigning textbooks, or they put a title on the bookstore list to satisfy departmental requirements but quietly told the students on the first day not to bother.

I don't understand how I put up with this at the time. In my freshman year, I bought all of the titles the bookstore said were assigned for upwards of $30 each, and then I sold them back for $5 a piece at the end of the semester. Those were the days I also opened a Bank of America credit card because I felt pressured into it over the phone, and I handed my social security number to all sorts of organizations who didn't need it just because it was a blank line on the forms. Later I wised up and started to get used copies online and sell them to someone else for near or at the price I paid for them. But still, I was dealing with outrageously blown up sums.

If the company had priced this book somewhat reasonably, even up to $20-30, I would have bought it from them with only minimal grumbling, and they'd keep the majority of the profits. But by forcing it up laughably high, I went with the cheap used copies. All of my money will go to Amazon, UPS, and the bookseller, while Greenwood Press won't see a cent. Not that they'll shed any tears for the one lost sale, I'm sure. They have a big pool of gullible students to give them money who don't have any idea that they're being ripped off, or at least no choice in the matter.


mark marnell (June 29, 2012, 4:06 pm)

When your grandfather became a lawyer, a college degree was not required. Law schools would admit somebody with 2 years of college. Technically speaking, a law degree is not require. A person can "read law" with a licensed lawyer. I have gathered from Victorian literature that is how it was generally done in Victorian England. A person became a "clerk" with a lawyer, studied law, and was then "called to the bar." No comment about why textbooks are so high.

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