When textbooks cost too much (which is often)

I came across this post on Maud Newton’s blog, where she’s quoting from GW Bush about fixing interest rates on students loans (apparently, this is a new change in the student loan program), despite the fact that it will potentially (likely, actually) allow corporations and other borrowers to get money with a lower interest rate. Click here for a more complete version of the story. Yet another example why it is clear that the phrase “the education president” was meant to be ironic.

In any event, on an issue that is perhaps a bit closer to my heart (because of my recent failures as a textbook writer) is this Washington Post article (which I found via Maud’s blog), “Swelling Textbook Costs have College Students Saying ‘Pass.'” Here’s a nice quote:

Textbook prices have been rising at double the rate of inflation for the past two decades, according to a Government Accountability Office study. In Virginia, more than 40 percent of students surveyed by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia said they sometimes just do without.

That’s been increasing, said Jennifer Libertowski of the National Association of College Stores; recently, the group found that nearly 60 percent of students nationwide choose not to buy all the course materials.

Sixty percent! Here’s some other fun facts from the article:

  • Textbooks and supplies costs an average of $900 a year, and it doesn’t matter much if you’re attending “Most Expensive and Quaint U” or “Cheap Cheap CC,” the books are about the same and the cost is about the same– but a greater percentage of the bill for students at Cheap CC, who are liable to be paying most of their expenses by working anyway.
  • According to the GAO study on which this article is based, textbook costs tripled between 1986 and 2004.
  • And then there’s this passage: “Students have plenty of conspiracy theories for the rising prices: Greedy publishers who change the cover just to charge more. Self-absorbed professors who assign their own masterpieces or forget to list the books till it’s too late to find a used copy. Overpriced stores.” The article tries to correct some of the “conspiracy theory” here in the next paragraph, suggesting that the profit margin on textbooks is low (at least compared to things like sweatshirts and mugs). Riiight. That’s why no one is making money off of used textbooks or why the price of new textbooks keeps going up for no apparent reason.

Arguably, English studies and composition is “less guilty” in some ways than other fields in terms of the overall cost issues because our textbooks tend to have less expensive “production values” than books for art or the sciences which are routinely filled with hundreds of elaborate color images. But English– particularly first year composition, the one course that just about every college student in this country has to take–is also a cash cow for textbook publishers. I once had a book rep explain to me that the profit margin on the most expensive textbooks (the ones in the sciences and the arts with lots of color printing and such) is actually a break-even proposition for publishers; conversely, because first year composition books are so cheap to make and the volume is so high, the profit margin on those books is quite large.

I’m not saying that textbook companies don’t serve a valuable purpose in the composition community; there’s a lot of textbooks that I have used in the past that I like a great deal, and I also know, that when I started teaching first year composition many moons ago, I learned a lot from the textbook that was assigned to both my students and to me. I do and I will continue to use textbooks in my teaching, though nowadays, I also tend to find out how much students are going to have to pay students before I make the adoption decision.

But I also think that textbook companies don’t do enough to make materials available at a more reasonable cost, mainly because many of these folks still seem to not “get it” when it comes to electronic publishing, and also because they are terrified about doing anything that might cut into profits.

Take my efforts at trying to publish a version of my textbook online. This is a project in which McGraw-Hill has decided to more or less abandon. Based on a review scheme that I think is debatable at best (but that’s another post), they’ve decided that the interest out there is not great enough to justify a publishing run for my book. I’m not happy about that, but okay, these things happen. So, at no cost to McGraw-Hill, I suggested that I make it available electronically. To date, the answer has been a combination of “no” and a non-answer, and as far as I can tell, the main reason why McGraw-Hill doesn’t want me to publish the book I wrote on a web site– a book project that they would continue to own, I might add– is because some people might actually read and/or use the book, and, somehow, this will cut into the profits of the print books, despite the fact that the review process suggested that that many folks aren’t interested in it.

But enough about my problems.

My point simply is this: according to this article, a surprising number of students are already self-opting out of textbook purchases. If the prices keep going up, it seems entirely possible that teachers will seek other options, too.

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5 Responses to When textbooks cost too much (which is often)

  1. I agree wholeheartedly with a lot of what the writer had to say about the insane cost of textbooks. I was a college student at Penn State University less than a year ago and I graduated Industrial Engineering. I was unaware of ways to save on textbooks in the begininning of my studies and had to pay $500-1000 per semester on books. Typically I couldn’t sell them back at the end of the semester because a new version was released in the ever-changing world of Enginnering Dynamics. What a ripoff. Then some of my classmates and I became more resourceful. There are many other alternatives out there to the crazy book bill. I started sharing books (not very convienent), using the library’s reserve books, and last buying my books on the internet.

    I was eventually so sickened by the industry’s greed and taking advantage of uninformed buyers that I started a textbook business with group partners for an entreprenuerial class. The business went well and now we’ve launched a website – http://www.thetextbookguy.com. We are still run by primarily students and I don’t think I’ll ever venture far from academia.

    I hope our site becomes a resource where students can save money, but while we grow, we’d like to take suggestions from the student community and incorporate them into our site. For instance, we are going to try and add a forum for each class so students can tell other incoming students if they really needed the book or if they don’t need certain parts of it (like the add on CDs). Is e-books something that students find they’ll use in the future? Do a growing number of students use the library reserve books? Do most students know they’re there?

    Moving forward, I hope the industry changes so students are not taken advantage of to increase dividends and earnings. Good luck this semester and please give us some feedback as to what you want. Thanks.

  2. “When textbooks cost too much” resale and distribution should be put directly into the hands of college students. At least that’s what Bookfaced believes; a new service which attempts just that. At http://www.bookfaced.com students buy and sell their textbooks with other students on their campus. Registration, listing, and purchasing of books is free, and there’s no shipping. The site has features which not only help to facilitate transactions, but make it financially safe and secure. Read more about it on their site; it’s worth a look.

  3. matt says:

    costs are on on everyones mind. I’m interested in this topic from my experience in custom publishing at the university level. this year at the university ive been associated with for many years, i watched the administration intercede in a textbook selection committee’s choice. the committee had decided to use a book they had written thenselves and would be considered open source. the administration had cut a deal with Thomson on their own to provide digital books, even though -obviously- the committee’s choice would cost much less. the alleged catch was that Thomson was paying the U a “toll� to sell directly through the CMS system. I found this a bizarre twist on the whole textbook cost debate. thats why im creating a site full of references to digital texts. in many cases, they arent what they seem. http://www.customtexts.com

  4. Bob says:

    Well said, price increases for textbooks are out of hand. Add that to the use of new version releases to cut out the used textbook market and students are the big losers. The internet helps with tools like the one at http://www.cheap-textbooks.com but be sure to look at the sellers location. Media mail can cause textbooks to take up to 4 weeks to arrive from the other side of the country!

  5. Dustin says:

    Textbooks prices are ridiculous, yes, but the consumer has the power of information these days. Just as all of the previous posts have mentioned, there are many, many resources available on the web.

    Take http://www.collegeswapshop.com for example. It offers a free textbook price comparison utility, which allows users to compare textbook prices at many online bookstores. Sites like this one force bookstores to be competitive in their pricing, which results in driving down prices.

    Also, CollegeSwapShop.com offers a free, local student-to-student textbook exchange, which allows the student to bypass the bookstore and shipping altogether….

    The bottom line is that, if you are still getting ripped off by bookstores, well…that’s your own fault :)

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