Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Textbooks Are Too Expensive?

Make textbooks affordable is a web site set up by 19 student groups located at colleges and universities across the country. The insurgency against the 'high' cost of higher ed materials seems to be developing into a more coordinated approach to challenging publishing company's pricing policies. This site also hosts a report published by the MASS PIRG (Public Interest Research Group) titled Exposing the Textbook Industry: How Publishers’ Pricing Tactics Drive Up the Cost of College Textbooks which was published in February 2007. Among the findings/recommendations are the following:
  • Textbooks should be produced and priced to be as inexpensive as possible without sacrificing educational value.
  • New textbook editions should be produced only when educationally necessary; each book should be kept on the market as long as possible, with preference given to paper or online supplements over a whole new edition.
  • Faculty should have the option to purchase textbooks unbundled; whenever a textbook is sold with additional materials, it also should be available without the extra materials.
  • Publishers should provide faculty with more information on each book’s price, intended length of time on the market and substantive content differences from previous editions. Faculty want, and have the right to know, how their textbooks choices will affect their students. They should have easy access to information about all of the publisher’s products, low cost formats, options for bundling, and corresponding price information, voluntarily provided at the start of any sales transaction and on desk copies provided by the publisher.
  • All textbooks should be available in a genuine low cost edition that contains comparable content in a low cost format. Information about these options should be easily available.
  • Faculty should give preference to least cost options when choosing their books.
  • There should be many avenues for students to access used books including rental programs, online bookswaps and bookstore buy-back.
While the report is critical of publishers it does not appear to criticise faculty or administrations for not being active enough regarding their knowledge and understanding of textbook pricing even when knowledge and information is made available by the publishers. There is notice given that suggests faculty care about this issue; however, the report doesn't hold them accountable for a lack of action on this issue. For example, the report reaffirmed that 71% said that new editions of textbooks in their field are justified only ‘sometimes’ or ‘rarely’ yet there doesn't appear to be a discussion as to why the new editions are ordered and what motivates faculty to support this publisher activity.

There are more reports on this site and I suspect that this report and others will be circulated and placed on similar web sites to the maketextbooksaffordable site. Perhaps more worrying is that some state legislators are jumping on the band wagon and are proposing legislation to limit the ability of publishers to act in their commercial interest. In Minnesota for example, legislators are discussing legislation to regulate publishers and make faculty more accountable, "This is the hidden cost to higher education," said Democratic Rep. Frank Moe, the Minnesota's bill sponsor, who also teaches at Bemidji State University. "Reasonable profit makes sense. But the margins they are making on these textbooks is just absurd." (Lansing State Journal) Governments have looked at this issue before but there are currently more than 12 legislatures that are taking up this issue.

The legislation suggested in Alabama is typical:
The legislation would regulate the use of textbooks in state schools with the goal of keeping the cost of students’ required reading down.It would require that college classes use the same version of a textbook for at least two years “unless there are substantial differences] between the old and new edition," he said.It would also prohibit state college instructors and book-buyers from getting any kind of compensation for their choices, meaning it would become illegal for them to accept incentives and promotional gifts from book publishers. (Tuscaloosa)

On top of these state lead efforts, there is also a federal advisory board that is in the process of collecting information and feedback in a series of meetings around the county. From the Gainesville Sun:
The idea is to prod professors to take advantage of articles, lecture notes, study guides and other materials available for free on the Internet.That suggestion, and several others, were aired during a 3 1/2-hour meeting in Santa Clarita, Calif., where the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance heard from college administrators, textbook publishers and other higher education leaders and advocates.The meeting - the second of three field hearings the panel will hold around the country before it delivers a congressionally requested report in May - didn't produce any consensus. And neither did it answer a question that seemed to be a subtext of the proceedings: Who is to blame for textbooks that cost more than $100?

This recent effort to manage textbook prices goes back to a report from GOA two years ago that, despite its flaws, is now regarded as the bible for all those addressing this issue. Unfortunately, the publishing industry was not well represented in that report and continue to be on the defensive on this issue. This will be monitored closely by all of us in the business.


Cliff said...

Disclaimer: I work for a publisher. Not only that, but I help my company build web sites and DVDs that drive up the cost of textbooks.

Are textbooks expensive? The cost of a new textbook is high, but consider the fact that most students buy used books and sell them back to the bookstore when the course is over.

The rental cost of a textbook is actually quite low, especially considering that most of the content for introductory courses is in the textbook. Compare textbook costs to the cost of tuition. Still think the cost is too high?

My company offers digital textbooks at less than half the wholesale price. That is a huge discount. Since the student can buy direct, they don't have to pay the campus bookstore over 30% of the retail cost. If a print textbook costs $100 in a bookstore, we would sell the same title in a digital edition for $35.

Do students buy these cheaper textbooks? No. You might say that is because reading onscreen is inferior to reading printed pages. Well, we even offer a new technology that has been shown to increase reading efficiency. Studies show that reading the online textbook using this new technology is more efficient than reading print. Still: no buyers.

Maybe the cost of textbooks doesn't matter to students after all.

eugenegs said...

Some years ago in the seventies I was in the college textbook business. I'm still in the publishing industry and nothing seems to have changed, except that the used book market has squeezed out any backlist sales, and professors as a class remain passive toward the textbook problem.

It is good that students are organizing themselves. However, they are directing their pressure - as are the legislatures - in the wrong direction. It is really up to the professorate to determine what kind of textbook will be recommendended or adopted.

Publishers respond to market demand and market economics.

I would recommend that student groups and the AAUP and other scholarly groups come together and develop a code of best practices to which colleges would subscribe in regulating adoption practices by professors. The publishers will respond.

The technology exists today to separate out the bells and whistles from the basic book as well as to customize the book to suit each campus.

with a code of best practices subscribed to by colleges, new publishers would arise to meet the competetive opportunity.