High Textbook Prices a Dilemma With No Easy Solution

High textbook prices are a perennial concern at UC Irvine, as most students will testify.
‘The first quarter is the worst’ said Johnathon Zychowicz, a second-year chemical engineering major. ‘I buy textbooks that I use throughout the year. For the first quarter, I pay about $350 or $450. For the other quarters, I spend around $150.’
Regarding the question of what or who is to blame for high costs, most parties are eager to point fingers, making a satisfactory answer elusive.
Even statistics about the division of revenues from textbooks are debated. The National Association of College Stores, for example, claims that 7.2 percent of a textbook’s price is publisher profit. The Association of American Publishers, on the other hand, argues that since one-third of bookstore sales are used books, publisher profit constitutes only 4.8 percent of a book’s cost.
Author royalties range from 7.8 percent to 11.8 percent, depending on who you ask. Bookstore profit is 4.1 percent and bookstore overhead costs are 18.3 percent, according to the NACS. The AAP doesn’t differentiate between profit and costs, simply stating that bookstores account for 48.8 percent of a book’s overall cost, which includes the money given to students to buy back their used books.
The lack of clear information and widespread passing of blame has led many students to make their own conjectures.
The UCI Bookstore is a frequent target, perhaps because it is the organization with which students have the most direct interaction.
‘The bookstore has high markups and low buy-back prices,’ said Luke McCollum, a fourth-year ICS major who spends an estimated $300 to $500 on books each quarter.
Hiromi Ueha, acting director of the UCI Bookstore, explained why the bookstore is not to blame for high prices.
‘The UCI bookstore is a nonprofit, self-supporting organization owned by UC Irvine [and] operating on behalf of the campus community,’ Ueha said. ‘Any surplus [above the operating costs of the store] is used for programs in Student Affairs.’
Some professors publish books that are mandatory reading for their students, which many students believe often amounts to unethical salary-padding.
‘Sometimes, if the book is good, it helps the class,’ McCollum said. ‘In general, though, it’s not so great. … Instead of using existing textbooks, [professors will] write a bastardized version so that they can make more money.’
Rowland Davis, a professor of molecular biology and biochemistry, defended the practice of writing a textbook for use in one’s own classroom.
‘[At the time when I wrote my textbook] most textbooks of any quality were very expensive and written for more comprehensive genetics courses at the junior-senior level,’ Davis said. ‘My intent was to make the major concepts accessible to first-quarter sophomores with no prior biological sciences background at a nominal cost.’
Another common accusation among students is that teachers update their textbooks more often than is necessary in order to force students to buy new copies. Davis said that he does not engage in this practice, though his book is in need of revision.
‘[My book] is getting out of date,’ Davis said. ‘It was published in 1994. A second edition should be published or the book should be abandoned in favor of Power Point or Web material that is easier to update year by year.’
Elliot Currie, a professor of criminology, law and society, does make frequent revisions of a book of readings on social problems in America that he compiled with a colleague, but he defended the practice of frequent revision as necessary.
‘We revise [the book] substantially about every three years, replacing, I’d say, about a fourth of the readings each time,’ Currie said. ‘We need to do that because the book is designed to be very topical and up to date.’
Currie said that his book ‘costs more than [he is] comfortable with’ and that he continually makes attempts to cut the cost of each edition.
‘From the point of view of the author, high prices are not really a good thing because they mean that you sell fewer books and thus reach fewer readers,’ Currie said. ‘And reaching readers with your ideas is presumably what you set out to do.’
One possible solution for tech-savvy students to purchase cheaper online editions of textbooks.
Rod Granger, communications writer for Pearson Education, said that his company, a major textbook publisher, has begun to offer textbooks over the Internet.
‘Introduced in 2004, SafariX WebBooks save students 50 percent off the suggested list price of the print equivalent edition,’ Granger said. ‘Over 500 Pearson titles are now available as WebBooks, with 800 to be available by the end of 2005.’
Erich van Rijn, text promotion manager for University of California Press, said that his group, a nonprofit division of the UC, has not taken any such measures, largely because they are not a publisher of textbooks in the traditional sense.
‘In general, we don’t publish alternate versions of our books that are intended specifically for students, nor do we package our books with workbooks, CDs or other ancillaries,’ van Rijn said. ‘Thus, our pricing reflects a somewhat different business model.’
Maybe a cure-all solution is on the horizon, but for now, students are devising their own ways of coping.
‘Sometimes I don’t buy required books because the price is so high,’ Zychowicz said. ‘Once, I used my friend’s copy. I photocopied the pages with the questions I needed. It was much cheaper that way.’