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New Report Shows College Textbooks are "Ripoff 101"

Publishers Increase Prices Through Gimmicks, Faculty Are Concerned
For Immediate Release

LOS ANGELES (January 29, 2004) - University professors and students from around the country came together today to release a new report which finds that textbook publishers engage in a number of market practices that drive up the price of textbooks for students.

The report, entitled, "Rip-off 101: How the Current Practices of the Publishing Industry Drive up the Cost of College Textbooks", surveyed the most widely-taught books at colleges and universities in California and Oregon and the faculty that teach those books. The report found that even though students already pay $900 year for textbooks, textbook publishers artificially inflate the price of textbooks by adding bells and whistles to the current texts, and forcing cheaper used books off the market by producing expensive new editions of textbooks that are barely different from the previous edition. The report also found that most of the faculty members surveyed in the report do not think many of these add-ons are useful and are supportive of efforts to streamline textbook costs and extend the shelf life of current textbook editions.

Among the report's findings:

Textbooks are Expensive and Getting Even More Expensive

  • Students will spend an average of $898 per year on textbooks in 2003-04, or almost 20 percent of the cost of in-state fees. In contrast, a 1997 UC survey found that students spent an average of $642 on textbooks in 1996-97.

Textbook Publishers Add Bells and Whistles that Inflate the Price of Textbooks; Most Faculty Do Not Use These Materials

  • Half of all textbooks now come 'bundled' -- or shrink-wrapped with additional instructional materials, such as CD-ROMs and workbooks.
  • Of all the books surveyed, there was only one instance in which students could buy a textbook 'a la carte' or without additional materials. In that example, the bundled version was $120, while the unbundled version was only $60. 
  • Over sixty-five percent of the faculty surveyed for the report say they 'rarely' or 'never' use the bundled materials in their courses. 

Textbook Publishers Put New Editions on the Market Frequently - Often With Very Few Content Changes - Making the Less Expensive, Used Textbooks Obsolete and Unavailable

  • Publishers keep textbook edition on the shelf for an average of only 3.5 years before updating them.
  • Meanwhile, seventy-six percent of faculty surveyed said that the new editions they use are justified half the time or less; over half of those faculty said that the new editions they use are 'rarely to never' justified.
  • Once a new textbook edition is produced, the used copy is quickly made obsolete, forcing students to purchase the more expensive new editions. Over fifty-nine percent of students who searched for a used book for the fall 2003 quarter/semester were unable to find even one used book for their classes, and were forced to pay an average of $102.44 for a new book, verses an average of $64.80 for a used book.
  • Faculty are often inconvenienced by this practice because new textbook editions require many professors to revise course syllabi to reflect changes in chapters and page numbers.

Faculty Support Alternatives That Lower Student's Costs, Maintain Quality

  • Eighty-seven percent of faculty surveyed support including new information in a supplement instead of producing a new textbook edition. 

Online Textbooks Hold Promise for Lowering the Cost of Textbooks

  • According to Association of American Publishers and the National Association of College Stores, paper, printing and editorial costs account for an average of 32.3 cents of every dollar a textbook costs - the largest share of the textbook costs. Online textbooks could eliminate this cost and significantly lower the retail cost of textbooks.
  • New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, who is also an economics professor at Princeton University, has teamed up with fellow Princeton economist Robin Wells and Paul Romer, an economics professor at Stanford University and owner of Aplia Inc., a three-year-old company that develops educational software and materials. Together these three academics are developing online versions of their upcoming economics textbooks at half the price of the paper version.

An example of how publishers artificially drive up textbook prices is prominent publisher Thomson Learning, who produces a widely-taught series of introductory calculus textbooks. An inspection of one of its most popular books, Calculus: Early Transcendentals, revealed only cosmetic changes between the current edition, produced in 2003, and the previous edition, produced in 1999. However, the price difference was significant - a new copy of the book sells for about $130, while a used copy of the previous edition sells for between $20 and $90, depending on where one looks.

Thomson Learning also charges American students significantly more than their British and Canadian counterparts. According to the publisher's website, Calculus: Early Transcendentals sells for $125 to American students, but only $97 ($125 C) to Canadian students and only $65 (35 pounds) to British students. This practice is widespread in the industry, and has come under a great deal of recent scrutiny.

In the survey, mathematics faculty members questioned the need to update the book so frequently. One UCLA math professor wrote, "The subject of calculus [has] not changed much in the last 100 years. [There] are no reasons why the textbooks have to be updated every five years or even more frequently. New illustrations are sometimes added, exercises are shuffled and so on, but these do not substantially affect teaching/learning." 

To lower the price of textbooks, textbooks need to be priced and sold at a more reasonable cost, and steps should be taken to ensure a more vibrant used book market. The following is a set of policy recommendations to accomplish these ends, including:

  • Publishers should work to keep the cost of producing their books as low as possible without sacrificing educational content.
  • When publishers sell their textbooks bundled with other items, they should also sell the same textbook separately. 
  • Each textbook edition should be kept on the market as long as possible without sacrificing the educational content. Publishers should give preference to paper or on-line supplements to current editions over producing entirely new editions. 
  • Publishers should pass on cost-savings from online textbooks to students. 
  • Faculty should have the right to know how their textbook choices will financially impact students. Publishers should disclose all of the different products they sell - including both bundled and unbundled options, list how much each of those products cost, the length of time they intend to produce the current edition, and how the newest edition is different from the previous edition. 
  • Faculty should give preference to the least cost textbook option when the educational content is equal.
  • There should be as many forums for students to purchase many used books as possible. Colleges and Universities should consider implementing rental programs similar to those at several universities in Wisconsin and Illinois and encourage students to consider using on-line bookswaps so that students can buy and sell used books and set their own prices. 

The recommendations have been reviewed and endorsed by faculty members and even a former textbook industry executive. "This report is an impressively researched piece of work and gives a fine perspective on the problem of high textbook prices along with some possible solutions. It should be carefully reviewed by everyone who has buying authority for college textbooks," said Erwin Cohen, a retired Academic Press executive.

In Washington DC, Congressman David Wu and Senator Charles Schumer have each introduced legislation to address these issues, while the Chair of the California Assembly Higher Education Subcommittee, Carole Liu plans to introduce legislation of her own.

Meanwhile, on campuses, mathematics professors are teaming up with students to take action, calling on mathematics faculty members from around the country to sign a letter to Thomson Learning's CEO, Ronald H. Schlosser, asking him to amend his company's publishing and pricing practices. PIRG has also set up www.campusbookswap.com, a non-profit, student-run, online bookswap.

About the Student PIRGs

The Student Public Interest Research Groups (Student PIRGs) is a national network of non-profit, non-partisan student advocacy groups that work on public interest issues pertaining to the environment, consumer protection and government reform.

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