Study: Publishers drive up text costs

By Jill Campbell

Correction: Due to a reporting error, this story incorrectly reports that Jennifer Libertowski said textbook companies are to blame for high textbook prices. She did not say that.

For sophomore Kara Pavone, the cost of textbooks was a hefty part of her educational investment.

“I spent $600 on books my first semester as a freshman,” said Pavone, a biochemistry major. “I’ve probably spent about $1,500 so far.”

With prices so high, students are quick to blame their college bookstores, Jennifer Libertowski of the National Association of College Stores told the Washington Post last January. However, Libertowski said that the publishers of the textbooks make a much bigger profit from textbook sales than college bookstores do. The publishing companies, not the bookstores, are to blame for the high prices, she said.

In January 2004, the California Public Interest Research Group, (CALPIRG) issued an extensive report entitled “Ripoff 101: How the Current Practices of the Publishing Industry Drive Up the Costs of College Textbooks.”

Student public interest research groups (PIRG) from 13 states, including Massachusetts, started the Make Textbooks Affordable campaign, as a way of publicizing the findings.

“One of our big priorities is to reveal the tactics that publishers are using to artificially inflate prices,” said Sabrina Case, campaign coordinator of Make Textbooks Affordable.

One such tactic is “bundling,” the packaging of textbooks with extras such as workbooks, study guides, or CDs. Packages are shrink-wrapped so students are forced to buy all of the materials.

“The chemistry department just likes draining us of every dime we have,” said sophomore physics major Ben Hutt, who paid more than $200 for a brand new bundle of chemistry materials. “And they actually had a speaker from the publisher come in and basically tell us that our book is awesome and is worth the money.”

“Ripoff 101” findings state that “bundles” cost nearly twice as much as a textbook would cost if sold individually, and 65 percent of teachers surveyed by the interest groups said they rarely or never use the extra materials.

Case said publishers are also to blame for the poor results students encounter when bringing in their old textbooks for buyback. On average, he said, a new edition of a textbook is printed every three to three and a half years, but some are updated as frequently as every year and a half.

Digital textbooks are becoming a promising, cost-efficient alternative to printed books, according to the “Ripoff 101” report. But Case warns against the downloadable “e-books” offered by some publishers.

“The downloadable versions usually cost less than the print versions, but some of them have severe restrictions on how they can be used,” Case said. “Some come as subscriptions, so that after about 100 days the student can’t access them anymore. Some only allow you to print out a few pages at a time, or they can’t be printed at all. And at the end of the semester, the student can’t sell them back, so they end up spending more on the whole.”

Recent legislation in Connecticut placed textbook decisions more in the hands of professors. Last spring, the state passed the first bill in the nation that requires all publishers to release the prices of their textbooks to college faculty members.

Faculty members are able to choose which textbooks they would like to use. For some, cost is a factor in the decision. Psychology professor Richard Gramzow researches the costs of potential textbooks, he said.

“Part of the reason I use this book is because it’s one of the cheaper ones I could find that’s still a good reference for the course,” Gramzow said. “And just because I chose it doesn’t mean I’m satisfied with the cost.” He said the cheaper book still costs $100 when purchased new.

Senior environmental geology major Jason Turgeon investigated the world of digital textbooks a few years ago when the price of his physics book was too high for him to justify. He considered buying his books online for lower prices but soon found an even more cost-effective option: Online books he did not have to pay for at all.

“I found two basically top-quality physics books online for free, and even though it wasn’t exactly the book I’d been told to buy, I thought, ‘Why can’t I just use this one?'” Turgeon said. “I started trying to make it easier for people to save money on books, and it turned into this huge thing.”

Turgeon’s “huge thing” is Textbook Revolution, a website he started to offer fellow students free access to textbooks. He corresponds with textbook authors who are willing – and often eager – to make their books available for free. On textbookrevolution.com, links to the digital texts are divided up by subject. Some are available for online purchase, but all can be accessed for reading free of charge, and Turgeon attests it is completely legal.

“Everything on the site is something that the copyright owners have said they wanted to be free,” he said. “It’s not stealing; it’s not pirated stuff. Some people don’t care about making money, they just want their books to be out there.”

Textbook Revolution currently lists close to 300 books and links, but Turgeon is optimistic that the collection will expand quickly. He recently sold Textbook Revolution to Freeload Press, an e-textbook publishing company that provides free downloads of its collection for students.

“Hopefully by the end of next year, we’ll have close to 1,000 books,” Turgeon said. “They rip us off for everything in college. I can’t control my tuition, but at least I can try to control my textbook costs.”

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