If you are a college student there is one thing you know and most likely don’t love; textbooks cost a lot of money! Students every semester at Yuba College have to purchase their textbooks for classes and often have to dish out hundreds of dollars to do so. To add insult to injury many classes require the latest edition which costs even more and cannot be acquired used or as a rental.
This leaves students no choice but to purchase the high priced books. They have to take their classes to graduate, and they need their books to pass their classes.
Is this it then? Are students at Yuba College and everywhere else merely helpless victims of an evil and greedy textbook business out to rob them of their money and their souls?
The answer to all of the above is Yes. Except for the part about the souls, textbook publishers and authors are out to extract as much money as they possibly can from their product sales. That said, they are not doing this from pure wanton greed and there is a method to their apparent madness.
John Thoo, a math professor at Yuba College noted that textbook prices were a “common complaint” amongst students when asked about the matter of whether the high prices necessarily meant that there was a rip off going on. Again the answer seems to be yes and no.
To further complicate matters there are actually two separate businesses that are responsible for selling textbooks to students and they both have competing agendas. The first has already been mentioned and that is the publishers and authors. The second is the bookstore company that buys from them and sells/rents to students.
The bookstore here at Yuba College is part of Follett, a bookstore business chain; and it has a separate mission from the publishers and authors. The bookstore wants to rent and sell as many used books as possible so students pay less. Mary Lou, the representative of Follett on campus said “we would love it if every book was rentable.” Why do bookstores want to do this?
There’s two reasons. Number one, it helps students, and many employees of these bookstore companies are genuinely concerned for students. Number two, it helps them make more money. Mary Lou said the freight of books is the primary cost of bookstores and renting books means no freight transportation.
In addition to this, once the bookstore has paid the publishers for their product, they don’t have to pay them again if they rent them. So that means they can keep making money on books they only have to pay for once. The same goes for used books.
Where does this leave publishers and authors? They worked on and produced the books which they have now sold and the bookstores to whom they sold them to have figured out a way (via renting and used copies) to not have to continue to buy them.
Publishers and authors have not made enough money in such a sale to pay for all their costs and provide their employees and themselves with enough money to live. Their solution?
Charge so much money that in a single sale sufficient profit can be made; and if that doesn’t work, come up with new editions as often as possible so the bookstores will have to buy new ones.
All this hurts the student raising the cost of books, but if the student and the bookstores had their way, the publishers (who do employ real people with families) would be screwed.
So what are the particulars that drive this mixed up system, and can it be fixed? The cost of production is one of the main problems. “Books are so specific,” said Mary Lou.
Textbooks often have color,graphs, and extensive research that go into making them and all of these cost more than the plain text you might find in a novel. So what you have at the start is a very “specific” product that a lot has gone into to serve a very definite purpose. Textbooks have a narrow purpose that is very limited and can serve no other purpose than to teach a specific class.
Essentially this makes each book a custom made product.
Okay, well that might be grounds for publishers to charge a good amount of money but do they have to charge as much as they do? Again that’s not a simple issue. On top of the high price publishers charge the bookstores, those stores (like our own Follett) have to charge even more to make a profit.
The markup can be anywhere from 15 to 30%. You want to make matters worse? Online sellers have begun to cut into official sales. Mary Lou said over the last four years online sellers have caused Follett sales to decline, and this most certainly holds true for other bookstores.
When most companies find less of their product is being sold they raise their prices. Well there must be rules right?
Mary Lou said publishers can raise their prices “whenever they want” and the bookstores in turn have to raise their prices. What about the poor students? Well they just have to pay since they don’t have another choice if they want their books.
So are there no solutions to this problem? Is there really a problem?
Students (myself included) complain about the prices of textbooks and have done so for awhile.
At the same time, students have also been complaining about math (myself included) for a LONG time, but this doesn’t mean math has a problem.The textbook system is a tricky one with publishers and authors trying to raise prices and issue new editions to survive while bookstores try to employ rented and used books to make more money and help students.
Yet this doesn’t mean that the system is corrupt or that students don’t have options.In a capitalist system there will always be some tension and students who find textbook prices unacceptable are free to not attend college. That is not, however, their only choice and if they do choose to attend college, online rentals and stores offer cheaper, though perhaps less secure alternatives for students to turn to. Furthermore, digital textbooks, such as those on “Cafe Scribe,” are on the horizon and may offer students new options in the future.
There is also one thing particularly active students who want to really make a difference can consider. The Higher Education Opportunity Act requires that publishers let professors know how much textbooks will cost. Professors are the ones who choose the books for courses and many of them do care about students. Students who really want to know what can be done might consider pressing this link by talking to teachers about the matter. For those students who are just mildly put off with the high prices this article should have helped at least explain the situation so it makes sense.