Monday, February 19, 2007

Textbook Pricing: Extortion of Students by Publishers and Faculty?

(cross-prosted at BlogHer)

Imagine you paid more than $75 for a textbook, and then your professor made you tear out and turn in particular pages from the book--meaning you couldn't sell it back to the bookstore at the end of the term.

Oh, and did I mention the textbook is written by the professor?

This very scenario is being played out in Liz Applegate's Nutrition 10 course at the University of California, Davis. A discussion of Applegate's practice--and what students see as a poor rationale for tearing out the pages--took place on the Davis Wiki and then made its way into the California Aggie, the UC Davis student newspaper. Applegate, who was awarded an "Excellence in Education" award from UC Davis students in 2004, claims requiring students to turn in the pages discourages cheating.

Blogger Margaret Soltan of University Diaries picked up the story. Check out the comments of her post for more discussion of Applegate's practice.

There's more good discussion about textbook pricing in the comments on this post at Marginal Revolution.

Faculty may not be the only ones to blame for the huge dent textbooks make in college students' budgets. In early 2004, CalPIRG published the report "Rip-Off 101: How The Current Practices Of The Textbook Industry Drive Up The Cost Of College Textbooks." I read this report when it came out and found some big holes in its reasoning, but as a recent graduate and as an instructor I certainly understand the pain textbook pricing causes students.

The crux of the problem, CalPIRG's report asserts (correctly, I think) is that publishers encourage faculty to order "bundled" resources--textbooks that come shrink-wrapped with workbooks or CDs, for example. And certainly publishers are a bit slimy strategic about this practice. For example, a colleague of mine said he wanted to use a particular anthology of American literature, but the textbook didn't include poems by Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson. (WTF?! What American lit text skips those two authors? Clearly this is a tactic by the publisher to get faculty to order something extra.) The publisher's ad rep encouraged him to order pamphlets of Whitman's and Dickinson's poems for a mere $1 each. Of course, the publisher would shrink-wrap these texts to the anthology, which means students who wanted these texts would have to buy a new, full-priced book. My colleague caught on and decided instead to have the bookstore order used copies of the anthology as well as inexpensive Dover editions of Dickinson and Whitman.

Publishers claim--also correctly--that textbooks are expensive to produce. Paper costs rise. Color printing isn't cheap, even if done overseas. Neither are reproduction rights for images and texts. Add in the salaries of writers, editors, designers, sales reps, and the countless other people involved in textbook research, writing, production, shipping, and retail, and you have a hefty price.

What can be done about this widespread problem? Susan Smith Nash of Xplanazine offers one fairly radical solution. Lawmakers are also getting in on the deal: a Connecticut law is trying to lower textbook prices. More student Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs) are adding their voices to the chorus; MASSPIRG's report was released this month. And if you live near Santa Clarita, California, the government is holding a hearing on textbook affordability.

What ideas do you have to solve this problem? How can students, faculty authors, and publishers benefit?


The History Enthusiast said...

In my department professors are pretty good about trying to keep textbook costs low...especially since I am at a large state school where a lot of students are on scholarship. In my (limited) experience, professors and textbook publishers aren't always the main problem--our campus bookstores mark up the price 33%. The concise textbook I assign is labeled as being $32, but new copies at the bookstore cost about $45 with tax. That's why instead of assigning a companion book with primary sources, I've started only assigning sources available on the internet (in addition to that $45 text). The down side is that the students frequently forget to print out the readings, which makes a companion reader more appealing in many ways. But, for a 100-level class that fulfills a requirement, it seems unfair to make the students pay out the wazoo for books that they probably won't use again.

Rebecca Clayton said...

My recent experiences echo Kristen's--the campus bookstore is a major profit center, and takes a hefty mark-up.

I returned to teaching college level courses after a 20-year hiatus, and I have been shocked (shocked!) by book prices. My students are nurses in an LPN to RN/BS program, set up as a distance-learning/satellite classroom, and the students are effectively forced to order all their books. supplies and computer software from the main campus bookstore. The school keeps the ISBN numbers secret so no one can shop anywhere else.

Concerned that I was taking part in a scam, I checked around on the Internet, and found this is Standard Operating Procedure for distance-learning programs.

My students' texts are relatively reasonably priced, and I encourage them to use Open Office, rather than buying Microsoft Office, so they can save a little there, but being off-campus, they don't have access to upperclassmen's advice, loaners, and comparative shopping tips.

Queen of West Procrastination said...

I'm with kristen and rebecca here. I moved from a campus where they try to get as much money out of you to one whose campus bookstore is non-profit. I can't believe the difference. As well, the Student Union bookstore sells on ABE Books (as well as in-store), making it way easier to sell off your old texts.

The determination to make textbooks affordable for students is a huge cultural thing on our campus. The university has long-held practises of having reading rooms for each department, in which each prof puts several copies of each course's textbooks, plus at least one on reserve in the library. As a result, I know several students who manage not to buy any textbooks at all. It's pretty odd when you're coming from another university.