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Student Life

Students may carry blame for high textbook prices

Scotch-taped to the wooden door of room number 3046, on the third floor of the University of South Florida’s Mass Communications building, was a typed-out flier optimistically asking for the safe return of a missing iPod. Underneath the iPod-seekers info, in the remaining white space, someone else had hand-scrawled a much less hopeful plea.

It read: “Left a public speaking book in here on Monday. It’d be cool if someone could return it.”

As of the following Wednesday, nobody had been very cool to Nick Cicone. After answering the phone number attached to his note, he sounded pretty much defeated.

“There’s no way I can afford to buy another one,” the political science freshman said. “I’m just gonna have to wing it and hope I can make it through the class without having it. The prices for books are kind of ridiculous.”

Cicone said he paid about $80 for the missing book at the campus bookstore, adding that it was one of his cheapest this term. He made sure to buy a used copy so he could save about $30. He tries to buy all his books used if he can.

He’s far from the only one. Campus bookstore manager Nick Fagnoni said that most students would opt for used when they can. He also said that thousands of people have taken advantage of used book rentals since the store began offering them last year, saving even more than on regular used books. And in August, USF students Toby Thomson and Kenneth Costa launched, a site aimed at “cutting out the middle man” to help the campus population save even more by buying and selling used books to each other without the bookstore taking a cut.

With the average student racking up about $24,000 in loan debt before graduation, it makes sense that they try to scrape every penny. By seeking out deals on used textbooks, students like Cicone can save hundreds of dollars in a semester. But there is a bit of a catch. According to those who know the textbook industry, it’s those thrifty student buying habits—the repeated pattern of buying used books then selling them back to be bought again—that are making them so expensive in the first place.

Richard Hull, the executive director for the Text and Academic Authors Association, said the used book industry is the biggest factor pushing textbook publishers to sell to bookstores at a higher price. Keep in mind that it’s those publishers who put up all the money to produce a textbook, but it’s only sales of new copies that bring them any return. When a student buys used, the publisher and author don’t make any money; those profits go completely to the bookstore.

But most students will buy used, and because of that, the money a publisher makes on a textbook drops off very quickly. Publishers expect at least 60 percent of all the new copies of a textbook that will ever be sold, will be sold in the first year that book is released, before used books become an option. As used books enter the market in the second year, that number drops to 30 percent. In the third year, it’s only 10 percent.

“After year three, basically there is zero market for that textbook,” Hull said. “The market is too saturated with used copies that students buy and resell. So you can see how that will force the publisher to publish at a higher initial cost. They’re under pressure to recover their investment.”

That investment, it turns out, is a big one. A textbook author will often spend several years writing and compiling text for a first edition. And unlike trade books (novels, cookbooks and anything else made for a general audience), every sentence of a textbook has to be checked against sources to be sure it hasn’t been distorted or misunderstood in some way. For instance, the Association of American Publishers reported that the seventh edition of the intro level biology textbook, “Biology” by Neil Campbell and Jane Reece, took a team of 245 biologists to review.

Then there’s artwork. Every diagram and figure has to be planned and drawn specifically for that book, then closely checked by experts to make sure they represent the most current knowledge.

Next comes the process of producing the physical book. After typesetting and layout comes another round of proof reading to check for typos.  The book is printed and the pages are bound with a cover. For “Biology,” the first printing was 75,000 copies, requiring an estimated 675,000 pounds of paper and more than 6,000 pounds of ink. Those copies then have to be warehoused, while a team of field reps flies around the country trying to convince professors to use the book in their classes. If they’re successful, the publisher ships the book out to bookstores. If fewer students sign up for a class than expected, the publisher pays to have the extra copies shipped back from the bookstore.

By the time this is all done, years have passed, tens of thousands of hours have been billed, and the cost will often have exceeded $1 million. USF mass communications professor Edward Friedlander puts the cover prices into perspective.

“Imagine if Apple had to spend all this money to research and develop the iPhone, but could only expect to sell a thousand of them,” said Friedlander, whose textbook “Feature Writing: The Pursuit of Excellence” is in its seventh edition. “That iPhone would probably cost significantly more.”

Today’s students, of course, aren’t likely to start buying all their textbooks new in the hopes of dropping prices for future students. They’re understandably more concerned about saving money today. This would seem to set up a continuous feedback loop—one that always ends with four years’ worth of textbooks costing more than a used Hyundai. But USF professor Rick Wilber said he sees a new hope on the horizon: electronic books.

While the same amount of effort goes into the content of an e-book, the publisher no longer has to pay for storing or shipping thousands of heavy books. E-books also eliminate the used book market because they can’t be resold. A single license for an e-book that Barnes & Noble sells will only allow that book to ever be viewed on two devices. In some cases, the license for an e-book will expire at the end of a semester.

“Publishers are jumping up and down to embrace e-books,” said Wilber, who’s authored textbooks, as well as novels and non-fiction trade books. “In theory, they’ll be able to charge a lot less for an e-book textbook. And in theory, everyone should be happier. The publisher still makes money, the authors make money and the bookstore still makes its percentage. But instead of charging $100 for a book, they might be able to charge only $40.”

“The only question is, are e-books good for students? Do they still get as much knowledge? Maybe it’s a trade-off, in that e-books aren’t as easy to read, but they cost half as much. Right now, publishers are jumping on it, and we’re all just waiting to see how it all works out.”

But for Cicone, the student with the missing public speaking book, the relief won’t be coming soon enough. A week after putting up his note, he still hadn’t gotten a call about it.

“I didn’t really expect to get it back,” Cicone said. “I mean, I get it, I’m not even mad. We’re college students. For some broke kid it’s probably just too tempting to sell it and get the money.”


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