Don’t judge book without cover

Who has 21 million customers in 130 countries, 43,000 employees, reported revenues of $7.5 billion in 2002 and has produced the hardest, heaviest thing in your backpack? Chances are, it’s the Thomson Corporation, who publish textbooks and reference materials under the names Wadsworth, South-Western, Heinle, Schirmer and Brooks/Cole.

The Oregon Student Public Interest Research Group (OSPIRG) targeted Thomson and other leading textbook publishers regarding their high prices, then was elated to announce a victory: lower-priced textbooks. But the student advocates and the media giant have conflicting takes on the change.

Thomson’s Advantage Series boasts a selection of a mere 25 titles, most of which are loose-leaf unbound texts or compact editions with fewer photographs and illustrations or online interactive components to offset their missing media.

“Of the 25, there are few that we use on this campus,” said Kenneth Brown, purchasing director for the Portland State University Bookstore. “There were 2,984 course requests this winter term.”

“It’s one of those ‘be careful what you ask for’ scenarios,” Brown said. “We can’t buy back the loose-leaf, hole-punched texts because we can’t tell if all of the pages are there.”

“The net impact on students is not favorable,” Brown said of the new discount editions. “For example, Wiley’s ‘Psychology and the Challenges of Life’ hardbound is sold for $100 new, or $75 used. We buy it back for $50, so the difference is only $25 to the student’s pocketbook. The unbound version is sold new for $79.90, can’t be bought back, and sets a student back the whole $79.90.”

“On the surface, what publishers have done to ‘streamline’ lower-priced texts isn’t a bad thing,” Brown said. “My main issue is the differential pricing, particularly to Amazon UK. [The] publisher’s motivation is to drive out the used textbook market.”

“Rather than using a ‘one price fits all’ policy, all publishers set prices in the context of different local consumers’ purchasing power,” Adam Gaber, public relations spokesman for Thomson, said. This ensures worldwide access to quality educational materials.”

Gaber defended Thomson’s pricing strategies as egalitarian policies. “Upon establishing a price for the U.S. domestic market, we then carefully examine the social, political, and economic realities of foreign markets (e.g., average per capita income, standard of living variances, comparative costs of other goods and services, tuition rates, government education policies, financial resources available to students, etc.) to establish fair prices for textbooks in foreign countries.”

Brown disagreed. “I’d buy that if it were Nigeria. I’m talking about an identical book with the same ISBN number coming right back into the U.S. through England. That can’t be explained as a third-world country.”

One thing remains clear n this two-sided battle over textbooks:. “Making decisions is required,” Brown said. “And when price is an issue and someone says, ‘I’m having second thoughts about the expensive one,’ that’s the kind of thing you want to hear.”