Textbook prices on the rise

As PSU students prepare for winter term, they once again battle the increasingly high price of textbooks.

Between 1999 and 2004, the total cost of attending PSU increased 7.8 percent. But according to the National Association of College Stores (NACS), wholesale prices of college textbooks have risen nearly 40 percent in the same time.

Why the discrepancy?

The publishing industry is often accused of forcing up prices by publishing unnecessary editions of textbooks. Despite reorganization, repagination or different covers, many "new" texts don’t include new information.

Publishers claim that the revisions are needed to maintain current material. New editions, which used to appear every five years, are now appearing every two or three.

The California Student Public Interest Research Group found that new editions cost 58 percent more than previous versions. The rapid turnover puts older editions out of date, leaving students unable to buy used versions.

Another expense point is the practice of "bundling," i.e., packaging textbooks with CDs, study guides or other extras. Often, neither students nor professors want the bundled items.

If no one wants the bundles, why are they ordered by the bookstore? Much of the time, they’re not.

Publishers often substitute bundled packages. According to PSU bookstore manager Ken Brown, an order may be placed by a bookstore, only to have a different package arrive from the publisher, invariably at a higher price.

College bookstores are usually forced to accept the bundles – even if they were not ordered – in order to meet course schedules.

One response to the high price of new or bundled texts is to seek out used versions.

"At the PSU bookstore, the first thing we do is look for used books, because we’re a student co-op and it’s our mission to keep costs reasonable," Brown said.

Publishers, who only make money on new books, claim that used editions create a huge dent in their profits. In order to cover costs, they say they must raise prices.

Yet NACS data for the last 15-20 years shows no change in the percentage of used books as a subset of total textbook sales nationwide, where used books regularly account for 5 percent of all sales.

"The volume of used textbooks hasn’t changed in 20 years, so buying this argument from publishers is a little disingenuous," Brown said.

The cornerstone of the used book system is the buy-back, the practice by which students sell used textbooks back to the bookstore.

At PSU, virtually any used textbook has the potential to be sold at buy-back time. However, books are usually only bought back if the bookstore has a course request on file for that book for the upcoming term.

"Every year there’s $100,000-200,000 that students could get but don’t, because we haven’t gotten course requests in before buy-back," Brown said.

If an instructor has submitted a course request for a textbook for the upcoming term, a specific number of those used textbooks can be bought back. Buy-backs for course-requested texts are at 50 percent of the book’s original wholesale price.

Without a course request, the buy-back price drops to 0-30 percent.

Consumers often assume that college bookstores make money by pushing up the cost and editions of a textbook.

Brown asserts that this is untrue, saying that college bookstores work as distribution panels for publishers, and that when the publishing process escalates, the cost to the bookstore rises.

The pricing system for college texts is standard across the industry. Like some 70 percent of college bookstores, PSU’s operates under a 25 percent gross margin.

The process of ordering a textbook begins with a faculty course request that specifies title, author, edition and ISBN.

The bookstore agrees to procure the book, trying first to find used versions. If those are unavailable, new books are ordered.

Price is set by dividing a book’s wholesale cost by 0.75 to arrive at a selling price. For example, a book that costs the bookstore $100 will be sold for $133.

"We have to cover expenses because we’re a self-operating business, with no support from PSU," Brown said. The bookstore absorbs freight and other charges without passing them on to customers. "These expenses chip away at our gross margin," he said.

Despite its independent status, the PSU bookstore funnels money back to PSU in indirect ways, such as offering departmental discounts. No faculty member benefits directly from the exchanges, nor do faculty receive commissions or "kick backs."

Yet, high textbook prices may be linked to faculty in other ways.

Publishers send marketing representatives to meet with faculty, showing them different texts and telling them what the titles will cost.

Unfortunately, many instructors fail to realize that what the rep is giving them is the wholesale price rather than what students will pay. Sales reps, after all, are interested in selling books, not in lowering the cost for students.

Professors may be unaware of options beyond what they are shown, and may not realize the high cost of heavily-promoted bundled textbooks.

The debate has reached Congress. In November 2003, Oregon Rep. David Wu introduced a bill asking the General Accounting Office to investigate the high price of college textbooks and to determine whether publishers are marketing the same books at lower prices overseas. The results aren’t expected for at least another year.

Today’s typical full-time PSU student spends about $500 each year on textbooks.

With costs rising, many students obtain texts through used bookstores, campus exchanges or the internet.

Internet savings can be tremendous (see sidebar). However, it can be tricky to get the correct edition. Shipping costs add to the price, shipping times may extend to weeks and books cannot be resold to the campus bookstore.

The University of Wisconsin – River Falls offers students a unique alternative. Instead of being required to purchase new textbooks each semester, students rent their books for a flat fee and then return them at the semester’s end.

In New York, a House proposal asks that college students and their parents be allowed to deduct up to $1000 from their annual taxable income to cover college textbook costs.

Despite such creative solutions, many students are overwhelmed by financial burdens and simply don’t buy textbooks. They may share texts with friends, photocopy sections of books or rely on library reserve copies.

Are text prices going to come down any time soon? "No," Brown said. "The economics simply aren’t there."

When asked what PSU students could do to offset high prices, Brown said, "I’ve been working with the ASPSU on a resolution to increase the number of faculty course requests prior to buy-back. Buy-back is really critical." Brown also suggested that students purchase textbooks as early as possible, when used versions are most likely to be available.

The PSU bookstore holds buy-back during finals week and the first three days of each term. Dates and times are available on the bookstore’s web site at http://www.psubookstore.com/Store/BookBuyback.html.