Who’s to Blame? The Odd Market of Textbooks

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It is always someone else’s fault.

Students blame the bookstore. The bookstore blames the publishing companies. The publishing companies blame the faculty and the students. The cycle is vicious. And that cycle is repeating itself as it does every semester when students fork over a wad of cash in exchange for either new or used textbooks.

The scary part of the textbook market is that no one entity shoulders all of the blame for high-priced books, and most of the finger-pointing is backed by fact and logic. That doesn’t make students feel better as they shell out $350 for a semester’s worth of books. It also doesn’t please publishing companies as their profit margins continue to slip.

Students have long since complained about the high price of books and the frequency of new editions. The average textbook at University Bookstore costs $70, which causes many to direct their complaints at the bookstore. However, while the bookstore makes for an easy target, those who aim all of their frustration there miss the mark.

The bookstore is an auxiliary of the U, and as such, its goal is to break even each year, not to generate a profit. The bookstore has started to raise the number of used books on its shelf and in the past year has increased used-book sales by 205 percent, saving students more than $1 million, according to Textbook Manager Shane Girton.

Even with the increase in used books, Girton said he regularly gets confronted by disgruntled students looking for someone to complain to.

“Basically, we try to educate the students that the professor selects the books,” he said.

When the publishing companies hear complaints, they also point to professors.

“Their decisions can affect your pocketbook by $15, $20. The professor is in control,” said Bob O’Brien of McGraw Hill.

The bookstore fields requests from professors who are responsible for selecting the texts for their classes. This is a responsibility Music Professor April Greenan doesn’t take lightly.

“I openly say to my students that textbooks are grossly overpriced. We all know that,” she said. “I just think it is unreasonable to ask students to spend $100 a book, particularly when it will only be used in one semester.”

Greenan said many times her lectures provide most of the information her students need, which allows her to select a pared-down textbook, instead of a more elaborate and expensive version.

While she is money-conscious for her students, Greenan is a book junky herself. When she’s not teaching classes, Greenan directs the music library in Gardner Hall.

She used to love buying the books as an undergrad at the U.

“I always enjoyed the excuse of buying them,” she said.

But Greenan remembers sometimes she “bought the book and it wasn’t even mentioned. I promise when I make my students buy a textbook, they will use it a lot.”

April Borg, a senior studying information systems, spent $243 on her four books this semester.

“You don’t even hardly open them. You just buy them so they can sit there and then sell them back for five bucks,” she said.

These complaints resonate with Chemistry Professor Thomas Richmond.

“You can almost spend more on textbooks than you do on tuition, and that is a serious concern,” he said.

In an attempt to keep costs down, Richmond said the chemistry department will select one book for all of its general chemistry courses.

“We don’t do a revolving door with books. When we have multiple sections, multiple instructors, we will use the same book for at least an academic year,” he said.

But Richmond may have fallen into a publishing company ploy this semester.

Richmond is now using the “Introduction to General, Organic and Biochemistry,” published by Harcourt, which costs students $107 and comes shrink wrapped with a CD-ROM.

According to Girton, that add-on means the bookstore can’t buy the book back from students at the end of the semester.

“I didn’t realize they can’t sell the book back,” Richmond said. “Most faculty don’t pay any attention to the CD-ROM that comes with the book. We want students to have the text, most of the other things are optional.”

Shaun Paddock, a textbook representative from Prentice Hall, said the add-ons are just one way publishing companies try to stay in control of the market.

“We try to do value packs?add an Internet guide or a CD-ROM so we can get new business each semester,” she said.

Paddock says publishing companies also reissue most books every three to four years for the same reason.

“Take Intro to Lit for example. Nothing changes in Intro to Lit, they are all dead, but we have to bring those books out every three years to make money,” she said.

Not all of the new editions are released to make money. Many times, new research or current events change a field to the point that a new edition is necessary. After every election, publishing companies come out with new political science books.

But some fields, such as literature, don’t change too much and publishing companies create new covers, high-tech graphics or other features to put out new copies and rake in more cash.

Borg blames the publishing companies for the high prices of books.

“One teacher admitted to me that they mark up prices just to make a profit,” she said.

However, Paddock said the publishing companies don’t act out of greed, instead they try to protect a bottom line that professors, students and used bookstores constantly erode.

Paddock sells humanities, social science and education books at the U, Utah State University, Weber State University, Idaho State University and Brigham Young University-Idaho.

She said depending on the discipline, professors may review anywhere between five and 20 books as they search for the one they will use.

“But professors can’t adopt a book if they don’t see it,” she said.

Paddock personally gives away 8,000 textbooks to professors each year. These review copies can undermine the publishing company when used-book companies purchase them from professors.

“Some professors don’t have the ethics or the morality to call me and say they don’t want it. If they sell it to a used-book buyer, they take that money out of students’ hands,” she said.

These used-book buyers then sell the promotional copies to university bookstores, cutting out the publishing companies. Paddock said the publishing companies are then forced to raise the price of books to make up for the loss.

Paddock is no fan of the used- book market, and the used-book movement that has swept all across higher education.

“If there were no used books at all, brand new textbooks would cost $10 to $20 less than used books cost now. But to make money, we have to charge as much as we do, because we only make money on the book one time,” she said.

Whether for better or worse, students will continue to have the option of buying used books.

“It is pretty irrational to think that used books will disappear so publishers can sell books cheaper,” Girton said.

But used-book dealers are not the only people who frustrate Paddock and the publishing companies. She hates to walk into libraries and see two students looking at the same book.

“Students are starting to share books, which is hurting their friends because we will have to raise prices again,” she said.

But when it comes down to it, each of the different interest groups?students, faculty, bookstores and publishing companies will continue to look out for their own interests.

“If you as a student could figure out a way to take the course without buying the book, you would do it,” said textbook rep Bob O’Brien.

And the cycle continues.

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