Textbooks don’t grow on trees

Why do textbooks cost so much? The answer is complicated and controversial.

Small markets are one explanation. Course textbooks cost more than the latest Harry Potter novel partially because of overhead costs associated with publishing any book. Expenses include copy-editing, layout and copyright clearance for pictures and diagrams in the book.

The actual printing incurs additional costs. In general, mass produced books may be cheaper per copy than similarly sized low-volume books, even as royalties to authors remain constant.

For this reason, advanced and specialized engineering textbooks are among the most expensive. Such texts have small markets consisting almost exclusively of upper-division students. For example, Spectrometric

Identification of Organic Compounds for CHEM 5710 ($111 new, but less than 500 pages) is hardly recreational reading.

Popular demand explains why non-textbooks often used in the humanities rank among the cheapest required books. Books like Mormon Polygamy ($12) used in History of Utah HIST 4660 have appeal beyond college campuses. As difficult as it may be to believe, some folks enjoy reading humanities even when not forced to do so.

The bad news for humanities students is that professors will typically require more than one book because monographs are not comprehensive reviews. The History of Utah, for example, requires three books totaling more than $70 new.

However, low demand alone does not explain absurd prices. Organic

Chemistry, for example, is used in dreaded OChem classes (CHEM 2300 and 2320 here at the U), which are required by several departments. So why does this text cost $139?

Publishers, bookstores and students blame each other.

Publishers defend their prices by citing expenses that aren’t obvious to students. For example, royalties constitute 11.4 percent of publications costs, according to statistics cited by the U Bookstore. However, professors who write textbooks (including several on this campus) hardly become wealthy from book sales. Indeed, most professors avoid textbooks because they offer minimal financial rewards. Publishers also fault professors who don’t return evaluation copies that are sent out by the hundreds. This argument is a bit disingenuous, though, because evaluation copies are really commercial promotion. Publishers send textbooks out hoping instructors select them, boosting sales.

More controversially, publishers claim the used book market forces them to charge inflated prices for new books. Because texts can be resold repeatedly and only the original purchase goes to publishers, they reason books must be sold at a premium to pay for all copies they would have sold to individual students in the book’s lifetime.

If this sounds like music industry claims about piracy, it should: Both issues involve copyright law. Due to the legal doctrine of first sale, publishers lose control of books after they’re published. Understandably, they would much prefer if everyone bought their own copies, but their inability to control books has pushed them to explore digital textbooks that will essentially be rented for a term. In spite of the rapidly rising cost of textbooks, digital book trials have shown students prefer paper. Publishers insist, though, that students and used book dealers are to blame for the high prices. The industry claims that new books would be cheaper than used were it not for rampant reselling.

Bookstores and students dispute this argument. Claiming that more books would be kept if they were more valuable references and didn’t cost so much, they say publishers actually fuel the used book trade with their exorbitant prices. A book one might consider owning at $30 seems extravagantly expensive at $100.

Students furthermore claim that publisher efforts to curb used book sales are nothing more than short-sighted profiteering.

For example, little is gained from incrementally different new editions that some publishers issue almost every two years.

Furthermore, supplements like CDs and maps are now included in books not because they particularly complement the text, but because bookstores often won’t buy these things back.

Students blame both publishers for charging so much and bookstores for profiting from the used book trade. In particular, students at the U chastise the U bookstore for stocking insufficient copies of used books and for paying so little during textbook buyback. Bookstore management insists that they go to great lengths to find used books from wholesalers, and that the prices paid for used books are competitive and contingent on factors out of their control. The bookstore furthermore claims to be nonprofit in the sense that any revenue over expenses goes back into the U. Nonetheless, bookstore policies are often debated, especially in student government. For example, the failed RE: Party from last year’s student government elections had a platform advocating the creation of a free book exchange. Like a physical version of BookXchange, students would set their own price, shelve the book and collect their money after another student buys the book. A similar proposal was outlined by a Chronicle editorial on Jan. 13, 2004.

Bookstore representatives claimed that if many students used other methods to buy books, it would make the U’s bookstore difficult to sustain. This in turn might rob the campus of the advantages of having a reliable bookstore to stock required books. A money-losing bookstore could even sap money from the general funds of the U. In March, I asked RE: Party presidential candidate Chris Carlston to explain how this would be avoided. “The bookstore is like a gas station,” he explained.

Like a gas station, the bookstore supposedly doesn’t make money on gas (textbooks), but on the other paraphernalia inside, namely Utah logo items, school supplies and so forth.

However, even granting this is true, the bookstore could certainly be destabilized in the short term by ASUU programs. This seems especially likely because students, as embodied by student government, spare no love for the bookstore. “Stop getting ripped off by the bookstore!” screams a banner for the ASUU BookXchange.

Although the combination of a student book exchange, online sales, and digital text might make the U bookstore obsolete in the future, I hope student leaders cooperate with bookstore management to craft policies best for the U.

Although it’s easy to blame the bookstore when it seems to blindly rob students every semester, don’t get too mad at them. There’s plenty of blame to go around.

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