Textbook updates prove costly

As wholesale and alternative suppliers gain a larger share of the college textbook market, publishers are releasing more new editions. Although popular with some professors, the frequent revisions might be limiting the availability of affordable textbooks.

“When a new edition of a textbook comes out, it pretty much kills the market for the old editions at that university,” said National Association of College Stores Spokesman Charles Schmidt.

According to a report delivered by economist James Koch last September to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, publishers “push the development” of new editions of popular textbooks in order to “render obsolete the inventory of used books” — from which they receive no dividends.

Koch said these sellers end up in competition with themselves while both new and used versions of their product are bought and sold — similar to the dynamics of the car-manufacturing market, except that publishers can effectively “wipe out” the used-book market.

“That’s what they’re trying to do,” said the U Bookstore’s Textbook Sales Manager Hollie Fletcher. “They will update their edition — it can be anywhere from 25 percent of the book down to just the cover and the title page changing — and they’ll call it a new edition.”

Many students purchase new editions because it is required — or simply convenient, Schmidt said. Others avoid old editions altogether for fear of significant content and organizational changes.

“I’ve never wanted to bother with (looking for old editions),” said Ben Smith, a senior in economics. “There’s less worrying (that way) about not having the right materials.”

Some analysts worry, however, that publishers are bullying overburdened students into accepting new editions as their sole option.

A 2005 GAO report says retailers and wholesalers accused publishers of revising books for introductory-level classes more than other books. Because students are less likely to keep introductory-level books, the wholesalers argued, the used-book supply would saturate the market without the publishers’ interference.

A partial result, the GAO concludes, is that textbooks are revised every three to four years today, as opposed to every five to six years a couple decades ago.

Pearson Education Spokesman David Hakensen believes the average length of time between edition changes has been “pretty static” since then.

Prices, however, have not.

College textbook prices increased at twice the rate of inflation between 1986 and 2004. The Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance addressed the U.S. Department of Education about swelling costs in May, citing the accelerated reissuing cycle as a contributing factor.

“Ripoff 101,” a report released by the State Public Interest Research Groups that surveyed 59 national universities and colleges, said new editions of textbooks cost almost 50 percent more than used copies of the previous editions.

Another survey of 10 schools released by PIRGs in 2004 shows that 76 percent of faculty members found that these new editions were justified “only ‘half the time’ or less.”

Many professors agree, however, that content is the most vital concern. A poll commissioned by the Association of American Publishers in 2005 showed that 80 percent of college professors think classroom materials should be “as updated as possible.”

Because faculty members are responsible for orders, they constitute the market demand for publishers. This presents another unique economic paradigm, in Koch’s opinion, because the consumers who foot the bill (students) aren’t the ones who determine the market.

“Sometimes the pub reps will not tell the professors how much the book costs,” Fletcher said. “We come back and say ‘Hey, did you know it costs this much?’ and it just blows them away. A lot of times they’ll change their mind. We try to educate them as much as we can.”

Bookstores play a role in keeping low-cost options available to students by informing professors and departments of ordering deadlines well in advance. When professors use new editions, Fletcher said, they usually either decline or forget to ask for used copies of the old edition by this deadline.

“We set dates really far in advance so that we have as much time as possible to go to all the wholesale companies in the nation and make sure we can get as many used books as possible,” Fletcher said.

Fletcher said that her office aims to have 80 percent of orders by the deadline to ensure enough time for this process, but that only 37 percent of this Fall Semester’s orders were placed on time.

“(The NACS encourages) members to talk to department heads to get book orders in on time,” Schmidt said. “It’s for the benefit of students, really. It doesn’t help the bookstores.”

Authors and publishers say they value student welfare, too.

Finance professor Calvin Boardman said that the book he co-authored, Foundations of Business Law, is unlike any other offered and is used by 1,500 to 2,000 students at the U each year. However, the only consideration he has in creating a new edition is content.

“Never has a publisher come to me and said, ‘I’d like you to do a new edition so we can increase price,'” he said. “It’s not driven, in my experience, by any conversation between authors and publishers.”

Boardman said that four years ago he demanded that his publishers decrease the price of his textbook — now in its 7th edition — during negotiations for a new edition, after he became aware that the price had doubled in just 10 years at the U. They cut their price almost in half, he said, from $70 to $38.

“Compared to other things that people spend money on, I think (textbooks) are a good value,” said John Challice, vice president and publisher of Oxford University Press — a not-for-profit publisher that revises its books about once every six years.

Challice said subjects such as hard sciences might experience less change than most disciplines, but politics, astronomy and contemporary history need many alterations. Challice recently dealt with a U.S./Latin American relations book that required an update outside Oxford’s typical revision cycle.

“The whole tenor of that subject has changed dramatically in the last five years,” he said, pointing to Fidel Castro’s near-death, Hugo Chavez’ ascension in Venezuela, social crisis in Bolivia and government changes in Argentina and Brazil.

Cell Biology 2020 professor David Gard agrees that some textbooks cannot avoid revisions.

“In cell biology, the textbook is essentially outdated from the time it hits the shelves,” Gard said. “I have to tell the students, ‘No, you can’t use the old version,’ because there are things that are wrong.”

Gard regrets that first-time users of a new edition have to bear the brunt of a heftier price tag, but he nonetheless wishes the current five-year cycle would accelerate.

Peter Alfeld, a mathematics professor and the curriculum coordinator for pre-calculus, said that for classes where content doesn’t change very often, “we try to pick one and stick with it.”

Alfeld acknowledged that publishers might release superfluous updates, but said publisher representatives don’t usually put any undue pressure on professors themselves to order the new editions.

“Sales reps, in my experience, have been very reasonable in their approach,” Alfeld said. “They usually respect the faculty member’s expertise in the area.”

Pearson’s spokesman Hakensen points out that although some content doesn’t change over time, there might still exist a strong demand for new books because professors worry that students are re-circulating textbook material. Mathematics junior Susel James said that, on the contrary, edition changes created more difficulty in one of her classes.

“This year our teacher was using the old edition of a book, and the exams reflected stuff on the new edition,” she said. “We all got the same problems wrong. We came across questions nobody (had) discussed.”

Alfeld said it doesn’t help to update the problems in his calculus books — because the department writes most of the exams anyway.

“It’s so easy to make up problems,” he said.

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Jared Redekopp

Journalism and psychology student Jasmine Clark seeks her Fall Semester textbooks at Beat the Bookstore on July 25. Clark says she finds textbook prices at the store to be cheaper than the University Bookstore.