Package Deal

Some students revolt against soaring college textbook costs

Dylan, a University of Texas film major, watched with relief as the co-op bookstore clerk rang up the $9.04 sale for his new textbook.

That's because the textbook actually cost $64. Moments earlier, Dylan had carefully peeled the sticker off a cheap workbook and transferred it to the textbook, required for a class on sociocultural bases of communication.

It wasn't the first time he'd ripped off the co-op for what he considers an overpriced textbook of marginal value. At the end of an earlier semester, the 21-year-old student showed up at the bookstore counter to explain that he'd mistakenly bought the wrong book a few days earlier for a course. Clerks were understanding.

UH clerk Samone Thomas waits for a check from Anup Babber. Bookstores say they aren't to blame for high prices.
Daniel Kramer
UH clerk Samone Thomas waits for a check from Anup Babber. Bookstores say they aren't to blame for high prices.

"I got store credit, which paid for a book the next semester," says Dylan.

In fact, the book was the right one for his astronomy class. At the start of the course, Dylan had looked at the price of the text -- nearly $100 -- and decided he couldn't afford it. So he'd borrowed other students' books before quizzes, then bought his own to prep for the final. Afterward, he simply returned it and got the credit.

"I don't know if it's justified, but I can't say I feel bad about it when there's one place you can buy your books at for UT," he says. "They hold a monopoly on prices and charge us ridiculous amounts for a book they update every semester, just to make us pay full price."

Dylan (he agreed to tell his story on the condition his real name wasn't used) is hardly alone in the campus bookstore rip-offs. But as textbook costs soar, more students say their scams pale in comparison to the way stores and publishers are scamming them.

A report released recently by the Texas Public Interest Research Group showed the average cost of textbooks has risen 40 percent over the past seven years. At working-class colleges like the University of Houston, the yearly book costs of nearly $900 can be more than half an average student's tuition and fees.

Booksellers blame a dramatic increase in "book packages," where publishers combine a textbook with an extra such as a study guide or CD-ROM. These can only be bought new, and can't be sold back after the course. The TexPIRG report found that half of all new textbooks now come this way and that more than 65 percent of faculty surveyed said their classes rarely or never used the bundled material.

"That sucks," says UH business major Tyler Nelson. "They're just making money." The sophomore was forced to buy a study guide for his microeconomics class. Nelson had planned to sell the $90 textbook back at the end of semester, to recoup some of that cash, but is now resigned to keeping the study guide.

"You can't give it to anyone but your fireplace," says John Bolch, assistant manager of the UH main campus bookstore. "Unless we had a full-time person combating the publishers' representatives, there's no way to let [professors] know the damage these packages are doing."

To say that campus bookstores and textbook publishers don't get along is like saying Jews and Arabs have had a few fights. Bookstore officials describe the publishers' reps as sinister operatives hell-bent on tricking professors into adopting new textbooks at the expense of students. Publishers counter that bookstores really care about only the lucrative used books market.

If the text is definitely going to be used in the next semester, the bookstore pays students 50 percent of the cover price and then resells the texts for 75 percent of that cover price -- a 50 percent profit. On new textbooks, the bookstore's markup is only 25 percent, according to Monti Eddins. She's the regional manager for Barnes and Noble College, which owns about half of campus bookstores, include the one at UH's main campus.

Used books can sometimes be even more profitable to bookstores when they're not going to be used for the next term. The store pays students the wholesale prices -- often just a few dollars -- then searches for another college that still uses the texts, where they can be resold for 75 percent of the cover price.

Publishers profit from only new textbooks, so they have developed their own gimmicks to keep professors from using old books.

Besides packaged deals, publishers have been speeding up the creation of new editions, even in fields such as calculus, where there've been no significant changes in 100 years. The TexPIRG report found that publishers kept editions on the shelf an average of three and a half years. Of the faculty surveyed, 67 percent said the new editions are justified only half the time or less.

"We're spending a lot of money to develop the book," says Ragu Raghavan of Thomson Publishing, one of the largest publishers. "The biggest profit margin is bookstores. People think we make the money."

Bookstore officials hint at underhanded motives by publishers. A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education found that some small publishers would simply pay professors cash -- as much as $5,000 -- to adopt their textbook. Some professors also get free books by the dozens and are paid "reading fees" of a few hundred dollars to write reviews. Publishers may also allow college departments to customize books or add "readers" written by their professors, so they can cash in on royalties. Professors may also require students to buy new versions of books they have authored.

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