Textbook Pricing: Extortion of Students by Publishers and Faculty?

BlogHer Original Post

Imagine you paid more than $75 for a textbook, and then your professor made you tear out and turn in particular pages from the book--meaning you couldn't sell it back to the bookstore at the end of the term.

Oh, and did I mention the textbook is written by the professor?

This very scenario is being played out in Liz Applegate's Nutrition 10 course at the University of California, Davis. A discussion of Applegate's practice--and what students see as a poor rationale for tearing out the pages--took place on the Davis Wiki and then made its way into the California Aggie, the UC Davis student newspaper. Applegate, who was awarded an "Excellence in Education" award from UC Davis students in 2004, claims requiring students to turn in the pages discourages cheating.

Blogger Margaret Soltan of University Diaries picked up the story. Check out the comments of her post for more discussion of Applegate's practice.

There's more good discussion about textbook pricing in the comments on this post at Marginal Revolution.

Faculty may not be the only ones to blame for the huge dent textbooks make in college students' budgets. In early 2004, CalPIRG published the report "Rip-Off 101: How The Current Practices Of The Textbook Industry Drive Up The Cost Of College Textbooks." I read this report when it came out and found some big holes in its reasoning, but as a recent graduate and as an instructor I certainly understand the pain textbook pricing causes students.

The crux of the problem, CalPIRG's report asserts (correctly, I think) is that publishers encourage faculty to order "bundled" resources--textbooks that come shrink-wrapped with workbooks or CDs, for example. And certainly publishers are a bit slimy strategic about this practice. For example, a colleague of mine said he wanted to use a particular anthology of American literature, but the textbook didn't include poems by Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson. (WTF?! What American lit text skips those two authors? Clearly this is a tactic by the publisher to get faculty to order something extra.) The publisher's ad rep encouraged him to order pamphlets of Whitman's and Dickinson's poems for a mere $1 each. Of course, the publisher would shrink-wrap these texts to the anthology, which means students who wanted these texts would have to buy a new, full-priced book. My colleague caught on and decided instead to have the bookstore order used copies of the anthology as well as inexpensive Dover editions of Dickinson and Whitman.

Publishers claim--also correctly--that textbooks are expensive to produce. Paper costs rise. Color printing isn't cheap, even if done overseas. Neither are reproduction rights for images and texts. Add in the salaries of writers, editors, designers, sales reps, and the countless other people involved in textbook research, writing, production, shipping, and retail, and you have a hefty price.

What can be done about this widespread problem? Susan Smith Nash of Xplanazine offers one fairly radical solution. Lawmakers are also getting in on the deal: a Connecticut law is trying to lower textbook prices. More student Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs) are adding their voices to the chorus; MASSPIRG's report was released this month. And if you live near Santa Clarita, California, the government is holding a hearing on textbook affordability.

What ideas do you have to solve this problem? How can students, faculty authors, and publishers benefit?

Leslie Madsen-Brooks is an academic technologist and freelance writer who blogs at The Clutter Museum.

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