At the end of each semester, University of Wisconsin students flock to the bookstore in the hopes of selling back their textbooks. I remember making a grand total of $7 last year, because most of my books, I was told, now had new editions.
That $7 bought me a drink or two after finals, but it also got me thinking.
Who benefits when a used textbook is sold?
Not the publishers; they only make money when new textbooks are sold. Not the authors; they only profit when the publishers do.
When a used textbook is sold, students and bookstores benefit. That fact is totally missing from the recent textbook lobby’s (Association of American Publishers) attack on the State Public Interest Research Group’s February study, “Ripoff 101.”
According to the PIRG study, the average college student in the U.S. will spend $900 each year on textbooks. The textbook lobby says PIRG is wrong: it’s only $625. That still seems like a lot of money to me. The PIRG study also revealed: textbook prices are increasing at more than four times the rate of inflation, the most widely purchased college textbooks have new editions roughly every three years, and 43 percent of students admitted to not purchasing the required textbooks for at least one course to save money.
In an April 7 release, the president of the textbook lobby, former Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder, said PIRG activists were forgetting “a central factor in the textbook market: it is a free market.” Why, then, is there so little price competition?
Publishers insist that frequent new editions are necessary because in many subjects the material is constantly evolving.
The Encyclopedia Britannica issues a yearly supplement to its volumes, intended to fill in additional material. Couldn’t publishers or professors supply similar supplements in the interest of saving costs? I find it hard to imagine that a textbook would be completely useless to a course within two or three years.
What caught my attention, however, was something else: textbook publishers charge American students far more than overseas students for the exact same textbooks.
I picked one textbook, a popular organic chemistry textbook written by Vollhardt and Schore that has been translated into many foreign languages, and investigated how it was priced in the U.S. and overseas. In the U.S., the book costs $135.95 on Amazon.com. The same book sells in the U.K. for $75. According to the Swedish website Bokpris.com, the English edition is available in Sweden for $83, in France for $81 and in Germany for $76. Amusingly, the book costs less in translation: the Japanese version is a mere $64. Evidently, the translators paid for the honor of translating the book. If you want to see how you’re getting ripped off, check out your textbooks on bokpris.com!
The textbook lobby insists that texts sold overseas are cheaper because they are “priced to the individual market.” What does this mean — that students abroad are unwilling to spend as much on textbooks? Given that most European universities are free or charge only some modest fees, you’d expect students there might be willing to spend more on textbooks.
WisPIRG on the UW campus has worked to lower the cost of books.
“We simply rely on grassroots promotion of used book sales because we don’t want any outside profit made from it — just what the student saves,” said WisPIRG’s Ashley Medd, who has worked on the bookswap program. “We have cooperated with the University’s textbook taskforce and talked with the University Bookstore about the feasibility of textbook rental programs.”
While the PIRG study does a good job of raising issues, its plan of action seems weak.
PIRG wants to embarrass textbook publishers with the facts, but this industry doesn’t embarrass easily. PIRG also wants government to act in our interests. Unfortunately, the textbook lobby is well funded and well connected with a former Congresswoman at the top.
Student activists on the UW campus have pushed to make used textbooks or textbook rentals more widely available. At this point, however, too few students are aware of the cheaper textbook options and the barrage of new editions undermines current rental programs.
A student response to the book lobby needs some business smarts. Ideally, entrepreneurial business students would join the activists, enlist faculty cooperation and develop a business model that makes textbook rentals succeed. Until then, we can all enjoy the $7 pocket change that awaits us at the end of the semester.
Cynthia Martens (email@example.com) is a junior majoring in Italian and European Studies.