Students can expect cheaper textbooks by next school year, thanks to a Congressional bill signed into law by the president on Aug. 14 encouraging textbook publishers to help lower book prices. The bill, part of the Higher Education Opportunity Act, goes into effect in July 2010.
Groups such as the student-run California Public Interest Research Group (CALPIRG) support it.
“Our campaign focuses on textbooks because it’s.really important to help make higher education affordable for a lot of students,” said Nicole Allen-, Textbook Advocate for CALPIRG.
“The reason textbook prices are so out of control is that the textbook market doesn’t work like a normal market,” Allen said.
“The people who choose textbooks aren’t the actual consumers, so students, the actual consumers, have to buy whatever textbooks they’re assigned. That means publishers can set prices really high and engage in practices that no other industry would be able to get away with.”
She said some of those current practices include bundling textbooks, workbooks, CDs and pass codes together, inflating the cost and making them harder to sell back.
Publishers also tend to issue new editions frequently, which further distorts the resale market, Allen explained.
“They issue new editions an average of 3.8 years apart,” she said. “Then they jack up prices between editions an average of 12 percent, so not only.do they wipe out all the used books…but they’re charging more for the new books than they were for the older ones.”
The new law will mean that textbooks, workbooks and CDs must be sold separately to cut costs and that new book editions should be issued less frequently.
Veronica Long, a political science junior and employee at Aida’s University Book Exchange in San Luis Obispo, was one of many people dubious about the bill before it was signed.
“I think it’s a good step in the right direction but at the same time, it’s not really going to have that big of an impact,” Long said. “Even if they took the student solution manuals out, brand new books still cost way more money than they are worth.”
Long added that eliminating bundles would not help those buying only used books, since only brand new books are packaged and bundled.
However, she said publishing fewer new editions would probably help lower textbook prices.
“They update the health books every year,” Long said. “(But) it’s still the same exact information I learned in high school.”
Another reason Allen said textbooks cost so much is that professors don’t often see the prices of the textbooks they choose until they are on the bookstore shelves.
“In old-fashioned restaurants. they’d give the woman a different menu with no prices on it hoping that she’d choose the most expensive meal,” Allen said. “It’s kind of like that; publishers market the textbook and since the professors don’t actually need to buy them themselves, price isn’t going to be on the table. By withholding the price info, they don’t have to worry about the professor saying, ‘Hey, wait a minute, this textbook is $250; are you kidding me?’”
As to why the prices of textbooks are so high, Allen said the publishers have said given reasons that in her opinion “don’t hold water.”
“They say things like the bookstores are responsible for the high costs, which isn’t true; they only mark up the books,” Allen said. “They say that paper costs a lot, ink costs a lot, editorial costs a lot. The information in textbooks is definitely valuable, but for an introductory calculus textbook to cost $205? That’s one of the main tactics publishers use to drive up costs.”
Calls made to major textbook publishers McGraw-Hill and Oxford University Press to discuss textbook prices were not returned.
Jessica Ramussen, one of the managers of Aida’s, said she would like to be able to complain about the high cost of books except that she doesn’t quite know what she is paying for.
“I wish that they would reveal… what it’s costing them to make textbooks,” Ramussen said. “I don’t really know how much it’s costing them to produce some of these books that they’re selling to us for $75 that we’re selling to the students for $85. I feel like it’s because they price gouge.but I don’t really know.”
The new law will also require schools to give students the list of required textbooks a semester or quarter early, giving the consumer time to shop around, including online, for bargains.
Cindy Giambalvo, courseware division manager for El Corral Bookstore, was in favor of that aspect, having grappled many times with professors not letting her know which textbooks they wanted until the last minute.
“If we get the (textbook) information really late then it makes it hard to get used books at all or to do buybacks from the students,” Giambalvo said. “The Academic Senate did pass a resolution encouraging the faculty to turn in the book information early and some of the faculty have done that, some have not. At this point, there really isn’t a penalty for them not turning it in early.”
Frank Cawley, bookstore director at El Corral Bookstore, was skeptical about the law’s effectiveness.
They have to recoup the production costs and the printing, he said.
“(Say) we retail it for $100. It costs us $75. Even if we were to sell it at $75, the feeling of the students would still be ‘you’re ripping me off’ so I don’t drastically see this (bill) as being the panacea,” Cawley said.
On the other hand, some students were encouraged to hear about the bill.
“It will be nice to have cheap textbooks,” said Whitney Moran, a graphic communications senior and employee at El Corral Bookstore. “And working at the bookstore, people won’t be so angry.when they come to pay and you’re like, ‘$500, please.’ It just frustrates them to pay that much for textbooks every quarter.”