Hittin' the Books

Textbook prices are sky high, but a new federal law is on your side.

By Matt Petrillo
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Aug. 24, 2010

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Inside the University of Pennsylvania’s air-conditioned Barnes & Noble College Book Seller, Lorelei Phillips meticulously scans her textbook list for the fall semester. She’s overjoyed to be out of the summer’s thick heat, but a heavy sigh sours her mood after discovering the price of what she considers disposable material.

“I’m only going to open most books for a handful of hours over the span of, like, three months,” she says.

The junior nursing student says she spends about $1,000 a year on books, just shy of the national average of $1,122 at a 4-year public university for the 2009-2010 academic year, according to The College Board, the national nonprofit that also administers the SATs.

Complaints of exploitative college textbook prices are nothing new. According to a September, 1939 issue of The College Store, students grew similarly outraged when textboooks soared to $3. But after decades of students’ complaints, Congress has taken note. A federal law that took effect July 1 mandates more transparency between college textbook publishers and the students and faculty they serve.

The College Textbook Affordability Act, a provision of the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008, now requires publishers to unbundle packages that might include CD-ROMS or workbooks, as well as “to include the price of textbooks and supplemental material when providing information to faculty.” Students will also no longer have to fight in crowded bookstores for the last copy of a text after a teacher hands out a book list the first day of class. The new law also mandates that universities inform students what books are required for courses during registration—instead of professors telling students the first day of class—allowing students more time to shop around for bargains.

While Phillips admits that allotting students more time to shop just allows them more time to procrastinate something else in their lives, Rob Nelson, the director of education in the provost's office at the University of Pennsylvania, says giving students ample time to shop around for books will encourage fiscal responsibility, although Penn’s faculty has been “taking textbook costs seriously for several years.”

Professors are encouraged to teach using previous editions, Nelson says, after UPenn’s student government lobbied for the use of cheaper and slightly older versions of new books.

That’s good news to folks like Angelo Bergonzi, who owns Zavelle Bookstore near Temple University’s campus. The store relies on 60 percent of its sales from used books that it bought mostly from Temple students and elsewhere.

“We’re not looking to increase prices. We’re subject to their [book publishers] prices, but we try to buy products from students to save them money,” he says.

But Bruce Hildebrand, executive director of the Association of American Publishers, suggests that there wouldn’t be such a hysteria with textbook prices if laws, instead, targeted used-book sellers.

“This debate is driven by numbers that focus on the most expensive textbooks,” he says, largely because some, like medical textbooks, require multiple authors, editors, illustrators, fact-checkers and graphic artists, which can add up to an investment of $1 million to $3 million. Regarding the overall cost of books, he contends that students spend much less when they account for the money they get when they sell them at the end of the semester.

Mike Simone, a Drexel junior engineering major, is among a quarter million other Philadelphia college students. He’s bitter about the college textbook industry, saying he refuses to sell his texts back to the bookstore because “it is obvious that the bookstore tries to exploit students for ever penny they can.” If he does purchase a book, he says he’ll usually sell it to a friend or hockey teammate. Still, before considering purchasing a book, he first turns to the school library to check them out for free or rents from Chegg.com.

Simone questions if the new law tackles books’ rising costs, but Hildebrand suggests it completely ignores the main culprit of the expense.

“The single greatest factor are used book sellers. I’m not attacking them, but [textbooks] are expensive to produce,” says Hildebrand.

The silent ink war among used-book sellers and publishers, which triggered the new law, is a blow to the latter. Hildebrand says publishers and authors risk thousands and sometimes millions of dollars to produce a book, yet gain nothing when stores buy back used-books and then resell them at a discount. That, in turn, also severely damages a book’s value and forces publishers to come out with new editions every three to four years in order to make older used editions obsolete and make back a profit.

Book sellers argue used books come with a greater liability than new texts.

“A new book can be returned back to the publisher in most cases. A used book has no place to return, so once you own them, you own them,” says Jade Roth, vice president of books and digital strategy for Barnes and Noble College Booksellers, one of America’s leading collegiate booksellers that operates on 637 campuses nationwide.

But according to data, rising text costs have not stopped students from spending less. Students have increasingly been turning to the Web and, according to Student Monitor, a higher education research firm, the average student spent 7 percent less for textbooks in 2009 than in 2001.

To draw students back to stores many B&N College Booksellers introduced a new program in January that allows students to rent books at lower than half the cost of new books.

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