Critics say textbook company practices inflate book prices
Sep. 05, 2008
As textbook publishers navigate a contentious market, they are attacked on many fronts.
Rhetorically, they are confronted by angry student activists; financially, by a booming used-book market; and now legislatively, by attempts to curb practices said to inflate book prices and make college less affordable.
Critics argue that powerful textbook companies take advantage of students who have little choice but to buy their products, but publishers see these criticisms as inaccurate and exaggerated, saying they must cater to consumer demands while coping with a changing market.
Nicole Allen, director of the student activist-run Make Textbooks Affordable campaign, said no built-in economic mechanisms keep textbook prices in check. A few conglomerates hold all the power, and because professors select their course books, students have little say in the process.
"Publishers can get away with practices no other industry would be able to get away with," Allen said.
One widely criticized tactic is frequent new editions, which publishers release about every three years with price increases of about 12 percent.
Allen said new versions often have few substantive revisions and serve to wipe older editions out of bookstores, eliminating opportunities for students to buy and sell used copies.
"Revisions are necessary in some cases, but in subjects like calculus and introductory physics, there haven't been major breakthroughs in centuries," she said.
Another controversial practice is bundling books with extras, like CD-ROMs and workbooks, which inflate prices by 10 to 50 percent. Resale value also decreases if supplemental materials are lost, damaged or used, Allen said.
Publishers say they provide supplements in response to professor demand and that students should use the tools to enhance their studies.
"People complain, 'what if I didn't use it?"' said Bruce Hildebrand, executive director of higher education for the American Association of Publishers. "We ask, 'why not?"'
But a higher-education act recently passed by Congress asserts that students should be able to choose whether to spend more on extras by mandating that publishers offer unbundled books.
The bill also requires publishers to make pricing information available to professors, which Allen said will prevent them from unwittingly selecting expensive texts and level the playing field for cheaper books to enter the market.
However, Albert Greco, a Fordham University Graduate School of Business professor who studies publishing, said supplemental offerings, content and accuracy are professors' top considerations when selecting books - and price transparency will likely not make cost the number one criterion.
Either way, students will not feel relief until at least next year because this year's books have already been chosen.
Publishers publicly support demands for transparency - 34 states have introduced similar proposals and six have approved them - but legislative pressure is just one of many challenges they face.
Greco said publishers face big risks and high upfront printing and production costs, plus big cuts to authors and vendors, who profit from book sales. And they are increasingly losing revenue to used and black book markets.
Despite challenges, Greco added, business is still strong, which makes publishers an easy target amid college costs that are soaring across the board. "No one likes Goliath," he said.
Hildebrand said critics focus on a few "Ferrari textbooks" and ignore low-cost alternatives. Textbooks represent a tiny percent of what Penn students pay for their educations, he added.
But Allen said even publishers' "so-called lower-price" options serve to destabilize the book market and may cost more in the long run. Though customized and electronic books cost less upfront, they have no buy-back potential so students cannot find cheaper used versions or recoup cash.
Allen agreed that college is expensive all around but said publishers are the appropriate target for book prices because they abuse a system that lacks checks and balances.
"The only people publishers need to justify the price of books to are students," she said. "And students have to buy it anyway."