If you’re in high school, you may not be aware of this problem, since you don’t pay for your textbooks out of pocket. But your school does, and that’s reflected in your school budget, which is in turn reflected in our taxes.
If you are in undergraduate or graduate college, than you’ve felt the pain directly. Undergraduates typically pay $500 to $900 per semester for their books; considerably higher costs are not unheard of. Graduate students often pay even more. Many textbooks ring up at over $200; a few are priced over $1000! Some students pay more for books than they do for tuition.
Studies indicate that, over the past decade, textbook prices have risen at 2-4 times the rate of inflation. Now, this is a rant, and a call to action, so I don’t want to digress to a detailed discussion of economics. But sometimes the cost of goods and services outpaces inflation for good reasons. If something becomes scarce (supply decreases), or rises in demand, price increases will naturally follow. But there has been no great shortage of paper or ink (indeed, ebooks require neither), nor has there been a sharp upturn in the number of students. That leaves greed as the only remaining explanation.
Now, publishers have rung in with several explanations for their price increases. For example, they point out that sales of 3rd and 4th editions drop significantly, owing to used book sales. However, these same publishers encourage authors to make significant changes in each new edition, so that professors won’t accept earlier ones for their courses. I think it’s safe to ignore the posturing of those who stand to profit at your expense.
To be clear, I am not maintaining that publishers and authors should not be properly compensated for their efforts. Textbook publishing is a niche market, and it is only natural that a textbook should cost more than say, a novel or a biography. However, a quick perusal of the top 20 bestsellers on Amazon revealed prices between $5 and $20. Textbook publishers and authors are no longer being well compensated; they are getting fat.
As a student (or parent) what can you do? First of all, you can look for used books, online stores, and ebooks as alternatives to buying new at the campus bookstore. If you buy used books, look them over thoroughly for markings and missing pages. Many college students have also resorted to using pirated ebooks. Hopefully, it need not come to that, but it’s getting harder to blame them.
A federal law that went into effect in 2010 has helped the situation. Colleges are now required to release textbook information as early as possible, and publishers are required to disclose the prices of their books. But that simply isn’t enough.
Back to Economics 101: Free-market capitalism (whatever you think of it) is based on the notion that competition will keep prices down. If one company raises the prices on light bulbs, customers will buy cheaper ones from someone else. But that doesn’t work if an enterprise is a monopoly (or near monopoly). So the government steps in and regulates monopolies, who would otherwise have free rein to overcharge their customers.
As in those monopoly situations, students in most classes must buy specific textbooks from specific companies. But legally, one can’t easily classify textbook publishers as monopolies, since there are several large ones. So we have an awful state of affairs – the publishers aren’t regulated, and they have a firm grip on your wallet.
Therefore, the best thing you can do is MAKE SOME NOISE, by signing petitions (here’s a link to Textbook Rebellion), or writing to your congressmen. In America’s current economic atmosphere, a politician who spearheads an effort to regulate textbook sales should be extremely popular.
Who knows – perhaps one of you will create a website with a catchy title like “Occupy College Street,” get rich, and fund a charity for needy students.