What is More Expensive than a Collectible Book? -- The Outrageous Cost of College Textbooks
Textbook publishers have been adept at keeping prices high. The used book market, which BookFinder helps students access, is countered by constantly revised editions, making older ones "obsolete." In rapidly changing fields such as medicine and the sciences, this may be necessary, but math doesn't change all that much from year to year, particularly at its basic levels. Nor does history change, or classical music, or Shakespeare or English and other languages. Revised editions add to students' costs, not knowledge, but making older editions obsolete dries up the used book market, though the change may be more in appearance than substance. And then there are add-ons, like CDs provided with textbooks, that make it difficult for students to use perfectly good used copies.
Several ideas have been floated to deal with this problem. Michael Granof, a University of Texas professor, recently published an Op-Ed proposal in the New York Times suggesting that texts be sold on the basis of a "site license," rather than a book, like software. Everyone in a class would be required, as part of the course cost, to pay a license fee. That amount would be something reasonable, but all students would have to pay it. Then, students could access the text online for no additional cost, or buy a new or used hard copy. Hard copies would be offered for their actual production cost, comparatively small, rather than the huge mark-ups which generate the profits. Profits would come from the site license. A good text could provide ongoing profits for the author and publisher for years with no extra costs to them. At that point, the profit percentage is 100%, though each student might only have to pay, Granof suggests, $15 for the license.
While a clever idea, its implementation might be a bit complicated. Perhaps universities should band together to provide lists of recommended textbooks, with only those fairly priced included. Of course asking universities, already engaged in their own absurd pricing, to help remedy the textbook problem might be a bit of a stretch. It may just bring more attention to their own shortcomings. Perhaps the state universities should lead this attack. Currently, many states provide recommended if not mandated textbook lists for secondary schools. They could logically help on the university level, although I would not favor requiring colleges to buy from these lists. This would allow states, which is to say politicians, to determine what students can be taught. That's not a good idea. However, if they provided recommended lists based on price, it is likely that most publishers would have to offer all of their textbooks at more rational prices to compete with those on the list.
For now, students will have to scrounge for the best prices they can find, and the bookselling sites, or site searchers like BookFinder, can help. Of course, it you are told which textbook to buy in your first class, and given an assignment from it that night, a web merchant is not going to be of much help. If the student has a few days, then online becomes a cheaper, though not cheap, alternative. BookFinder listed a typical course load example from the University of California at Berkeley, where the textbooks all new for one semester were $635, at a discount book store $517, and through the web $272.45. That is not a solution to the problem, but it is a stopgap for now until we have the will to tackle this issue.