Books gouge students: report

By Chris Beauchamp

A recent study blasts textbook companies for business practices they say gouge students.

The conclusions and methodology of the study have been questioned by both American and Canadian organizations which represent major textbook companies.

The report by the California Student Public Interest Research Group, titled Ripoff 101, accuses textbook publishers of publishing new editions without significant content changes, driving up cost by "bundling" extra materials with the core text and generally increasing textbook costs over the past several years. CALPIRG studied consecutive editions of 33 textbooks and interviewed 521 students and 156 faculty members on nine American campuses.

"Textbooks are expensive and getting even more expensive," said the study, citing a 24 per cent increase in textbook costs since 1996-97.

The Association of American Publishers’ Judith Platt disagreed.

"The methodology of the report was one-sided," claimed Platt. "We believe a lot of anger and frustration is being directed at publishers and textbooks because the larger issues seem insoluble."

Platt said prices are set by the bookseller and not the publisher. She insisted "publishers do not print frivolous editions."

Calculus is a field that hasn’t undergone any significant changes since the 19th century, yet new editions of calculus texts are published as frequently as every three years. University of Calgary professor Dr. Gene Couch explained why.

"Calculus itself hasn’t changed, but the uses for it change," he noted. "The problems can change from business to whatever is the most recent fad in science.

"I’m not saying all their new editions are justified. I think they come out too frequently."

Dr. Couch, a coordinator of first-year calculus courses, commented professors often need new problems from recent editions, but the core material can be handled with the old textbooks.

"Each professor is free to choose," said Dr. Couch, stressing the specific books used in a course, and the inclusion of bundled supplementary materials with them, is the choice of the instructor, not textbook companies. "The U of C Bookstore is certainly not an innocent bystander in gouging students."

He cited his visits to other campuses where the students’ unions operated the buying and selling of books, and suggested that direct competition with the bookstore would benefit students.

"They charge as much as they can," said Dr. Couch. "If students want prices to go down, the first line of attack should be the bookstore."

"We set our textbook prices at the Canadian publishers selected list price," said Brent Beatty, manager of the U of C Bookstore. "We operate on a cost recovery basis. We’re not price-gouging."

Asked about the practices of bundling, he said it was decided between the publisher and the faculty member, but added the bookstore tries to get both bundled and individual books.

The report found 65 per cent of surveyed instructors "rarely" or "never" use information from supplementary materials in their courses.

"If 65 per cent of the faculty is not using the bundled material, then why are they ordering it?" asked Beatty. "It’s up to the faculty member."

According to Beatty, the university takes a portion of all bookstore sales, as well as the "money left over at the end of the year" after deducting operating costs.

"I think it is unfair for students who are already paying high amounts in tuition for the university to also make a profit on textbooks," said SU President Jayna Gilchrist. "I would encourage as many professors as possible to reuse previous editions in their classes."

The CALPIRG report advocates publishing paper or online supplements to update textbooks in courses that might not otherwise require a full new edition. It also calls for students to have greater access to unbundled texts, suggesting online trade in books be encouraged.

"I don’t think they did enough research in a broad enough sense," said Colleen O’Neill, Executive Director of the Higher Education Group at the Canadian Publishers’ Council. "It’s not all about publishers trying to rip off students."

O’Neill said using supplements over new editions is a possible alternative, but added it depends on how much text needs to be replaced.

"Rarely does only one chapter need to be updated," she noted, adding students do not realize the cost required to create materials. "The whole idea behind a revision cycle is not to make old books obsolete. I think there are [books] out there that are revised more than they should be, but students demand current materials."

According to O’Neill, students looking to buy unbundled textbooks directly from the publisher may not have much luck.

"The publishers want to maintain business with the bookstore and not with students, because that’s the way the business is set up," she said.

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