Why do textbooks cost so much?

By Cam Cotton-O’Brien

As a large cause of the financial emaciation of students, it is no surprise that many rant and rage about the price of textbooks. What is surprising is why they cost so damn much.

NARTAM and supplementary materials

Student’s Union vice president external Mike Selnes attended a conference in Ottawa regarding the price of textbooks in Nov., 2007. The National Academic Round Table on Academic Materials, as the conference was so lucidly termed, was held at the behest of the University of Alberta’s SU and bookstore, who are seen as leading the country on this issue. The two organizations have spent the last decade developing a relationship in order to work together combating the drastically increasing price of textbooks. After all that time, though, their work remained incomplete.

“Academic materials have always been a large issue for undergraduates and we’ve always worked with the Bookstore to deliver academic materials at an affordable price to our students,” said U of A SU VP academic Bobby Samuel. “However, we’ve nearly exhausted all of our options at the local level. Since the SU and the bookstore are both committed to delivering academic materials at the most affordable price, we needed to move on this issue nationally and to bring it to the publishers’ attention.”

Thus NARTAM was born. A number of different universities, SUs and bookstores from across the country were invited to attend, as were publishing houses. At NARTAM’s Nov. meeting, the causes of textbook prices were discussed by delegates and ancillary material that comes with textbooks was pointed to as a price inflator. These supplementary materials are not the study guide commonly found with a text in its cellophane bondage, but materials specifically intended for the professor which students likely never see or know about. These supplementary materials are comprised of a number of items such as a bank of exam questions or even prepared lecture notes. The idea is to make the class, especially larger, 200-level courses, easier for the professor to teach. The number of textbooks with these features is surprising.

“I would suggest probably 80 per cent [have supplementary materials],” said the executive director higher education at the Canadian Publishers’ Council Colleen O’Neill. “The things that don’t are probably Canadian Lit, or Lit. It’s the hard sciences; all of these kinds of courses generally require support materials for students and instructors.”

The cost of producing the content for these is quite high. O’Neill noted that in some cases publishers spend upwards of a million dollars developing a textbook. The biggest issue surrounding supplementary materials is whether or not there is actual demand for them–as publishers suggest–and if professors realize that the cost of producing these supplementary materials then contributes to the cost of the book.

Professors and the disappearing demand for supplementary materials

It doesn’t seem to be the case that professors unequivocally demand supplementary materials.

“I don’t use it,” said U of C statistics instructor Jim Stallard. “I find that the resource material I come up with is better and more directed than the material the textbook publishers come up with.”

Stallard’s opinion was echoed by Chemistry 201/203 course coordinator Dr. Kal Mahadev.

“I don’t use it and most of the people don’t,” said Mahadev. “Those supplements are not really very important, except for e-learning because that becomes part of the student learning process also.”

Did you tell them? Or do they know?

Publishers either explicitly inform professors of the costs of the supplementary materials–though not the specific numbers for market competition reasons–or they assume that the professor realizes this on their own. If there are cases where publishers are assuming that faculty understands these materials contribute to the cost of the book, it reveals they are not always informing professors of these costs. It is then a question of whether professors simply know that the expense of developing such materials is making its way into the price of the book. Most, but certainly not all, professors are aware of these costs. However, one professor was quite confident that supplementary materials were free, and many more likely feel the same way. This is a huge problem as professors are seen as the consumer of the product, but students are the ones who absorb the costs. However, as long as it is professors choosing which text to adopt for a course, textbooks and their supplementary materials will be marketed to them.

The solution to this problem, then, is not railing against the fact that publishers market to professors and not students, but rather increasing professors’ awareness about these additional costs, and perhaps promoting an effort on their part to vocalize to publishers that these materials may not actually be demanded. U of C Bookstore manager Brent Beatty said that in many cases publishers will be more willing to listen to calls for a reduction in price if they are coming from faculty rather than simply bookstore staff.

Hurry up and choose: used books and the monster that is the new edition

Beatty also noted that professors influence the cost of books by selecting them earlier as opposed to later, allowing the bookstore to acquire a number of used copies of the book from wholesalers. While this is a positive aspect of early adoption, the issue of used books encounters two very distinct obstacles. The most apparent is publishers releasing new editions every three or four years.

“We did have a bit of a discussion at the conference about the nature of new editions,” said Selnes. “The publishers express a need to update information. A lot of students expressed that they didn’t feel that textbooks need be updated as often, especially in areas where the information hasn’t changed­–like calculus, where the formulas have been the same.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the issue of new editions also goes back to that of supplementary materials. O’Neill explained that a publisher only produces enough books for two or three years of projected sales. As the publisher can never know how well the book will fare, it is simply too risky for them to produce larger quantities. For successful books a new run is then required every few years. Each time a new run of books is produced the royalties to the author must be paid again. Because the publisher has to reprint them anyway, they take the opportunity to correct any errors. This seems to make sense for books in the first couple editions, but not much beyond that. The rationale for producing new editions, then, falls to the necessity of updating the content of the work. Even in fields such as calculus, where the formulas have been the same for a hundred years or more, publishers argue they must update the supplementary materials.

Purchasing or selling used textbooks is also impeded by student-specific supplementary materials.

“One thing the publishers have been doing is making it hard for people to resell the books,” said U of C economics professor Dr. E.C. Beaulieu. “Some books have an online component that you have to get a password from the inside of the book, and you can only use it once.”

Course packs, copyright, and the Canadian ten per cent

There is no question that course packs, a cost effective alternative to textbooks, are hindered by high copyright fees. The U of C has an Access Copyright licence that regulates what and how things can be copied. There are two parts to the agreement. Part A involves the university paying a blanket fee of around $100,000–$3.10 per full-time student–to Access Copyright per year for the rights to produce small copies, generally 10 per cent of a work, for limited, private use. Part B is the section covering course packs and allows for the copying of approximately 15 per cent of a work at a cost of 10 cents per page. Part B costs the university about $300,000 per year. This cost has gone up a great deal over the last few years, but will be held at its current rate for at least two and a half more years.

The SU report suggests that course packs might be considered under part of the Copyright Act that addresses fair dealing, thus exempting them from infringing copyright. It states that universities do not try this because of the lawsuits that could follow. To be considered fair dealing, though, materials must be for private research and study. U of C copyright officer Wendy Stephens pointed out that this is a weak argument for course packs.

“It is mandated reading for multiple users,” said Stephens.

Despite recognizing that the report is only preliminary and much work needs to be done, Selnes was not willing to abandon fair dealing.

“It’s an avenue that we’re still going to look at,” said Selnes. “Anything that might work is better to look at than not.”

In the interim, the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada is lobbying for a decrease in copyright costs.

But, there is another federal regulation driving up the cost of books. This legislation has to do with importing books from outside Canada.

“If the book is available in Canada at the current exchange rate plus 10 per cent, then we have to buy the book in Canada,” said Beatty.

Clearly this is one area that needs to be addressed, as it effectively adds 10 per cent to the cost of many books.

The rise and fall of supplementary materials?

The cost of textbooks has been obscene for a long time and doesn’t appear likely to change soon. The driving force behind the recent, explosive rise in cost is supplementary materials. Not only do they cost a lot to produce, but they also require frequent updating (especially as technology progresses) giving publishers reasons to produce new editions even when the necessity to change the content is dubious at best.

Attempting to confront this issue, the SU is laying the ground work for a partnership with the bookstore and NARTAM is seeking to develop into a successful collective. These bodies understand that publishers need to make professors aware of the additional costs of these materials, that professors should tell publishers if they don’t want the supplementary materials and that professors should adopt books for courses earlier rather than later, are the best practices to go about decreasing textbook prices. Of course it would help if professors were willing to facilitate students using older editions. Maybe then students’ wallets can get a little fatter.

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