When economics lecturer Janet Gerson saw the cost of a new edition of a supplementary book for her course, she went straight to the publisher of the book tell it that the price was too high. In response, the publishers lowered the price at which the book was sold at universities across the country.
Gerson said when the buyers complain about book prices, the sellers will listen.
This is the type of approach the Public Interest Research Group In Michigan wants professors to take when ordering new textbooks in response to a recent study basing publishing companies for driving up textbook prices. PIRGIM wants to work with professors and publishing companies to reach a solution.
“We’re trying to put pressure on publishing companies to change their practices,” said Mike Akresh, an LSA sophomore and member of PIRGIM.
The study, conducted by the California Public Interest Research Group, concludes that the financial burden brought on by textbooks is an unnecessary one. The report highlights how the practices of textbook companies exploit American college students. Titled “Ripoff 101: how the publishing industry’s practices needlessly drive up textbook costs,” the report addresses practices that it finds questionable among American publishing companies.
One of the main conclusions of the report was that students in the United States pay much more money than students overseas for the same books.
One example the report cited was a calculus book, published by Pearson Custom Publishing, sold in the United States for $100 and in the United Kingdom for $38. The 10th edition of the biology textbook “Unity and Diversity of Life,” published by Thomson Learning is sold to students in other countries for $51, while it sells for $108.86 in American bookstores.
Bruce Hildebrandt, executive director for the Higher Education Association of American Publishers, said that prices are lowered in foreign countries to compete with local publishers, and to dissuade consumers and producers from purchasing or producing pirated copies of the books.
“The industry loses $500 million to $1 billion a year in Asia and Africa through piracy,” Hildebrandt said.
But PIRGIM finds these price hikes unacceptable and, while working to bring them down, also wants to tackle the problem of new edition prices, which are often a financial burden for students because they force them to buy new books instead of cheaper, used ones.
The study also addressed the issue of new editions.
According to the survey, which included information from 59 colleges and University bookstores across the country, the most widely purchased textbooks on college campuses on average have new editions published every three years, and these new editions cost 45 percent more than used copies of the previous edition.
The report surveyed faculty from 59 American universities, finding that 76 percent of the faculty felt that a new printed edition was needed half the time or even less.
“It’s outrageous that publishing companies are coming out with new textbooks so often. It puts even more of a financial burden on students,” LSA senior Carolyn Hwang of PIRGM said.
LSA junior and PIRGM member Sarah Seiter said that most of the time when publishers release a new edition of the textbook, they don’t significantly alter the content of the text. Instead, some of the exercises are rewritten, which causes the page numbers to be redone. Then if a professor wants to make reference to a page number in the text, students are forced to buy a new edition. Also, once a new edition is released, the older editions are taken out of print, and the bookstores can only buy the new editions from the publishers.
“(Publishing Companies) release new editions that prevent bookstores from selling the old, used editions, and then they convince professors to use the new editions,” said Vince Battista, regional manager of Barnes and Noble College Bookstores, of which the Michigan Union bookstore is a subsidiary.
But Hildebrandt said the seemingly rapid release of new editions is a response to demand from college professors. Hildebrandt cited a Zogby study, which claims that 80 percent of professors want the content of their textbooks to be as current as possible.
“We only send what the professor tells us to send,” he said.
Not only are the new editions coming out more frequently, but they are also coming out to be more expensive, according to the report.
The survey found that textbook prices are increasing at a rate much faster than the rate of inflation. According to the report, the price difference between the old and new edition is 12 percent on average — almost twice the rate of inflation between 2000 and 2003, which was 6.8 percent.
Members of PIRGIM voiced their concerns at the Michigan Student Assembly’s meeting last Tuesday, urging the student government to aid their efforts in protesting the textbook companies, and working with professors to consider the financial burden inflicted upon students before ordering a new edition of a book.
“We hope to get professors to not order bundled packages, because they often contain materials like dictionaries, CD’s or lab books which students don’t really end up using or needing. They also prevent the student from buying some of the books used,” Seiter said.
According to the survey, 65 percent of faculty said they rarely or never used these items.
Representatives from MSA echoed the concern in the report over the dramatic price increase in textbook costs.
“We’re concerned about the rising costs of textbooks and that’s why we registered 3,162 students at dogears.net, an online text book exchange that saves students money each semester,” said MSA student general counsel Jesse Levine.
The survey for “Ripoff 101” did not include bookstores from the University or Ann Arbor. PIRGIM plans to conduct their own investigation of local bookstores and produce their own report in the near future.