By Ylan Q. Mui and Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, August 20, 2008
The rising cost of college textbooks has driven Congress and nearly three dozen states -- including Maryland and Virginia -- to attempt to curtail prices and controversial publishing practices through legislation. But as the fall semester begins, students are unlikely to see much relief.
Estimates of how much students spend on textbooks range from $700 to $1,100 annually, and the market for new books is estimated at $3.6 billion this year. Between 1986 and 2004, the price of textbooks nearly tripled, rising an average of 6 percent a year while inflation rose 3 percent, according to a 2005 report by the Government Accountability Office. In California, the state auditor reported last week that prices have skyrocketed 30 percent in four years.
"It's really hard just paying for tuition alone," said Annaiis Wilkinson, 19 and a student at Trinity Washington University who spends about $500 a semester on books. "It really sets people back."
Last month, Congress passed legislation forcing publishers to release more information about their prices. It also requires them to sell a textbook separately rather than packaged with a CD or workbook that makes for a more expensive purchase. However, the provisions do not take effect until 2010.
Meanwhile, although 34 states have introduced similar proposals over the past three years, only six states have approved them. Virginia passed its Textbook Fairness Act in 2005, but Maryland's bills have died in committee for three years. Any impact of the new laws at the cash register remains to be seen.
"The principal goal of the legislation, which we are totally supportive of, is transparency," said Bruce Hildebrand, executive director of higher education for the Association of American Publishers, a trade group. "It's what the industry already does."
Costs for new textbooks have risen as publishers have tried to fight off an expanding trade in used books. The market for used textbooks began exploding with the growth of the Internet as students from across the country connected to buy and sell their books, cutting into the sales of new books and eating away at publishers' market share.
Publishers began making new books more attractive by packaging them with workbooks and CDs -- but with a higher total price. They are making them indispensable by equipping them with one-use codes needed for access to additional course material online. They are creating custom editions for specific professors or universities, limiting the resale market for the books.
At the University of Maryland, for example, an algebra text published by a division of textbook heavyweight Pearson comes with a solutions manual and sells new for $138. Used bookstore Bookholders.com, based in College Park, sells the components separately: the textbook for $79.90 and the solutions manual for 81 cents.
A microeconomics textbook put out by a division of Cengage Learning comes with an online activation card and costs $99.65. Buying a new activation card for a used book -- if you can find one -- is $79.35, nearly the same as the new book.
"People don't buy textbooks for the rest of their lives," said John Verde, founder of Bookholders.com and a University of Maryland graduate. "The difference between used and new is very little."
Sales of used textbooks last year grew 15 percent to $2 billion, with double-digit growth expected through 2011, according to Simba Information, a market research group. Meanwhile, sales of new textbooks have grown by 4 to 5 percent annually, with the market this year expected to reach $3.6 billion. Simba ranks eight major publishers, with the two largest companies, Pearson and Cengage, controlling roughly half of the market last year.
"What typically drives the growth in new textbooks is the fact that they're new," Simba analyst Kathy Mickey said. "They're given a semester or a year before they're really impacted by used textbooks."
Publishers dispute the notion that their textbooks are overpriced. Last fall, there were 216 introductory psychology titles competing with each other on bookshelves at prices ranging at retail from $23.50 to $120.50, Hildebrand said. Developing a new textbook is a costly venture with uncertain returns, and that risk is built into the price.
In addition, Hildebrand said, publishers are facing increased demands from students and teachers alike. Supplemental materials have become increasingly popular as students require more remediation and universities turn to part-time faculty and graduate students to teach courses.
"Basically, publishers work for faculty," Hildebrand said. "They control what goes in the classroom as they are paid to do. They are the experts, and they are the ones who determine how students will be taught."
Wilkinson and her friends have invented their own methods for lowering the cost of their books. They've borrowed copies from the school library or photocopied pages from a friend's book. They've pooled their cash to buy one book, even though that makes it tough for everyone to study during exams. One took out another loan to cover textbooks.
"Any which way you look at it, you're still spending obscene amounts of money for a couple of books you have for three months," she said. "It's all just one big cycle of taking your money."
Other students have turned to illicit measures: downloading pirated copies of textbooks online. One site, Textbook Torrents, temporarily shut down this summer after complaints from publishers but has reemerged with 80,000 registered users and 25,000 sessions running at any given time, according to the site administrator, who identified himself only by his screen name of Geekman. Titles include full .pdf files of books ranging from Marketing Across Cultures to Fundamentals of Thermodynamics, Sixth Edition.
"I've seen the solutions manual float around here as well - pls keep that alive," a user posted in the book's entry.
Some college students have taken it upon themselves to educate their teachers about the prices of the books they assign. At the University of Maryland, a student group dubbed I'd Rather Be Studying prints fliers and blasts e-mails to professors at the end of each semester reminding them to select their books for the next term so students and bookstores know which texts they can turn in for resale.
A coalition of student public interest research groups, or PIRGs, and student government associations have been circulating a petition among college professors that calls for more affordable textbooks and advocates free digital textbooks. More than 1,400 professors at 300 colleges have signed the petition.
Pavel Zemliansky, associate professor of writing and rhetoric at James Madison University, put a textbook he wrote online after a fallout with potential publishers. He said most of the curriculum in his introductory classes, such as grammar and citation, is available free on the Internet.
"It's not clear to me anymore whether university bookstores and educational publishers exist to support education or whether students exist to support those businesses," he said. "It just seems there is a lot of very aggressive marketing going on."
At the University of Virginia, physics professor Michael Fowler said the introductory books cost more than $100 and cover three semesters' worth of material. He always assigns the same book that the professor before him did so that students don't have to purchase a new one before they've completed all the work inside.
"Even if I don't really like the book the guy used last semester, I still use it," he said.
Publishers say they are making efforts to reduce costs. Five of the leading textbook publishers -- including Pearson, Cengage Learning and McGraw Hill -- recently launched an online marketplace for digital textbooks entitled CourseSmart. Students saved an average of $54.30 per e-textbook this month, according to the site. Meanwhile, enterprising start-ups such as Flat World Knowledge are now offering free online textbooks and charge students fees to download or print them.
"Everyone has some blame," said Andrew Friedson, former student body president at the University of Maryland who has lobbied in favor of Maryland's textbook bill. "I could even include students in that."