(Photo by Jenna Johnson)

The pair will be touring dozens of college campuses over the next few months to ask students, faculty members and others to sign a petition that urges higher education leaders to prioritize affordable textbooks or free e-books over the traditional, high-priced new books. Organizers are calling their campaign a “Textbook Rebellion.”

“I think it’s fair to say it’s going to be fairly epic,” said Nicole Allen, the textbooks advocate for Student PIRGs, which is leading the rebellion and organized a Wednesday morning press conference at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Fall classes are just starting, and many students will spend hours standing in line at the bookstore or searching the Web for textbooks.

There are a lot of numbers floating around for how much the average student will spend on books. Student PIRGs cite the College Board, which estimates that students spent $1,137 on books and supplies last year. The National Association of College Stores says the average full-time student spent a total of $667 on textbooks during the 2009-10 school year. Of that, $483 was spent on new and used books in their campus bookstore. (And while the evil textbook mascot represents a $200 price tag, the average new textbook was $62 in 2009-10, according to the association.)

“I’m frustrated that textbooks cost so much,” said Jamil Scott, a member of the U-Md. student government who spoke at the press conference. That expense, she said, is yet another barrier to getting a college education for some students.

In response, a spokesperson for the Association of American Publishers said in an email: “The nation’s higher education publishers have been aggressively working to provide students with multiple course material options in a wide variety of prices and formats. Their efforts have led to cost savings for students: unlike tuition, typical student spending on publisher produced materials has declined 8-percent in 2009 vs 2001, according to the most recent study by Student Monitor.”

On Wednesday the rebellion leaders promoted Flat World Knowledge, a new publishing company that provides free digital versions of its peer-reviewed textbooks. Print copies are also available for $20 to $40.

Charles Stangor, a U-Md. psychology professor, has written one of these open textbooks emphasized that even though these books are free, they are still of high quality. Stangor said it was refreshing to work with a company that put more emphasis on writing and editing the textbook than on marketing it.

“Textbooks should be as cheap as possible, but not cheap,” he said, putting his own spin on the Einstein quote, Make things as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

Flat World Knowledge has produced more than 40 titles — nowhere near the vast number produced annually by traditional publishing houses and assigned to students by department heads and professors.

This post was updated on Thursday to correct spending statistics from the National Associtaion of College Stores and add a response from the Association of American Publishers. It was again updated on Friday morning to add that the textbook cost estimate cited by the Student PIRGs comes from the College Board.

What do you think? What can students do to save money on textbooks? What can university officials do to help?