A price tag for the books

The average cost of textbooks has increased by 7 per cent this year, Campus Bookstore says, so professors are finding alternatives

Textbook costs have increased at 278 per cent of the rate of inflation over the past 12 years.
Image by: Tyler Ball
Textbook costs have increased at 278 per cent of the rate of inflation over the past 12 years.

You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. But can you judge it by its price tag?

With sharp increases in the cost of textbooks this fall, a number of Queen’s students are keeping the change in their pockets and heading to the library to catch up on their reading.

Shona Robinson, ArtSci ’09 and a music minor, was enrolled in a second-year music history course, Music 204, until she found out how much the textbooks cost.

“It’s a huge book and there’s an anthology that goes along with it. The cost of the textbook, the anthology and the other materials was going to set me back over $500,” Robinson said.

Music 204 uses the same textbook as Music 203 and Music 205, three courses required for music majors. But for music minors, Robinson said, the cost just isn’t worth it.

“For music students it’s not so bad because you’re taking all three,” she said. “For anybody else that wants to take any of those courses, you’re in a bit of a bind. That basically doubles the amount you’re paying for the course.

“I looked at the used cost on the bookstore website and it was still up in the $400 range.”

Robinson added that for a course like music history, copyright laws inevitably drive up textbook prices.

“It seems like just a fact of life. … For these courses, the material is taken from all over the place—lots of different composers and different publishers. Unless you get copyright laws changed, I don’t know how much that can be lowered,” she said.

Kim Nossal, the head of the political studies department and teacher of the first-year politics course, decided to order a different textbook for his class when the publisher of the book he has used for the last couple of years increased its price by 38 per cent. Nossal said the publisher, Nelson Canada, lowered the price when the Campus Bookstore approached them, but planned to release a third edition of the text in a couple of months.

A representative from Nelson Canada could not be reached for comment.

Nossal said if too many professors eliminate textbooks from their courses and turn instead to online material, textbook costs could begin to rise at an even higher rate.

“For every course that does not have textbooks it means that there are fewer units that are being sold and, you know, textbook publishers … are going to just simply jack up their prices even further to increase their profitability,” he said.

Campus Bookstore General Manager Chris Tabor said the most expensive book in the store is a medical text for $239.

Tabor didn’t hesitate when asked if he has noticed any trends in the cost of textbooks over the past year.

“Yes we have,” he said. “And guess which direction?”

Tabor said the bookstore estimates an average increase of about seven per cent this year, though there are a few titles that have come down in price.

“It’s a disturbing trend,” he said, citing a study by the American Government Accountability Office that also found costs have been increasing at two to three times the Consumer Price Index over the last 10 years. Although Statistics Canada doesn’t monitor the cost of textbooks, Tabor said, about 70 per cent of the books sold in the Campus Bookstore are American.

A number of professors at Queen’s have responded to the situation, he said. Some have eliminated books from courses if they feel prices have increased too quickly.

“They hold publishers accountable in a lot of cases and, if they see dramatic increases, they call them on it,” he said.

Some professors direct students to online resources instead of traditional books, a move Tabor said the Campus Bookstore supports.

“The mission of this store is to lower prices, not increase them,” he said. “We notify the instructors when we see a price that’s climbing too quickly.”

This year, 17 professors were notified, Tabor said, adding that many have changed the required text, eliminated books or moved to a custom publishing solution. Some professors use e-texts as an alternative to traditional textbooks, but Tabor said he doesn’t think e-texts are a solution.

“We have issues with the e-texts because they are paraded by the publishers as an economical alternative to the overpriced classic textbook. … However, you have to look at the entire cycle,” he said. While students can buy a used book and later resell it—resulting in a net difference that’s usually cheaper than an e-book—e-books can’t be resold because they usually expire, and they often come with technical difficulties.

Tabor said domestic books are generally discounted between seven and nine per cent at Queen’s—an amount set two years ago by EngSoc, which owns the bookstore—giving students access to some of the least expensive books in the country. But cost increases are still noticeable, he said.

“It just dulls the pain of these outrageous price increases.”

The Campus Bookstore’s website includes a tool that posts alterative options—such as Indigo, Amazon, classified advertisements and the library—to encourage students to find the least expensive book.

Publishers give a couple of different explanations for the cost increases, but bookstore management takes issue with their reasons, Tabor said.

“The publishers have all sorts of rationale as to why that would be, but in our view … when the edition doesn’t change, it ought not to go up at twice the inflation rate,” he said.

Colleen O’Neill, executive director, Trade & Higher Education of the Canadian Publishers’ Council, said a rise in textbook prices is due to demand from instructors and students.

“Primarily it’s by the demands of both the instructor and the student for better learning materials,” she said. “That gives the publisher the responsibility to create those materials … all of which are not free.

“The student doesn’t see it, but this goes into the cost of the overall book.”

The Publishers’ Council represents major publishing companies such as McGraw-Hill Ryerson Limited, Thomson Nelson, and Pearson Education Canada.

O’Neill said students are unaware of the benefits they’re receiving from extra enclosed materials.

“Where I think there’s been an issue is probably the breakdown in communication between faculty and students. … In the hard sciences and the mathematics and the businesses, the delivery has changed and that’s a good thing. A textbook alone doesn’t do it anymore.”

O’Neill said the publishing companies she represents have reduced textbook prices since the end of 2007, largely due to the rise of the Canadian dollar.

She also said campus bookstores contribute to the problem.

“The bookstore itself holds a great deal of power on how they price their books—the publisher doesn’t get involved in that,” O’Neill said.

“Some stores price their books way over the publishers’ recommended price. … They don’t necessarily let everybody know that.”

O’Neill said part of her job is to educate students on why they’re paying top dollar for their books.

“We’re working hard with student union groups in Ontario to help inform them so they can help inform the student body.

“We believe that’s the instructor’s job as well.”

Publishing companies are supportive of new ways to access class material, O’Neill said.

“The textbook itself isn’t often all that’s available. We’re hoping to educate students better that they can go directly to the websites and buy stuff online, we think that’s very exciting and that’s what students have told us. Choice is what they want and that’s what we’re producing.

“I’ve read some stories where that’s not what students want. Whoever said that, I’m sorry, but they’re out of the loop.”

Jonathan Rose, a professor in the Department of Political Studies, said as both a professor and a published author he sees both sides of the situation.

“I think my job as an instructor is to ensure that students have the easiest access to the materials possible. If that means putting it in a course pack or on the Internet, then that’s the better way to go,” he said. “But, as an author myself, I understand that people spend time working on these books and deserve to be compensated. There’s a middle ground there.”

Rose, who taught the first-year introductory political studies course from 1994 to 2005, said publishing companies are struggling to adjust in a rapidly-changing industry.

“It’s a business which has existed in paper, and it’s often hard for companies to retool and think about their business in a different way,” he said. “I think the day is coming when publishers will embrace different forms of their content.”

Publishing companies are slowly finding new ways to package course material in a manner practical for students, Rose said.

He used custom published books when teaching the first-year politics course. Such books take specially-selected chapters from different books and bind them together in a manner similar to a course reader.

But Rose said he’s most partial to e-journals, which are easily accessible.

“I’m now thinking the way to go is putting stuff on the web—making readings available that way … in part because it exposes students to different viewpoints.”

Queen’s isn’t the only place where textbook costs have gone through the roof.

In 2007, the University of Alberta Students’ Union conducted a study and found textbook costs increased at 278 per cent the rate of inflation over a period of about 12 years.

John Braga, University of Alberta Students’ Union vice-president (Academic), told the Journal in an e-mail that the price of 137 commonly-used books increased by 75.21 per cent from 1995 to 2007, while inflation for the period was 27.06 per cent.

Pamela Weatherbee, University of Calgary Students’ Union vice-president (Academic), spoke to the Journal on behalf of the Canadian Roundtable on Academic Materials (CRAM), a group that includes student associations and bookstores from 21 schools nationwide.

Much of the change CRAM is working to implement is aimed at the campus level, Weatherbee said. For instance, faculty need to be encouraged to choose textbooks for courses earlier on so there’s time to buy used books. She said other solutions include course packs and digital material, but both bring up issues concerning copyright laws.

CRAM hosted a conference last June which was attended by a number of publishing companies—such as McGraw-Hill and Nelson—but Weatherbee said it has been difficult getting through to them.

“I can’t say that the response has been too overwhelming, but I mean, it’s about opening that communication.”

On Wednesday, the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities released the details for the Textbook and Technology Grant, part of the $1.5 billion Skills to Job Action Plan for post-secondary education and training the government set in March.

All final editorial decisions are made by the Editor(s)-in-Chief and/or the Managing Editor. Authors should not be contacted, targeted, or harassed under any circumstances. If you have any grievances with this article, please direct your comments to journal_editors@ams.queensu.ca.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Queen's Journal

© All rights reserved.

Back to Top
Skip to content