Why your textbooks are so pricey

Copyright fees, illustrations, new editions and ‘bloatware’ make for an expensive textbook budget

Campus Bookstore manager Chris Tabor said Queen’s is one of the few campus bookstores that tries to discount its textbooks seven to nine per cent.
Campus Bookstore manager Chris Tabor said Queen’s is one of the few campus bookstores that tries to discount its textbooks seven to nine per cent.

Alison Mackey got an unpleasant surprise when she bought her textbooks in September.

“[It came to] around $900, which was insane,” she said. Mackey, ArtSci ’10, said she was frustrated when she couldn’t buy any used textbooks for her courses.

“I thought I could actually get some free from my sister and her housemate,” she said. “But … [the professor] got new textbooks this year. So I got none [of them] new.”

Mackey said she didn’t notice a significant difference between the old and new editions.

“The profs actually said that there is no real difference between the new edition or the old edition except there are little notes in the side, so I don’t know why they updated it,” she said.

Mackey said books for her economics course were the most expensive on her list.

“There were two very expensive textbooks, about $50 each, plus two workbooks,” she said. “That seemed to be the case for a lot of my courses.”

Mackey said she hasn’t yet used most of the courseware she bought.

“I don’t think that was a wise investment on my part,” she said. “The ones I’ve used the most were the cheapest ones, which I had to go to Copy Express to get for my history [course]. They were only 20 bucks each.”

Mackey said she thinks textbooks are expensive because publishers and bookstores know that students need textbooks and will buy them.

“I guess the best way to rip us off is through the textbooks,” she said. “Students can opt out of meal plans and health plans, but they can’t really opt out of textbooks— they need those.”

Wendy Spiegel, spokesperson for Pearson Education, a textbook publisher, said textbook prices vary reatly according to the book and the discipline it covers.

“Textbook pricing … [depends] upon what the ultimate deliverable is,” she said. Costs relating to raw materials, intellectual property, art and design ll are factored into a textbook’s price, Spiegel said, and different types of textbooks have very different cost breakdowns.

“For instance if you were looking at an art history book … there’s a huge cost associated with rights to reprint those classic pieces of art that are displayed in full colour in that book,” she said. “Those costs are typical of that discipline.
“We still have rights that we have to pay for artwork in other books, but ertainly art history is the premier discipline in which those costs really influence the price of the textbook in addition to all those print costs that I mentioned. High quality art is more expensive.”

Pearson Education’s Prentice Hall History of Italian Renaissance Art costs $106.81 at the Campus Bookstore.

Illustrations in medical or biology textbooks also can be expensive, Spiegel said.

“Very complex illustrations in the sciences for instance— anatomy, physics, biology— very fine artwork is created for discussion and exposition of the pieces that you’ll find in those science materials,” she said.

Spiegel declined to state what percentage of a book’s cost goes towards materials, copyright and design, and said she can’t disclose the amount authors get paid for their work.

“We really don’t discuss royalties—that’s proprietary information between the author and his publisher,” she said, adding that royalties for a textbook are significantly less than those of a novel or other popular book.

“Do not equate an academic author to the kind of earnings you see for popular authors like a John Grisham, or any of the best-selling authors,” she said. “It’s just a different model.”

Spiegel said textbooks typically cost a lot more to print than books such as novels or other non-fiction works.

“A novel is how many colours? How many illustrations? Typically just a black and white text on common stock,” she said.

“A textbook is … high-quality production values, four-colour artwork, page layout that is conducive to learning.
“They’re just totally different experiences.” Spiegel said it’s also important to note that the market for textbooks is significantly smaller than that of other books.
“Whereas a Grisham book or any other book that is successful in the consumer space might sell a million copies, a very successful college textbook may sell 40,000 copies,” she said.

“Typically, especially in the upper-division classes, a textbook would sell less than that … If you look at the financial statements of educational publishers, you will see that we are not a business that has very high margins.
“We certainly are responsible to our shareholders; we’re public companies. But we’re not in the same kind of financial class as the commodity businesses.”

Spiegel said new editions come out when the market demands it, and when the publisher feels it’s a good idea from a business perspective.

“When a publisher makes a decision to invest in a revision, it’s a business decision, it’s because market demands have indicated that materials needs to be included in the book to make it buyable for adoption,” she said.

New editions will come out when faculties indicate an updated version is needed to accommodate new scientific discoveries or if students are having difficulties learning particular concepts.

Spiegel said another scenario with textbooks that have long been in circulation—especially math—is that answers get passed around.

“The answers to the questions in high-stakes exams like midterms and finals get circulated and compromise the integrity of the test,” she said. “All of those contribute to a business decision to invest in a new edition, which is, on average every four years for most books.

“It really varies on the discipline, but again it has to be significant enough to warrant the investment.”
Spiegel said not all textbooks have to be expensive. “Many of our titles have alternative, low-cost editions,” she said.

These can include online textbooks, which are about half the cost of printed books, and loose-leaf versions of textbooks.

“In addition, we offer faculty the opportunity to customize a textbook,” Spiegel said. “They can just select the chapters they will teach in their course, so traditionally it will be a smaller textbook.”

Over the last 10 years, Queen’s Campus Bookstore manager Chris Tabor said he has noticed an increase in textbook prices beyond the current inflation rate.

“Absolutely. All books in general [have increased in price],” he said. “Engineering and medicine tend to go up faster because the publishing of new editions, but generally we haven’t noticed prices going down.”

This year, Tabor said, the bookstore received about 40 new textbook editions. Tabor said part of the high price is due to “bloatware,” such as added CD -Roms or other features.

“I think a great deal of it would be a perceived requirement for additional ancillary items added to packages, more companion websites, more test banks, more of those kinds of items … that are typically included in a textbook,” he said.

Tabor said University faculty generally take into consideration student budgets when adopting textbooks.

“[Professors] have worked hard to work previous editions into their notes, and I can think of several faculty that have used custom courseware as an alternative,” he said. “Our faculty are pretty good here. They’re sensitive to that issue.”

Comparative politics professor John McGarry said he takes both price and content into account when adopting textbooks.

“The main factor is not one of price but one of content, and is it relevant to what you’re trying to teach,” he said. “If a textbook is over thirty dollars, in my view I would try to stay clear of it. I go for paperbacks as opposed to hardcovers, and if there’s no relatively inexpensive textbook, I would try to put on some kind of reading package of photocopied material.”

McGarry said he usually opts for newer editions of books because of the topical nature of his courses.

“It depends on if there is much new material in a new edition,” he said. “Obviously it’s better to have a new edition—the newer edition will be more up-to-date.
“But sometimes new editions are virtually unchanged from old editions. In that case it might be to some advantage in staying with the old edition because there might be used copies around.”

Tabor said because the Campus Bookstore is owned and operated by students, it tries to accommodate student budgets. Basic Histology: Text & Atlas, A McGraw-Hill Ryerson anatomy textbook, costs $76.95 at the University of Toronto’s bookstore, and $72.13 at Queen’s Campus Bookstore.

Tabor said prices at the University’s bookstore tend to be slightly less than those elsewhere.

“It’s one of the few, if not only, stores that discounts their books between seven to nine per cent.”

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