Reading between the lines

Textbooks come with a higher price tag than students are willing to pay, while readings move online

Tabor said that professors at Queen’s are some of the most price conscious when picking textbooks to order for students.
Tabor said that professors at Queen’s are some of the most price conscious when picking textbooks to order for students.

Chris Tabor, the general manager at the Campus Bookstore, agrees with the common sentiment that textbooks are ridiculously priced.

“If these prices seem ridiculous, it’s because they are,” he said.

Many students are agitated by the high prices of required textbooks for their classes while the Bookstore, profs and library services, alike, aim to do all they can to relieve this student concern.

According to Tabor, for domestic titles, the Campus Bookstore attempts to discount seven to nine per cent from the publisher’s price. About 90 per cent of the Bookstore’s stock is Canadian.

Weighing costs and benefits can be important ― it isn’t just the price, it’s how much students get out of an expensive text.

“We’ve done surveys over 10 years, and it actually isn’t the price that upsets students so much as much as the utility ― how much of the book are they actually using?” Tabor said.

Still, he estimates that just under 60 per cent of students buy their required textbooks, whether new or used.

As an alternative to the Bookstore, some students turn to Amazon or the library for their textbooks or share with others. On the Bookstore’s website, less expensive alternatives, such as e-books, are offered.

While the Bookstore also offers textbook rentals, a relatively new option, Tabor says that buying a used book and selling it back is the cheapest option. Used books, he said, are priced 25 per cent lower than new books.

“On a $100 book, as an example, if a student bought that used, it would be $75 and if they were to sell it back, if it was used at Queen’s again, they could get $50,” he said.

Used textbooks are sourced from both Queen’s students and from a large network of 22 other university stores.

“We never get enough,” he said. “We get as many as we can, and regrettably there’s a lot of competition for used books in Canada right now.”

When it comes to pricing for new books, the Bookstore’s hands are tied to whatever publishers say.

“It’s been described as a broken market,” he said. “We can’t buy that book from anybody but that publisher.”

“That said, the instructors at Queen’s are probably, in our experience, more sensitive to price,” he added. “We get asked for pricing increasingly before a professor will adopt it.”

The prices of textbooks, he said, are escalating at three times the rate of inflation. Beyond that, if a book is imported into the country from the US or U.K., there’s a 10 to 15 per cent price increase.

A feature of the Canadian Copyright Regulations aims to protect distributors in Canada, so even if a book is cheaper outside of the country, regulations may prevent its import.

Tabor said that although this regulation makes getting the cheapest option difficult, it still doesn’t speak to why prices are so high in Canada. He believes, though, that Queen’s is the lowest-priced student bookstore in Canada due to its discount policy.

Because it’s not-for-profit and student-run, operation costs are lower than usual, allowing them to put prices down by seven to nine per cent.

“That being said, it’s just nine per cent less outrageous,” he said.

Niki Hyndman, ArtSci ’14, has returned textbooks because she determined the value wasn’t worthwhile, and went without, instead just using class notes.

“There’s one class in particular that I bought two textbooks out of five and I ended the class with an A,” she said.

Hyndman doesn’t think every textbook is necessary, especially when you’re not using everything in the text. Even with her tactics, Hyndman pays at least $100 per class for some of her reading materials.

“I think it can be frustrating when profs assign expensive textbooks.” she said. “I think a $50 textbook for three readings is too expensive.”

She uses her e-reader to buy as many textbooks electronically as possible, in order to save money. Not every required text is available though.

“I’m actually surprised Queen’s doesn’t do more [electronic textbooks],” she said. “Obviously there are copyright laws, but I think that’s something more the University could do.”

The University does, however, have a whole office dedicated to copyrighting and access to knowledge and research.

Mark Swartz, a copyright specialist at the Copyright Advisory Office, believes the demand for online materials will grow in the future. Similar to the print reserve system, e-reserves ― an online publication reserved by professors for student use in class ― was established last semester because of the growing demand of online readings.

“Through the library we license hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of journal articles through databases and aggregators ... we also have tons of books in our collection,” he said.

“If a faculty member wants to have digital access to something, they have to plug into our system and submit a request,” he said. “We basically fulfill that request.”

After requesting, the Copyright Advisory Office staff jumps into action: looking it up in their catalogue, paying any necessary fees, scanning chapters and providing links to the professors for posting the material.

“The way the system works is that it plugs directly into Moodle so we can just post things automatically,” he said.

Money comes from various departments and goes into a specific copyright fund for the fees to be covered.

Occasionally, access can’t be granted, but Swartz said if professors place their requests early enough, the office can help them find alternative sources.

“We’re hoping that we can put most of the courses [offered at Queen’s] in it over the next three or four years,” he said.

Alexandre Da Costa, a professor of global development studies, doesn’t see buying a whole textbook for a few readings economically advantageous. His classes require a lot of sources, so he uses the online system.

Da Costa recognizes that the shift to online can help students with financial diffculties. However, he’d still prefer to use a textbook if he could find the right one.

“I’ve gone online because I think that I often use one chapter from a book, one author from a particular journal and it changes every week … in my courses, it doesn’t make sense for students to buy a textbook,” he said.

A textbook can also be a time-saver for students and professors. Textbooks usually provides complementary readings, exercises and other useful tools that online readings might lack.

Da Costa also said that he notices that a lot of his students don’t have or don’t use their laptops for course readings, and online texts are still in a transitional period.

Katherine Romba, assistant professor and Undergraduate Chair of art history, said she doesn’t think textbooks should be online at all.

“I find online materials convenient, but I am nonetheless not a big fan of electronic access,” she told the Journal via email.

To Romba, having something solid to hold and a different feeling with each text is important.

“I feel that different texts should also be different experiences ― each with its own physical character, including the feel of the paper and the weight of the text,” she said. “If all texts are read on the same computer, they lose their material individuality.”

Her aversion to online materials stems from her concern about the extinction of an authentic and unique learning experience.

By using one device, like a computer, to view online material, everything feels the same and we’ll lose important insight, she said.

“With the increased use of certain single devices that provide a range of everyday functions, I think our spectrum of sensory experience is narrowing, leading to a potential dulling of everyday experience.”

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