Going After Textbook Prices

A student group upset over high prices is now focusing on individual offerings -- starting with an intro physics book.
April 11, 2005

Student groups upset over high textbook prices are now going after individual texts -- organizing petition drives to urge publishers to stop issuing new editions of expensive works if not necessary.

A petition signed by hundreds of faculty members was sent to Thomson Learning this week, urging it to stop issuing new version of Physics for Scientists and Engineers,  a popular introductory textbook. The professors -- organized by the California Public Interest Research Group -- say that the latest version of the book, published last year, isn't significantly different from the edition issued four years earlier. But a new edition not only ends up being more expensive, but making it impossible for many students to buy used texts.

The book in question costs $134.96.

The petition says that the faculty members are generally satisfied with the content of the book, and object only to the high price. They also note that an edition in Britain sells for much less: $72.43.

Merriah Fairchild, higher education advocate at CalPIRG, said that professors suggested that the group focus on this text. "We heard that this was the textbook example of what's wrong with publishers practices," she said.

Adam Gaber, a spokesman for Thomson, said it was "vital" for publishers to issue new editions for educational reasons. Material covered "can change or evolve quickly," he said, and even where that is not the case, other issues come into play. "In quantitative
disciplines like math and physics, examples and practice questions must be updated frequently to promote security and to help ensure the integrity of homework assignments, quizzes, and tests," he said.

The Association of American Publishers also attacked the petition. Patricia Schroeder, president of the association, said of critics:  "They also forget a central factor in the textbook market. It is a free market. Professors choose the textbooks and supplemental instructional materials they believe best meet their students’ needs. Professors are not impulse buyers, they are among the best educated and most sophisticated consumers in America."

Some observers see problems with the behavior of both publishers and professors. Robert Jacobsen, a professor of physics at the University of California at Berkeley, said new editions add to students' costs. New editions "almost always get bitter, more color, etc.," and that makes them more expensive, he said.

But he noted that this is only a problem when professors require students to buy a new edition. While many faculty members "take the path of least resistance and just adopt," he said they have other options. They can push a publisher to offer a softcover version of the old edition, he said. Or they can turn to custom publishing to produce a leaner and less expensive volume.

At Berkeley, he said, physics professors have worked with Pearson Custom Publishing to create special versions of texts that drop material that isn't used, and are printed in black and white, not color. Students end up saving about 35 percent from what the book would cost without alterations, Jacobsen said. "I'll admit they're still unhappy, but hopefully they're less unhappy."


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