Throwing Down the Book

Publishers' group catches a key mistake by group that says textbook prices are too high.
August 29, 2006

Earlier this month, the Student Public Interest Research Groups released a report indicating that major American publishers fail to offer viable low-cost alternatives to expensive college textbooks. But it turns out that textbooks (however much their high prices bother students and their families) are significantly less expensive than the research group said.

In a gotcha moment, the Association of American Publishers released its own report this week, noting that PIRG misled the public regarding the cost of college textbooks. PIRG officials admitted to at least one key mistake on Monday, but continue to support efforts to lower textbook costs.

In a detailed white paper released this week, titled “ Why PIRG is Wrong,” the publishers' association indicated that PIRG's information is misleading on multiple fronts. Specifically, the publishers note that the group asserted in its report that “students spend about $900 per year on textbooks." That $900 has been widely cited since the PIRG report was released, with newspaper articles quoting it and some textbook companies using it to say that their offerings are reasonably priced.

Actually, according to a 2005 Government Accountability Office study, students spend an average of $900 a year on books combined with fees. The Student Monitor, a national research group, has estimated that book costs alone amount to approximately $650, on average.

Dave Rosenfeld, a director with the Student Public Interest Research Group, qualified the discrepancy by saying that $650 is still far too much for a student to be spending on textbooks.  

Bruce Hildebrand, executive director for higher education at the Association of American Publishers, said that he was "angry" about the mistake. He added that major publishers have expanded the number of lower-cost textbooks based on “market demand.” The industry, according to the association, has offered split editions, electronic books, black-and-white editions, abbreviated texts, textbooks by chapter, and custom texts.

Hildebrand said that academics are placing too much credence on research from PIRG when blame should really be cast on professors who choose to offer higher cost textbooks. One area where both sides seem to agree is that alternative publishers need scrutiny before being used on a wide scale basis.

“This debate has always been emotional,” said Hildebrand. “But the fire is being fed by misinformation and anecdotes.”

In PIRG’s original analysis, the group found that 22 frequently assigned textbooks had an average cost of $131.44 per book. Officials with the organization say that this is a burden too heavy for many students to bear. 

Hildebrand believes that the group has unjustly blamed publishers when PIRG’s own data indicated that the books were those most “frequently assigned.” “No faculty member is forced to choose one over another,” he said. “Lower cost versions in all subjects are being sold in bookstores as we speak.”

Hildebrand said that he relies on data from a recent poll by Zogby International, which indicates that 75 percent of faculty either “require” or “recommend” supplemental materials and 55 percent generally use supplementary materials in their courses.

Rosenfeld said that the Association of American Publishers’ arguments “miss the point of what we’re trying to say.” “We had been saying all along that we wanted to focus on the most commonly used books by students,” he said.

“Professors order the books but do not have to pay for them,” added Rosenfeld. “Publishers exploit this dynamic by withholding pricing information unless asked, and by presenting custom/bundling options without any of their downsides.  Without any other institutionalized counterbalance of information, it’s not surprising that otherwise well-intentioned professors choose the options put before them by publisher sales reps.” 

“We take our research very seriously,” said Rosenfeld. “And we stand by it.”

Some individuals, like Mark Long, a former English professor at Texas State Technical College at Waco, believe that publishers have attempted to reduce costs. But at TSTC Waco, Long said, costs have long continued to skyrocket for many students at the two-year institution. Thus, the college created its own publishing arm, TSTC Publishing, to work with faculty members to produce mid-range priced textbooks (from $10 to $65) for use in their classes. Long is now the publisher at the institution.

Camden County College, in New Jersey, has also been working with faculty members to try to reduce student book costs. The institution recently created a plan that asks that professors to use the same books for at least six consecutive semesters, among other cost saving efforts.

Hildebrand said he welcomes such efforts, even if they mean that the bottom line of publishers could be adversely affected in the long run.

The original PIRG report also called for faculty members to support and embrace alternative publishers that provide low-cost or free books. But such organizations do not always offer the best educational materials to students. For instance, in reference to Freeload Press, of Minnesota, which offers free e-books to students with advertisements inserted within the text, Rosenberg said  he has “reservations about ads corrupting the content” of some free books. Hildebrand said that he agreed with that assessment.

Peggy Morgan, a spokeswoman for Freeload, said that "the credibility of Freeload Press can be addressed by reviewing the books and  seeing the quality of the books, the background of the authors, and the enthusiastic support of the academic community."  

Both Hildebrand and Rosenberg said they would be willing to have “constructive talks” in the future about their differences.


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