The fall rush to buy textbooks is over, but a campaign led by the State Public Interest Research Groups to rally against the practices of the college textbook publishing industry is not.
In a report released today that is largely a summary of previous findings, PIRG accuses publishers of undermining the used book market and unnecessarily inflating prices. Studies show that the cost of textbooks is rising faster than the rate of inflation, and the price issue has gained traction with at least one lawmaker this year.
“Required Reading: A Look at the Worst Publishing Tactics at Work,” and a preceding report, released in August, are part of the Make Textbooks Affordable Campaign. The latest report draws on anecdotal information from bookstore managers and faculty members across the country, and includes examples (identifying colleges, publisher names and book titles) of practices that PIRG says drive up textbook costs for students.
Among the culprits, according to PIRG: professors who customize their own textbooks by choosing the material to include. The report says that while custom books are often less expensive to purchase, the texts are so particular to an instructor or a college that they have no value in the greater used book market.
"There is no chance for sale on Amazon or eBay, and some books have built-in workbook pages," said Sabrina Case, affordable textbooks coordinator for the PIRGs. “Students can't recoup their expenses. If our responses are any indication, custom books are a major concern."
Bruce Hildebrand, executive director for higher education at the Association of American Publishers, blasted the report's lack of empirical data or independent information, saying that it "reeks of desperation" and is another case of PIRG cherry-picking examples that are largely exceptions to the rules.
Hildebrand said many custom books -- and particularly those that are used by professors who teach courses year after year -- are designed to be resold. "Custom books don't go into the wholesale used book cycle -- so what?" Hildebrand said. "If the faculty member chooses the material, it's more likely to be used again on the same campus. If that's not the best of both worlds, I don't know what is."
Hildebrand said that students' complaints tend to be less about price than use -- that they are getting a poor value because their professors assign only a portion of a book. Custom books meet the demand for effective use of material and lower cost, he added.
A report put out by the publishers' organization earlier this fall showed that by a 17 to 1 ratio, professors weigh the academic merits of a textbook more strongly than they do its price. The PIRG report says that “faculty should give preference to the lowest cost option when the educational content is comparable.”
"Valuable books can be affordable," Case added. "The two aren't mutually exclusive."
The report summarizes many of the concerns that PIRG and other groups have about the publishing industry, including the practices of bundling additional material (such as CD-ROMs) with textbooks and of introducing new textbook editions that have few substantive updates.
Among the report's suggestions are that:
- Publishers should keep each textbook edition and related ancillary items on the market as long as possible without sacrificing educational content.
- Publishers should give preference to print or online supplements to current editions over producing entirely new editions.
- Colleges should provide many forums for students to purchase or rent used books.
- Colleges should encourage students to use online book swaps so that students can buy and sell used books and set their own prices.
Case said that some textbooks are bound with material that includes an identification number used for finding online material for the class. Once that code comes off the book, she said the next student can't access the same material, thus eliminating the buy-back potential.
Hildebrand said publishers that put out books with electronic keys generally allow students to access the same homework assignment for multiple semesters. And as for bundling: "There's no way to compare streamlined paperback versions with little or no art with hardbound for-color editions with massive supplements," he said. "It's like saying a computer that comes with software costs more. Well, yeah."
PIRG and the publishers' group have been at odds for months over the interest group's recent campaign. Citing data from the State PIRGs, that report said that students spend an average of $900 a year on books. But the publishers’ association, in Why PIRG is Wrong," called out PIRG for misleading readers -- saying that a 2005 GAO study shows that the $900 amount also includes fees. Another national research group has estimated that books alone amount to roughly $650 a year per student.
The latest PIRG report again uses $900, and Case said the group stands by its own research and the original figure.
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