Textbook Battle's New Frontier

April 13, 2007

Throughout their textbook affordability campaign, the State Public Interest Research Groups have rallied around the issue of transparency. Along with complaints that publishers unnecessarily release new textbook editions and bump up the price with "bundled" materials is the charge that these companies aren't forthcoming about textbook pricing.

Several states have pending legislation that would mandate more disclosure, fueling yet another round of warring between PIRG and the Association of American Publishers that is  following a pattern of recent disputes over the increasing cost of textbooks. 

In Washington State, a bill that would require publishing companies to disclose both the price of textbooks and change-of-edition information when presenting material to faculty passed the full Senate this week and is awaiting the governor's approval.

A bill before the California State Senate calls on publishers to give faculty a complete list of all the products they offer, a list of the wholesale price for each product and an estimate of the length of time the publisher plans to keep products on the market. And in Oregon, a similar bill before a Senate education committee would require publishers to disclose prices and plans for new editions, and also enable students to buy books separately from the bundled material (CD-ROMS and workbooks, for instance).

Pushing for textbook legislation is part of PIRG's broader effort to shed light on the practices of the publishing industry -- an effort that has involved myriad studies about the rising cost of textbooks and sparked controversy over inflated figures. Those lobbying for passage of the bills cite a range of PIRG surveys, including one from MASSPIRG showing that fewer than half of professors in that state said publishers' Web sites they used to research textbooks typically list price information. The majority of faculty also said sales representatives from publishing companies either rarely or never volunteer the price.

States involved in the textbook campaign have taken similar surveys demonstrating faculty support for legislation and showing that publishers' practices make it difficult for professors to discern how much students will end up paying for textbooks they order.

"Students are already burdened with a high cost of education, and considering the state budget is thin, this is a way to make it easier to lower the cost of textbooks without decreasing the quality of education and burdening the taxpayer," said Nicole Allen, campus organizer for the University of Washington's WashPIRG chapter.

Bruce Hildebrand, executive director for higher education at the Association of American Publishers, said much of the pricing information that these bills ask for is already easily accessible -- "two or three seconds away," he says -- on the publishers' Web sites.

Allen said that assertion flies in the face of PIRG's reports. "Is that how public universities want staff people spending their time? Searching on publisher Web sites and Amazon.com? Probably not. If a company is selling the product, make all the prices obvious."

Daron Williams, a Washington student and coordinator of WashPIRG's textbook campaign, said the bill is an attempt to "limit the control that publishers have over the market place."

Hildebrand said he supports disclosure but not legislation that regulates how private companies operate. "These are competing companies that design their own sites based on what's best to get the information to faculty," he said. "There's a point at which you can't dictate this unless you are ready to dictate any free enterprise that does business with a state or a college."

He said there are several problems with language in some of the bills, including the reality that promotional materials are often sent out before a product is priced.

Of particular concern to Hildebrand is the California bill, which he said would lead to students paying more for textbooks. His rationale: Forcing publishers -- especially the smaller ones -- to ship detailed information on all company products each time an instructor seeks any information would create overhead that would drive up the cost of the textbooks. Plus, he said, an English professor isn't concerned about the pricing of 500 philosophy or biology titles.

Hildebrand said that "mom and pop" publishing companies would find the California bill particularly cumbersome because some use hardly any printed promotional material. "What this collectively will do is force smaller publishers out of the market, which becomes an infringement of academic freedom," he said.

Darby Kernan, a spokeswoman for California State Sen. Ellen Corbett, who introduced the bill, said it is an attempt to simplify the process for professors and should not be overly burdensome to the publishers. 

Bryce McKibben, director of government relations for the Associated Students of the University of Washington, said the Washington bill isn't asking for a "flooding of the market" with information but rather a commitment by publishers to make pricing readily available.

"We see, in the long term, this bill helping to generate competition among companies, decreasing the price for students and making sure that there are more used books in the market," he said.

A smarter and more realistic  piece of legislation, Hildebrand said, is one that is before the New York State Assembly that would require publishers to, on request, make available to faculty members the price at which the publisher would make the products available to the bookstore that would offer the products.

Hildebrand again pointed to 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 concludes that “faculty should give preference to the lowest cost option when the educational content is comparable.”

"We agree that faculty should consider quality first, but they need to have all the tools to even make price a secondary factor," McKibben said.

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