Tracking Down Textbook Data

May 7, 2007

Legislation intended to make textbook pricing and edition-change information accessible to the college faculty who order the material continues to move through state legislatures across the country.

In most cases, the bills pit the State Public Interest Research Groups against individual publishers and the Association of American Publishers. One of the key issues: How readily available do publishers make information on cost, revision history and bundling on their Web sites and promotional material? In other words, can faculty easily discern what their students will eventually pay?

If you listen to the PIRGs, the answer is a clear "no." Publishers engage in practices that confuse professors and colleges, they say, and most faculty report that they cannot easily find all the pertinent information about the material, according to a widely cited report by the Massachusetts PIRG.

"When you survey faculty anecdotally, they all say it's difficult to get pricing information," said Dave Rosenfeld, campus program director with the Student PIRGs. "The problem is just so obvious and the solution, [legislation], is such a no-brainer that there's no argument."

Hold on, says Bruce Hildebrand, executive director for higher education at the Association of American Publishers. Most of the information is right there on the publishers' sites, a few clicks and a few seconds away, he contends. That which is not included on the Web page is available in complimentary copies of a textbook or through individual inquiries with a sales representative.

"The basic premise of these bills is that faculty are lazy or don't care about costs," Hildebrand said. "That's not true. They are good at looking at options. It's all about what they want for students. If a book is too expensive, buy a cheaper one."

The debate has carried on in Minnesota, with one major difference: the student advocacy voice comes not from PIRG, which has drafted model legislation that has shaped many of the bills under consideration or already passed.

“The real crux is that faculty are rarely told how much it’s going to cost students. We want more disclosure,” said Graeme Allen, director of university and government relations at the Minnesota State University Student Association, one of two student advocacy groups pushing the legislation. (The other is the Minnesota State College Student Association).

After a good deal of wrangling over language and provisions in the bill, a higher education conference committee of both House and Senate lawmakers adopted final language last week (it must still be passed by the full House and Senate, and signed by the governor). The “Textbook Disclosure, Pricing and Access Act” says that starting in 2009, any publisher that sells or distributes course material for use in a Minnesota institution must make readily available to faculty, bookstores and institutions:

  • The title, edition, author and ISBN
  • The undiscounted price at which the course materials are available to the bookstore
  • Formats, including bundled or unbundled, in which those materials are offered and the undiscounted prices of the components, both sold separately or packaged together
  • Summary of revisions between current and previous editions
  • The return policy for course material, including penalties

The bill states that publishers must make all bundled material available to bookstores and colleges in an unbundled form – or provide information if unbundled material isn’t available. It calls on colleges to report back next year on how they are helping to promote more disclosure, and asks faculty members to post more information about what books are required in their courses.

“It’s a really good starting point, but it wasn’t as far as we’d like it to go,” said Scott Formo, student board chair of the Minnesota State College Student Association. Formo said the bill's authors, wary of going too far to meddle in publisher practices, avoided being overly prescriptive.

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 told Inside Higher Ed last month. “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.”

(The bill also mentions that “nothing in this section shall be construed to limit any existing academic freedom or rights of faculty members to determine the most appropriate course material for the courses they teach.”)

Allen, the student association director, said it often takes professors in Minnesota too long to get pertinent information about the textbooks they select. A search of six titles used in large courses at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities and Duluth, and Century College showed that some of the basic information requested in the transparency bill — title, edition, author, ISBN, base price — is clearly displayed by publishers.

For instance, it took fewer than five clicks to find the basics of a popular biology textbook by Addison Wesley/Benjamin Cummings and an economics textbook published by McGraw-Hill. But that’s not the case for some of the more sensitive items being sought in the bill. Finding information about whether additional bundled material is included is a bit more difficult, sometimes requiring a Web searcher to read detailed descriptions of the product. Some of the publishers included separate costs for the bundled items.

Hildebrand said summaries of revisions are typically found within copies of textbooks sent to faculty members, and that the easiest indicator is the number of copyright dates posted in the back. None of the publisher sites viewed had easy-to-find lists of different editions and prices, but Hildebrand said that shouldn’t be surprising. “You don’t see Ford posting prices of their past models when they’re selling a new car,” he said.

The best way to find past prices and market values, he said, is through search engines and Amazon.com. A Google search of an ISBN number of a book leads to detailed listings of edition choices and prices. A smaller publisher whose marketing book is used in a Century College class displays prominently on its Web site ways to contact sales representatives for more specific information.

“If you’re selling this product and making information available to some faculty, why are you against codifying it? We’re trying to standardize the process,” Allen said, adding that students should be able to know if they are going to purchase a product that will be revised the next year.

Said Hildebrand: “Companies are looking to get a competitive edge and aren’t keen about throwing out too much information to tip their competitors to future plans.”

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