A new report released today by the Student Public Interest Research Groups indicates that major American publishers are failing to offer viable low-cost alternatives to expensive college textbooks. At the same time, other free and low cost options from a variety of smaller publishing companies are slowly emerging.
In an analysis of the online product offerings of four major textbook publishers -- Thomson Learning , Pearson Education , Houghton-Mifflin  and McGraw Hill  -- the student advocacy group found that the publishers usually do not offer lower-cost versions of many of their titles. And when lower cost options, like e-books or low-frill texts, are available, they are sometimes not prominently advertised. (Low-frill texts are often published in a soft cover and spiral bound format.)
In reviewing the catalogs of each of the publishers, the group looked for 22 frequently assigned textbooks, which had an average cost of $131.44 per book. Of the 22 textbooks, less than half had a comparable lower cost book. Two of the books were available in a low-frill format, while nine books were available as e-books.
“The majority of lower-cost options offered by the major publishers are online textbooks,” according to the report. “Unfortunately, the publishers often limit how the students can view or print these online textbooks, sometimes prohibiting them from printing the text at all.”
Bruce Hildebrand, executive director for higher education at the Association of American Publishers, said that it was "complete spin" to suggest that major publishers have not created or advertised low-cost versions of textbooks. "PIRG has once again taken pieces of misinformation to create a mistaken image of the publishers," he said. "If you put it into perspective, there are hundreds of low-cost options available [to professors]." He said for an introductory psychology textbook alone, there are several alternative books that faculty members could choose to buy from mainstream publishers in the "upper twenties" range.
The report suggested that good news for the penny-pinched student could be found in the growing number of alternative publishers that are offering lower-cost and sometimes free texts. Through a survey of faculty members who had used such publishers, the report indicates that they are overwhelmingly “happy with the books’ educational content.”
Many of the free and low cost textbook publishers studied for the report can be found online. They include:
- Textbook Revolution 
- Safari U 
- Dover Publications 
- Freeload Press 
- OpenCourseWare 
- Connexions 
Still, the report notes that these companies often only offer a limited set of titles and have been able to capture only a fraction of the overall textbook market to date.
Upon issuing the report, officials at the Student Public Interest Research Groups offered some recommendations to mainstream publishers, requesting that they provide students with lower-cost alternatives. They also urged college administrators and faculty members to promote a “vibrant used book market.”