Textbooks: Profit on Pupils?
October 21, 2003 11:41 AM   Subscribe

College Textbooks Are Half-Price Overseas. The big secret is out. As college students hammer into their piggy banks to buy books for their classes, academic publishing avarice has no limits. The results? An unexpected import-export gray market and a possible antitrust violation after previous claims of "high costs," while McGraw Hill profits. Meanwhile, Bush promises free textbooks to Iraq.
posted by ed (42 comments total)
 
price fixing and gouging. time for jail.
posted by quonsar at 12:18 PM on October 21, 2003


Bu-bu-bu-but Big Business is our friend! It loves us and wants us to be happy! It always has our best interests at heart! Honest!
posted by Cerebus at 12:37 PM on October 21, 2003


ha! i remember paying $50 or $60 for used textbooks ten years ago. nothing like the feeling of taking them back at the end of the semester to the little table outside the bookstore and selling them back for...$10.

guess the market won't bear this for too much longer, you thieves.
posted by gottabefunky at 12:40 PM on October 21, 2003


(of course prices will rise even higher first as they try to counteract, and they'll moan, and complain, and lobby...)
posted by gottabefunky at 12:41 PM on October 21, 2003


Not to mention the numbers of students who are downloading pirated copies of textbooks...oh wait, nobody has figured that one out yet.
posted by mecran01 at 12:52 PM on October 21, 2003


Heh, Globalization is a double-edged sword.

"$150 for a crappy book on statstics? Count me in!"
posted by skallas at 1:03 PM on October 21, 2003


hey, if we don't maintain these finanicial barriers to education, you know what will happen, don't you?

that's right: millions and millions of lawyers.
posted by fishfucker at 1:17 PM on October 21, 2003


I've picked up quite a few 'Low Price Edition' Indian computer science and electrical engineering textbooks from half.com and amazon.com Marketplaces. They're softcover and usually have thinner paper, but even after the resller's markup they're usually a third of the price for a brand new book. It's cheaper to buy the India editions and keep them than to buy a new hardcover from the university bookstore and then sell it back for a pittance.
Usually on the cover or copyright page is a small notice saying "this book is only authorized for sale in India, Nepal, Singapore, Tajikistan, ..."
posted by zsazsa at 1:21 PM on October 21, 2003


Keep the Population Dumb: The first rule of any effective plutocracy.
posted by ed at 1:22 PM on October 21, 2003


Black market economics. Love it.
posted by the fire you left me at 1:24 PM on October 21, 2003


I remember reading that out of every dollar you spend on a book at a campus bookstore, 60% of that goes to the publisher's coffers. Nice to see that my hatred towards the textbook industry gets a bit more fuel.

I'm assuming this publishers are also charging overly high for the books used in elementry and high schools as well, using money that could be used better elsewhere.
posted by Darke at 1:24 PM on October 21, 2003


You know that the publishers will just change a few of the problems at the end of chapters, move the chapters around, and make US, UK, Indian, etc. editions of the books. I mean, that's what they basically do when they come out with a new edition of textbooks every year.
posted by gyc at 1:26 PM on October 21, 2003


Fishfucker,
Last I read, there was something like 1 lawyer for every 324 people in the United States, and if this country continues trading all of our freedoms for enhanced security, I would welcome an influx of lawyers. At least it may help slow down things like this.
posted by banished at 1:27 PM on October 21, 2003


Textbooks are indeed overpriced, especially if the "new, improved" edition has little to add over the last year's model. After my freshman year of college, I shared books and used the library a lot. It took a little extra planning, but saving a few hundred dollars was worth it.

I'm just astounded by how quickly the costs of higher education are rising. Even since I graduated, tuition and board at my alma mater has risen something like $2000 a year. I don't know how much longer kids will be able to go to school without a) finding huge scholarships and grants or b) going into massive debt.
posted by acornface at 1:42 PM on October 21, 2003


Just a point of reference on used text books (my client is a huge American text book publisher, so I hear these complaints all the time.) Publishers HATE used text books. College bookstores love them - it's their highest profit margin product. The book store buys your book for $10 and resells it for $50. The profit for the college bookstore on new books from the publishers is far less.
posted by Red58 at 1:48 PM on October 21, 2003


A few links from McGraw Hill Corporate:

Original Manuscripts: "All authors today prepare their manuscripts on computer. Even so, we have yet to achieve a paperless production process....Because our books are composed electronically, we may use your word-processing files to avoid rekeying. If so, we don't have to retype each character and word....When you have several draft chapters, send us both a printout and a disk. We will review them to guide you on efficient preparation of your content and files." (Looks like Corporate needs to cut costs across the board. Keep up that paperless office and, by all means, do your own damn editing.)

Permissions Department: If you want to photocopy anything, they want highly specific information. I wonder how much the Legal Department could net if a university instructor made one copy over the threshold.
posted by ed at 1:59 PM on October 21, 2003


McGraw Hill pays slave wages too. My first newspaper job paid more than I was making as an editor at McGraw.
posted by dejah420 at 2:12 PM on October 21, 2003


Darke: I remember reading that out of every dollar you spend on a book at a campus bookstore, 60% of that goes to the publisher's coffers.

It's true that a higher percentage of textbook sales is usually passed back to the publisher than in the world of trade books, like mass-market paperbacks. But the rationale is not because-they-can moneygrabbing, it's related to lower per-unit sales: the publishers has less unit volume with which to turn a profit.

My guess is that textbook publishers make back their investment by selling to the US market at higher prices, then don't care as much about price when it's time to shop it elsewhere. They've exploited until-now lack of global price comparison availability to do so. I wouldn't call it proce gouging, but I would call it a nice step toward fairer prices for all buyers.
posted by ssukotto at 2:21 PM on October 21, 2003


The solution might be worse than the problem. If the price of a given book is identical all over the world, it would likely be too costly for students in poor countries.

I use AddAll to comparison shop for books. It searches bookstores all over the world, and I usually find books for considerably less than the MSRP.
posted by letitrain at 2:44 PM on October 21, 2003


red58:
Your assertion that used texts are the highest margin item in college bookstores is likely correct, but most bookstores belong to a couple of used-book consortiums. The books, after purchase from students at $10, are sent to and warehoused, and sold back to the bookstores according to need. Need is projected from early-registration numbers.

The advantage this creates for the bookstores is that they don't have to maintain stock (inventory costs money) over the summer, and don't wind up with more used books than there are students in a particular class the next semester.

One of my friends works at such a warehouse in Columbia, MO. They still shelve and sort books by *hand*.
posted by notsnot at 2:51 PM on October 21, 2003


The book store buys your book for $10 and resells it for $50. The profit for the college bookstore on new books from the publishers is far less.

Too bad you haven't learned enough in your college career to smell bullshit when its fed to you. The profit margin on used textbooks is higher than on new, but not by much, precisely because of what notsnot has said. College bookstores pad their profits by "spec-ing" books, anticipating how many of a certain book at buyback will be needed and keeping that amount before sending them back to the wholesalers like MBS (in Columbia MO). A store good at spec-ing will make additional profit that helps the store continue to provide used books to the students. Those that care more about profit don't bother spec-ing, they just charge more.

And, I will never understand why supposedly intelligent college students can't figure out that when the publishers and authors make 60 to 70 percent of every dollar spent on books, and the bookstore makes 10 percent or less, that the bookstore is not their enemy.

(Self-disclosure: I work at a campus bookstore that is a not-for-profit, owned by the students and faculty of the University. We have among the lowest (if not the lowest) textbook prices in the country. Our net profit is usually less than one percent a year. If you don't think that the price machinations of textbook publishers hurt us, and the quality that we can provide, as well as the students we work for, than you're not smart enough to be in college. Grab a shovel and start your new career, buckwheat. /rant)
posted by Wulfgar! at 3:29 PM on October 21, 2003


They still shelve and sort books by *hand*.

Having just packed up my entire library for a move, I'm wondering ... is there some other way to do it than by hand? Please, someone tell me there's a magical way for all my books to get on my shelves in order that won't require me to do it with my own eyes and hands.

And in the subject ... textbooks were ridiculous when I was in college. I was always especially entertained by the prices of literature books (like Chaucer) at the school bookstore. When the prof would allow it (and some bastards didn't), I would buy it somewhere else for far less. From what I hear from the kids in college today, books are an even larger expense than they were back when I needed them. One of them recently bought a math book that was all of 200 pages and paid about $100 for it. Pretty damn insane.
posted by Orb at 3:45 PM on October 21, 2003


It has been my experience that professors are fanatically anti-bookstore. They want their students to get better prices, to beat the system, to cheapen the pain of their education. I ask: who is getting paid to write these textbooks? The publishers? The bookstores?

When you read Chaucer, Shakespeare, or Milton, how many of your dollars go to them, and how many go to the "editor/translator"? When you buy a mathbook only slightly different from the mathbook your upperclassmen bought the year before, who wrote this new math you are paying to purchase? Newton?, Leibniz? Lord Whitehead? How much do they make on this knowledge that has changed so much in a year? Just askin ...

The motives of your bookstore are to stay in business. The motives of your book publishers are increasing profit. The motives of the professors is ... ?
posted by Wulfgar! at 3:54 PM on October 21, 2003


I got through my BA and MLS only purchasing about 1/3 of all the "required" books for my courses. And of the ones I actually got tricked into buying, only opened maybe half.

That's the real scam of college, just how little reliance or need there is for those "required" textbooks.
posted by obfusciatrist at 3:55 PM on October 21, 2003


I've been bitching about this for years, since I went through college.. I would spend hundreds of dollars a semester on books only to return to the store- to find they'd only take 1 or 2 used books back! most courses require whatever latest edition and new ones come out yearly or so! you can't tell me that much revision went into it.. I swear, i think the book companies have it in with the universities. damn illuminati price fixing bastards

Oh yeah, some of my books cost upwards on a hundred dollars or more... i hope something drastic changes!
posted by shadow45 at 4:11 PM on October 21, 2003


I swear, i think the book companies have it in with the universities. damn illuminati price fixing bastards

Who writes the books? Who pays the writers to publish the books? Who chooses the books that get used that come from the publishers? Come on, you're bright people. Follow the money ...
posted by Wulfgar! at 4:54 PM on October 21, 2003


I am now doing a couple months' work in the warehouse of a publisher/distributor, putting books into boxes. The company I work for distributes a wide variety of materials: kids' books, cookbooks, reference books on everything from astrology to zoology, coffee table books on railway lines, cottage country, art history, regional architecture. They also handle a line of computer books. Most of the product seems to be wholesaled to stores with discounts of between 42 and 50 percent off the cover price. Remember, books are heavy, so shipping and handling costs must be significantly higher than for many other products: than for CDs, for example. And books can be sent back for credit if unsold, a curious practice that seems to me to undermine the economic foundation of the industry. In our warehouse many staff are dedicated to processing the returned books.

Really, I look around at the operation and wonder where the profit is, although I'm told it's there. Most of the books I see are specialty consumer books, with the exception of the line of computer books, which are often used as textbooks. The disparity in the price of the consumer books and the computer books is notable. Large, richly produced, full colour hardcover books can cost half the price of the relatively plain computer texts, which can cost up to $80 Cdn in paperback. I don't see any rationale for the comparitively high cost, especially since the demand for many of the consumer books is much less certain than for the textbooks. The consumer books are probably produced on much smaller, more expensive print runs.
posted by TimTypeZed at 5:46 PM on October 21, 2003


Yes, wulfgar!, you've found us out. It's all a big conspiracy of evil perfessers to extract as much as we can from our noble and long-suffering students.

Oh, wait. We don't get dime one from the books we assign (unless they're ours, which can edge into the dishonest). But surely there's some vast plan where I'll assign your books if you assign mine.

Oh, wait. The vast majority of professors will never publish a textbook. A book, maybe. But not a textbook -- a non-research book intended for (almost always) undergraduate or professional-school students. There's a vast difference between proper textbooks and scholarly or research texts (or novels) that happen to be used in class.

Why would I go out of my way to assign books that enrich a company I don't know, and wouldn't want to publish under, and a person or people that I don't know, aren't likely to meet, and odds are don't even have much respect for?

Why things suck in the textbook market:
(1) Professors have only a limited incentive to care about increasing costs, since we don't pay them. A lot of people assign the latest-but-one edition to avoid the bogus new edition problem, --BUT-- you have to go out of your way to do it. If you just list Foo on your text assignment, you'll get whatever the latest edition of Foo is.

You want cheaper books? Get a contract between your local student government and the faculty such that professors can get 5% (or two students' worth, or whatever) of the savings over last year's version of the same course. I do not vouch for the quality of the required readings for this course.

(2) There are enough students for whom price doesn't affect their own circumstances (ie, parents are buying their books, so it's not even less beer money) to drive prices higher.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:27 PM on October 21, 2003


When the prof would allow it (and some bastards didn't), I would buy it somewhere else for far less

How the hell can they stop you? Ask for receipts?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:31 PM on October 21, 2003


ROU_X, don't get me wrong. I'm not trying to get students to turn against their professors. Rising tuitions and out of control fees are not the fault of faculty. I'm trying to get them to think about where their money is going before they blindly act out against those most handy. Don't look for conspiracy theories where simple self-interest will do. Sarcasm won't convince me, or anyone else I think, that professors don't have an interest in promoting higher value textbook sales. You don't? Cool. Does that speak to your profession? Not so much. Should students blame professors for their rising costs of an education? Absolutely not. But educated people ought to be aware of what and where it is costing them, wouldn't you agree? ROU_X, you can try and shame me with sarcasm, but all you're doing is exhibiting the same anti-bookstore schtick with which I am so familiar ... professors who choose what books get used claiming that its not their fault that editions of standard learning change every two years (at best). Boo hoo.

If you just list Foo on your text assignment, you'll get whatever the latest edition of Foo is.

Only if you don't have a relationship with your bookstore. You don't care? Fine.

Blame someone else. Yeah ... that's right.

You want cheaper textbooks? Get together a group of like minded students and faculty, draft a provisional articles of incorporation, appeal with the same to your Board of Regents, and buy the f***ing bookstore. Barnes and Noble do not care one whit about who pays what for books. Likely, neither does Follett. So why are students allowing them to own bookstores, and let professors dictate how those stores provide books?

To those students out there who think that might be a neato idea, let me know. I'll help to what limited degree I can. And, win or lose, just think of how cool that would look on your resume.
posted by Wulfgar! at 8:46 PM on October 21, 2003



When the prof would allow it (and some bastards didn't), I would buy it somewhere else for far less

How the hell can they stop you? Ask for receipts?


For sciences its easy.
You get assigned problems from the book, so the publishers just change the order of all the problems, so then you are screwed if you have version 4 and version 5 just came out.

They could probably do something similar in english, like telling everyone to look at paragraph 5 on page 87, if you dont have the same edition then you are out of luck.
posted by Iax at 9:16 PM on October 21, 2003


Orb:
Having just packed up my entire library for a move, I'm wondering ... is there some other way to do it than by hand? Please, someone tell me there's a magical way for all my books to get on my shelves in order that won't require me to do it with my own eyes and hands.

What I meant was, the workers are given a pile of books on a cart, and are supposed to sort and then shelve the books. Scant use of UPC to shelve the books (picking books from the shelves is much less labor intensive).
Humorous aside: the standard for shelving books was something like 50 books/hr - I guess no one actually sorted their pile of books first - but my friend averaged three to four times that in his first week. Suddenly all the books/hr incentive levels went *way* up.

ROU, as a fellow instructor (2-yr college), I understand your defense, but I did have some perfessors (sic) that required the newest editions of books. The problem sets were often tweaked *just enough* that grading #27 from the third, fourth, and fifth editions of a book would have been a bitch. Granted, some of said professors were misbegotten assholes for other reasons, but they didn't appreciate my solution: copy the homework problems out of the latest edition if you have a different one.
posted by notsnot at 9:19 PM on October 21, 2003


Wulfgar!: When you read Chaucer, Shakespeare, or Milton, how many of your dollars go to them, and how many go to the "editor/translator"?

Good scholarly editions of Chaucer and Shakespeare (can't speak for Milton, as my complete Milton is a used paperback) are actually quite reasonably priced. I think my new (weighty hardcover) copies of the Riverside Chaucer and the Riverside Shakespeare were around $40-$45 each. And they're definitely worth the money, at least if you're an English major. The textual and explanatory notes, the critical essays, the bibliographies, and the sheer bookshelf-coolness factor make them a steal at that price.

It's those damn Norton anthologies that suck the literature students' money away. But we had nothing on the sciences students... Jeez.

Of course, in graduate school, my money gets eaten up by those classes with 15 books at $15 a pop. Yikes.
posted by UKnowForKids at 9:43 PM on October 21, 2003


I have to retract my statement on the Riversides only costing $45 or so new, as it appears my memory was faulty. Chaucer lists on amazon for a hefty $75, while Billy goes for about $65. I doubt they have gone up $20-30 in three or four years. They're still good buys, though. Tons and tons of work go into these gems.
posted by UKnowForKids at 9:48 PM on October 21, 2003


Sarcasm won't convince me, or anyone else I think, that professors don't have an interest in promoting higher value textbook sales. You don't? Cool. Does that speak to your profession? Not so much.

Professors who write textbooks might have an interest in promoting higher value textbook sales. The proportion of professors who write textbooks is small.

Again, that's who write textbooks as opposed to writing research / scholarly books.

The reason isn't hard to figure out. Writing an introductory text is going to take a lot of time and make little or no difference to your tenure case (since it's not peer-reviewed research). Ergo, few people do it.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:25 PM on October 21, 2003


If you just list Foo on your text assignment, you'll get whatever the latest edition of Foo is.

Only if you don't have a relationship with your bookstore. You don't care? Fine.


What does having a relationship with the bookstore have to do with anything? Where I am, the SOP is that if you don't specify an edition, they'll use the latest one. The written down, real, no kidding rules. What would having a relationship with the bookstore do about that?

Blame someone else. Yeah ... that's right.

Clever readers will notice that the sentence you snipped is from a paragraph that begins ``Professors have only a limited incentive to care about increasing costs, since we don't pay them.'' How is that blaming anyone else? I said that I'd have to go a little bit out of my way to make sure I was using an older edition, and that I'm not likely to do so.

I imagine that if I spent a few tens of hours sitting down and going through piles of texts, I could put together an undergraduate reading list for a course that might save people $20--50 on the course with readings that are at least in the same ballpark of educative goodness as the ones I'd default to. I just have little incentive to spend my time doing that, and strong incentives to spend that time crunching data and writing papers.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:39 PM on October 21, 2003


You get assigned problems from the book, so the publishers just change the order of all the problems, so then you are screwed if you have version 4 and version 5 just came out.

But that's not buying the same book somewhere else, that's buying a slightly different book somewhere else. I thought the original poster was referring to a prof who was effectually insisting that people buy their copy of Foobar, 3d ed, from the university bookstore instead of from amazon.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:44 PM on October 21, 2003


I don't know, ROU. At my university, just about every prof had either written or edited a book that was required reading in their course. It's pretty easy to justify, too. If a professor's specialty is in a certain subject (and the higher in education you get, the more specific the subject), it's likely that they'd be a good source of knowledge of that particular subject. And the fact that they're a professor and not, say, an Assistant Prof means they're published. 1+1=2.

But the rationale is not because-they-can moneygrabbing, it's related to lower per-unit sales: the publishers has less unit volume with which to turn a profit.

Bull-pucky. There are companies that specialize in small runs of books. And there's no excuse for changing a general 101 textbook (Biology, Physics, Calculus, etc.) when all you're doing is making new problem sets. Face it, students are seen as cash-cows. If you've just shelled out $15-30,000 for a year's education, what are you going to do -- not buy the books that go along with the classes? Riiiight.

The textbook industry is nothing more than legitimized extortion. Like CD's or movie tickets, I'm glad the bastards are getting their comeuppance.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 2:47 AM on October 22, 2003


At my university, just about every prof had either written or edited a book that was required reading in their course.

A book, or a textbook? Not all books you read in college are textbooks. Obviously, some are novels, from the normal commercial presses.

And some are research / scholarly books, mostly from the different (not for profit, sort of) university presses. An introductory American government textbook is a textbook, intended for undergraduates, precocious high school students, and nobody else. There is a ton of money to be made writing and publishing them.

On the other hand, Kernell's The Public Presidency is a research book, even if you read it in an undergrad class (as I did). There is not a lot of money to be made writing or publishing research books, especially because your incentive as the author is to get it published at a not-for-profit university press.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:17 AM on October 22, 2003


So why not get a group of concerned students and likeminded faculty together and go one step further, and buy the publishing house? I often wonder why we don't see more instances of non-profit businesses in what are traditionally for-profit sectors.

Needless to say, there will be many hurdles, such as getting material people are interested in using for their courses. But once that material is in hand, if you're on a non-profit model, you have a lot of room for ingenuity on how you get that material to the student. Like different-priced binding styles for keeper vs. short-term-use books. You could also do things like publish problem sets (for sciences) in a seperate pamphlet, so that the problems and the text can be updated independently without the worry of invalidating previous editions - just make sure that the student has the new $2 problem set and one of the last ten editions of the actual text.
posted by kaibutsu at 2:24 PM on October 22, 2003


How the hell can they stop you? Ask for receipts?

As Iax mentioned, in some classes (sciences, math and some writing courses), it was problems listed in the books requiring you to have the very latest editions. Either the problems had been moved around in each new addition, or in some cases they were completely different almost every year. In literature classes, they could first off SEE whether or not it was the same book, and yes ... they often would start a lecture with "turn to page 87 and read paragraph three ... discuss". Or "the footnote on page 43 says 'blah blah blah', so what does that mean to you". My page 87 paragraph three was often not the same as everyone else's, so I had to be quicker about finding what I was looking for (and hope not to get called on before I knew what we were talking about) and forget anything from footnotes which were always vastly different (if I had them at all). It required me to read ahead of where we were in class so that I would be prepared to find anything that came up in class quickly.
posted by Orb at 3:23 PM on October 22, 2003


I've picked up quite a few 'Low Price Edition' Indian computer science and electrical engineering textbooks from half.com and amazon.com Marketplaces.

When I was in Bangalore I picked up tons of those 'only for sale in India' books at dirt cheap prices. Didn't know they were available at half or amazon. Cool. Thanks for the heads up, zsazsa! :)
posted by cup at 11:11 PM on October 22, 2003


« Older Kindie for the guys   |   Hinterland Who's Who Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments