Press "Enter" to skip to content

Textbook prices inflated

Textbooks. They are the fuel that drives the engine of
education. Small or large, paperback or bound, heavy or
light–one fact is universally true: they are expensive.

Like many other students, sophomore Emily Warde is feeling the
pinch of purchasing books for the spring semester. “I worked 40
hours a week over winter break and all the money I made I spent on
books!” said Warde. Ironically, Warde’s dad is a textbook
publisher. “Market forces drive the price of books,” Jake Warde

A California Public Interest Research Group report released in
January includes some alarming national statistics:

* College students pay, on average, $868 per year on textbooks.
(Eight years ago, the cost averaged $648, according to a 1997 Univ.
of California study.)

* During the fall 2003 semester, more than 59 percent of
students who searched online for a used text were unable to find
the book and were forced to buy the new one.

* Textbook editions are updated, on average, every 3.5 years,
sometimes bundled with unnecessary, expensive add-ons, such as
CD-ROMs and workbooks.

The report charges that textbook publishers drive up the price
of texts by producing unnecessary new editions. One popular text,
Calculus: Early Transcendentals, updated in 2003 with the cost of
the new edition

listed at about $130, while a used copy of the previous edition
is between $20 and $90. The new volume contains, the report states,
only cosmetic changes. Further, Thomson Learning, the publisher,
charges American students far more than students in other
countries, said PIRG. According to the PIRG report, the Thomson web
site lists this same text for sale to British students for about
half the price–the equivalent of $65.

Both Sen. Charles Schumer and Rep. David Wu have introduced
legislation calling for an investigation of pricing practices in
the publishing industry. “Price gouging in any form is
unacceptable, but it is particularly outrageous when it cheats
students,” said Wu.

As the price of textbooks skyrockets, more students elect to
“cut out the middle man” and shop the Internet for texts.

“I always buy over the Internet. The bookstore is too
expensive,” said Nina, a junior who chose not to reveal her last

Molly McMahon, senior, said that the high price of textbooks in
her major, Business Economics, has forced her to shop for used
books online, too. “For the last two years I’ve purchased my books
online at half the cost, then resold them online at the end of the
semester to recover some of the cost,” said McMahon.

“The high cost of textbooks starts well before reaching our
store,” said Mike Sellers, manager of the Mills Bookstore.
“Publishers set the prices.”

The Follett Company, which runs the store, competes with online
sellers such as Amazon. Follett has a contract that is negotiated
every few years with Mills, which gets a percentage of sales.
According to Sellers, who has been at Mills since May 2002, the
prices in the bookstore are comparable with the campus bookstores
at Univ. of Virginia and Virginia Tech, where he worked

Kent Bailey, manager of Auxiliary Services, confirmed that Mills
receives a percentage of the sales from the bookstore, but says
Mills takes a much smaller percentage than other schools. “We
contract with Follett, who operates our store, but accept a very
small percentage, in order to keep book prices down for our
students.” Bailey said that small campuses don’t have the sales
volume and bargaining power of a larger school.

Bailey is excited about two plans currently in development:
First, the installation of a bookstore kiosk, to facilitate
ordering online and secondly, the possible development of an online
comparison pricing and sales link through Mills web mail.

One professor, who asked to remain anonymous, says that his
negative experience with the Mills bookstore has led him to order
texts exclusively online. “A few years ago, I had a bad experience
with them, whereby the bookstore was able to get half as many books
as I requested. Unfortunately, not until two weeks into the
semester did they tell me that no more were coming in.”

Philosophy professor Marc Joseph said that his experience with
the bookstore has, for the most part, been positive. “I’ve worked
with a number of different managers and currently the service is
pretty good,” said Joseph.

Professor Deborah Santana also has had a positive experience. “I
have found the manager and staff at the bookstore to be very
helpful and accommodating. I’ve also noticed that they make every
effort to locate used editions of books, to help cut costs,” said

Faculty across the country and here at Mills are sympathetic to
students’ plight. Said one professor, who wished to remain
anonymous, “I try to assign texts that are more reasonable in
price, but I know that in some disciplines, textbooks can cost up
to $100 if not more.”

Some professors have begun using online texts. Santana is one of
them. “In several of my courses I have developed intranet readers
because, first, I did not find acceptable textbooks for the course,
and second, having an intranet reader avoids the need for expensive
copyright agreements, which is what drives up the cost of hard copy
readers. My students have consistently told me that they love the
intranet readers.”

How about buying or swapping used books? For some students it
seems the perfect solution. “It would be nice for students to
share,” said Ariun Sanjaajamts, MBA student, “but it’s hard to

It may not be so simple, according to publisher Warde. “The used
book industry has been a nightmare for publishers and drives costs
higher. There’s no big winner.”

Buying and selling used books is a service Follett provides for
Mills students, and isn’t a moneymaker for the store. Only about
one third of used texts are resold at the store, according to
Sellers, who says that this figure has increased since he has been
the manager. The rest are shipped to Follett’s wholesale

As a parent, Jake Warde said, “Everybody is in a bind on
textbooks. The students–and I have to include their parents
too–get sticker shock every new term. How can these books
cost so much? Publishers are feeling the bind too. The used book
market is now so organized and efficient that there are far fewer
opportunities for the original publisher to sell the product that
makes the business grow. On top of that, the delivery of content
through new technology is a challenge to the publishing industry
that may require a whole new publishing model. As a book publisher
and parent I definitely feel the squeeze from both sides,” said
Warde. “In ten years or so, I think the problem will find its own
solution through better delivery of the material via

Until Internet and intranet texts are in wide use, students must
choose creative solutions, such as book fairs and online book
swaps. Professors can help by choosing the least expensive textbook
option when content is equal and publishers by keeping each
textbook on the market as long as possible and by pursuing new
technologies for delivering information.