Time for textbook tycoons to give students a break

Students, who are often vocal against rising tuition fees, are uncharacteristically silent about the prohibitive prices of undergraduate textbooks. It is time to also speak up against the schemes employed by authors, publishers and bookstores to minimize -if not prevent- the emergence of an affordable and sustainable used-book market.

Undergraduate university students may nowadays pay more than $700 dollars on textbooks per term. I have been aware for some time of these unjustifiable and unacceptable prices. But what got me writing about it today was a recent article about a prominent Calculus math textbook writer, James Stewart. Under the title “The house that math built”, the Star article calls Stewart a “calculus rock star”, and proceeds to describe how this McMaster professor is building a custom-designed $30 million dollar home…with money essentially made off North American freshmen.

There is obviously something wrong in this picture, and once you start looking for the culprit, you immediately realize that there is lots of blame to go around: From authors, to publishers, to bookstores, to teaching faculty. I would also include students whose voices against this “textbook racket” are nowhere to be heard.

Having been a student in France, I remember our professors writing and typing their own lecture notes that we could purchase for the cost of photocopying them. These were the famous “Polycopiés”, our cherished duplicated lecture notes. Now this is not the case in North America, where normally professors assign textbooks that students can buy off the bookstore shelf. Granted, we cannot ask or expect our overworked faculty to follow the European tradition, but this is not where the problem begins.

I have dozens of calculus textbooks in my office, several of them being various editions of Stewart’s book. Yet my freshman daughter could not use any of them because they were so many editions behind the times. Last time I checked, the “Fundamental Theorem of Calculus” has not changed.

My other daughter purchased a used chemistry book for $200 dollars (a new one would have been around $275), only to receive $30 dollars for it at the bookstore a few months later because the edition had, again, been changed.

You get the picture. Every couple of years, sometimes even every term, authors of textbooks and their publishers change the edition, making it impossible for students to buy used textbooks at a reasonable price. More often than not, these edition changes have nothing to do with content, but rather, involve the re-formatting of page and exercise numbers, making it extremely impractical for a student with an older edition to keep up with assigned reading and homework. These useless changes in editions also make it extremely difficult for students reselling textbooks to get any kind of refund.

After a presentation by a UBC Bookstore representative to the Board of Governors, last September, I inquired about this mercantile state of affairs, and how it reflects the university’s academic values. The response was that it is the faculty member who assigns new editions for the required textbooks, and it is therefore not the responsibility of the Bookstore that students are breaking the bank for books essential to their learning.

So why are faculty members falling into the trap of publishers, and contributing to the financial hardship of their students by continuously assigning new editions? After all, I do not know of anyone who is interested in guest room offers at some lavish mansion.

Well, things turned out not to be as simple as that, and the faculty themselves are sometimes helpless, when facing determined moneymaking operations. A colleague wrote:

“As a faculty member who has tried to do something about it, namely assign last year’s edition of the book, I can say that this is non-trivial. The bookstore will tell you they can’t get enough copies. I had the sneaking suspicion they didn’t try too hard – it was simply not in their best interest to do so. I was so frustrated that I considered simply not assigning a text and writing notes (plus having lots of extra copies of books in the library). But when you’re faced with a class of 400, not enough TA support, and a lot of other things to do, there’s only one sane solution – make the students pay.”

So now we get it. Every year or so, publishers print a new edition of a textbook and stop distributing the previous edition. The faculty, though aware that the revisions are minor, is forced to assign the latest edition so as to insure uniformity and availability. The process kills any attempt at recycling older editions, while university bookstores are too happy with the resulting profits to do anything about it.

Students should not remain silent in front of these preventable exploitation schemes. Hunger strikes are not advisable! (Even resulting food savings will not be sufficient to make them afford the 29th edition of their Organic Chemistry text). They should, however, team up with the faculty to try to break the cycle of greed. It can be done.

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9 Responses to Time for textbook tycoons to give students a break

  1. Tanya says:

    It’s also been my experience that when I’ve asked for an older edition of a textbook, the university bookstore has told me that they cannot get them into stock. The preferred book for one course I teach has been coming out with a new edition every other year, it seems – it’s crazy, even in areas where we do see rapid advances in knowledge. I’ve tried to figure out how to get by without using a textbook, but that leads to student anxiety, too. I am looking seriously at other textbooks, in part because of the expense and continued rapid release of “new” editions.

    Some textbook publishers have been suggesting e-versions of their books as a less expensive option. The price is lower than the hard copy … but most are only good for 4-8 months! That may be fine in some cases, but many majors do want to have access to reference material in a text for at least a few years (if not forever). Textbook publishers are running a business, I know, but I hope that there a model can be developed that doesn’t push so much of the cost on our students.

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  3. Lior says:

    Two simple things you can do in your own classes:

    1. Don’t make the textbook “required”; tell students what textbook you will roughly be following, but also tell them about other books and let them choose the book they like. Make it clear than any edition is acceptable, and that if they book they got doesn’t cover a particular topic, they can always go the library and find an extra reference.

    2. Don’t assign problems by number from the textbook. This invidious practice is the main way by which we (the faculty) force the students to own the particular textbook we assigned. Instead, copy the statement of problems into the problem sets. Yes, it’s a bit more work, but the savings for the students justify it.

    Not for everyone:

    3. For “service” classes, consider using the “Schaum’s outline” textbook instead of the typical tome printed on glossy paper. It’s usually cheaper and better.

    A radical idea I’m not sure about:

    4. At the departmental level, agree to drop any textbook that goes beyond its 3rd edition.

  4. Frithjof says:

    I completely agree that prices for textbooks are way too high. And when one considers that many students don’t like these textbooks, prices are even higher. I come from Europe as well, and I studied without textbooks: my own class notes plus whatever the professor made available in the library.

    Textbooks are a great source of practice problems; but for that purpose, the Schaum’s will do, too. I have good experiences using Schaum’s (for practice) together with online lecture notes (for course material).

    Another idea at the department or even community level: instructors of a (service) course agree to write and revise and share their lecture notes over the course of two or three years. Distribute the burden over a few shoulders.

  5. Eugene Barsky says:

    And at the science library here, I also don’t buy textbooks: they are expensive, editions change very fast, and usage is unpredictable.

    So, all in all students are loosing here…

    How about assigning an online text as a textbook? In STAT 335 it is a book from StatNetBase collection that we purchase.

    We have full text access to MAthNetBase, StatNetBase, all Springer titles, in addition to around 500K electronic books…

  6. Neal Yonson says:

    An idea I’ve always tossed around is that if a professor declares a textbook to be required for a course, that professor should have to buy a certain number of copies themselves to be placed in the library.

    The idea is that the instructor would be directly confronted with the cost of the book, and give a second thought as to whether or not it is truly necessary for the course, while also ensuring copies are available for students who choose not to purchase the books. Realistically I know it would never be instituted, but I’ve always thought it would be a step in the right direction.

  7. David Kohler says:

    Now that the internet is finally accessible everywhere at anytime, I think it is time to start thinking about a real 21st century solution. Open access content, which is free of copyright seems to be the best solution. In simpler words: create a wiki-textbook which is updated by the whole teaching community and let’s simply get rid of the publishing companies. I love books, but printing textbooks is purely and simply silly.

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  9. Colin Clark says:

    Great article! My solution: professors can self-publish elementary textbooks, and sell them at a profit, for about $25.00 in paperback, or $9.99 in ePub (I have just done so, myself). Also, check out the Khan Academy, which may well take over undergraduate education completely. Bye-bye math profs! — meanwhile, STOP ASSIGNING EXORBITANTLY PRICED TEXTBOOKS.

    Colin Clark

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