Skyrocketing textbook prices have student organizations across the country introducing legislative measures to state and national government to require textbook publishers to make their practices transparent to students and faculty – a policy that one publishing industry representative says is unnecessary.
The legislation, including a federal bill sponsored by 12 lawmakers, would require publishers to offer all course material separately, publish information on new editions and disclose prices.
Five states have passed such measures. And the Associated Students of Colorado (ASC), student government leaders from all over the state, and the Associated Students of CSU (ASCSU) started a letter-writing campaign this semester to put pressure on state politicians to push for similar legislation.
The national measure would require regular open dialogue between publishers and education committees.
But Bruce Hildebrand, spokesman for the Association of American Publishers (AAP), says the textbook industry could not be more transparent.
Pointing out that Googling an International Standard Book Number (ISBN) reveals millions of Web sites that contain information about content, reprinting and price, Hildebrand said publishers go to great pains to ensure all necessary information is available.
But Blake Gibson, president of ASC, says the industry is a “broken market” because the consumers don’t have any say over what they buy; instructors order the books and publishers send them. The students don’t see the book prices until they have to buy them.
Textbooks have increased at twice the rate of inflation for the past two decades, according to a Government Accountability Office report.
Prices have increased 186 percent, according to the 51-page report.
The average U.S. student pays nearly $1,000 for textbooks every year.
But Hildebrand said the inflation figure is taken out of context because of the increased quality of today’s textbooks. He said bundling and innovative methods of textbook writing provide a better educational experience but cost more.
“The publisher teaching tools are having a profound effect on pass rates and retention,” Hildebrand said. “Every study that comes out says it’s impossible to compare today’s books with books from 20 years ago . That’s where the apples and oranges fall. Well, it’s more like apples and camels. We’re talking huge differences here.”
He said publishers “explode information” on the Internet to make sure instructors know what they offer in contrast with competitors.
Some publishers are worried about the industry becoming too transparent, he added, citing concern that students are so inundated with information about textbooks that they can’t decipher it.
But Dan Palmer, who heads the ASCSU letter-writing campaign, said that it is unlikely for textbook prices to have increased so dramatically because of better quality, given the broken market.
“I don’t think that’s due to the fact that there are five publishers controlling 80 percent of textbook sales,” he said.
Hildebrand said the problem should be fixed at the level of the instructors.
“The instructor is considered the most important element of a course,” he said. “The course material is listed next.”
He said if the instructor is paying attention when ordering textbooks, there are good deals everywhere. Cengage.com, an online bookseller, offers customized bundling packages, books by the chapter and overviews of new edition content.
But at least one CSU professor does everything he can to ensure students spend no more than necessary.
Every instructor in the CSU Psychology Department uses the same procedure to order books, said graduate psychology professor Peter Cheng. Instructors decide their curriculum, present it to the department and the department puts in an order at the CSU Bookstore.
But Cheng uses as many free online supplements as he can.
“It depends on the topic,” he said.
But the system of his department makes it hard, Cheng said, to pay attention to price, especially when he must focus on the quality of his course material.
“Dozens of publishers are going to be competing for the teacher’s choice,” Hildebrand said.
But CSU calculus professor Kelly McArthur said when she and her colleagues are ordering their curriculum, “. there’s different textbooks, but the prices are the same.”
One problem for professors, McArthur said, is publishers are constantly updating textbooks, but the improvements are subtle at best.
“For calculus books, if you look at what they change, you can’t tell a difference,” she said.
But McArthur said the fault lies with the publishing industry.
“I think what they’re doing right now is unfair,” she said. “They’re forcing people to buy new books.”
Senior reporter Aaron Hedge can be reached at email@example.com.