Professors aim to rein in textbook prices

Professors must order fall books by Friday, and they’re aiming to do it cheaply.

Professors aim to rein in textbook prices

Graison Hensley Chapman

Professors have until Friday to place orders for fall semesterâÄôs textbooks, bringing with that deadline the challenge of securing a good deal for students.
That wasnâÄôt always a focus, said biochemistry professor Paul Siliciano.
âÄúWe were leaving untapped the power of the competitive marketplace,âÄù he said, particularly given the schoolâÄôs size. He said that when publishing company representatives presented new books to professors, their price was rarely mentioned.
âÄúItâÄôs sort of like somebody buying a really loaded car, except they donâÄôt have to pay for it,âÄù he said. âÄúThereâÄôs a disconnect there.âÄù
But Siliciano said that has changed in recent years, helped by a trend of some professors who teach large courses, like chemistry, to negotiate multi-year contracts with publishers in exchange for lower costs.
According to University of Minnesota Bookstore manager Bob Crabb, that strategy seems to be working. Despite publishers increasing prices 5 to 6 percent over the last several years, he said, the average price of textbooks in the UniversityâÄôs bookstore has gone down since last year.
âÄúThe only way that can happen is if faculty are making a concerted effort to select lower-price books,âÄù he said.
Still, the profit motive of booksellers can frustrate professors.
Professor Tom Holmes said the substance of the textbook for his introductory economics course changes little year to year, but they update the text with different graphics and examples from current events.
âÄúThe edition doesnâÄôt change at all,âÄù he said. âÄúThey only things they change are the pictures. ItâÄôs shocking.âÄù
While Crabb called publishers âÄúrelentless in their pursuitâÄù of higher costs despite the scrutiny of those costs, he acknowledged that publishers need to cover production expenses. He said by the third or fourth run of a volume the sales pale in comparison due to used book sales.
Tom Stanton, spokesman for textbook publishing company McGraw-Hill, said publishersâÄô revenue comes from the first sale of the print textbook only.
âÄúThe largest percentages of the wholesale textbook price,âÄù he wrote in an email, âÄúcover author royalties, paper [and] printing,âÄù among others.
Crabb said the business used and rental books take from new books forces publishers to raise prices, which in turn drives students to purchase more used and rental books.
âÄúItâÄôs kind of a vicious circle,âÄù he said.
Despite the appeal of alternatives, Crabb said cheaper e-books havenâÄôt caught on. âÄúItâÄôs got the whole industry baffled.âÄù
He said part of the reason might be because many e-books donâÄôt add any value, despite the potential of their electronic platform.
âÄúCurrently theyâÄôre pretty much PDFs of paper books,âÄù he said, adding that publishers are developing interactive features on books.
Until then, he said, âÄúThey just donâÄôt stand up to a paper book you can flip back and forth in and mark up.âÄù
âÄúWe donâÄôt see e-books as a game changer,âÄù Stanton wrote.
Textbook rentals have proven more popular with students. They accounted for 7 percent of the bookstoreâÄôs sales in the last year, but among textbooks available in all forms, that rate jumps to more than a third.
The federal government has also become a force in changing the textbook market. Last summer, regulations requiring publishers to detail information about prices, revision histories and alternate formats went into law, according to a McClatchy report. The law also required publishers to sell multimedia supplements to textbooks separately from the book.
Siliciano said he was pleased with the bookstoreâÄôs attempts to keep book prices close to cost. He also said he thinks there should be a âÄúrenewed, concerted effortâÄù to bring prices down across the University.
âÄúWe havenâÄôt come as far as weâÄôd like to,âÄù he said, citing the difficulty of lowering prices for courses that use multimedia software, website keys and other supplements.
 âÄúItâÄôs frustrating because we canâÄôt do anything about tuition,âÄù he said. âÄúBut the faculty feels very strongly for the students.
âÄúIf we can [help] control textbook costs, itâÄôs a good thing.âÄù