High-priced books

Kane Loukas
There’s a conspiracy on campus, and the University bookstore managers are the kingpins. It’s a nightmare plot of overcharging and textbook price gouging: Students go broke, school gets rich.
Well, not quite.
Students across the nation share the conviction that they’re getting ripped off when they lay down their hard earned dough on dull and seemingly overpriced textbooks they’d rather not buy. Not surprisingly, it’s the bookstore that wrongly gets the blame.
In truth, University Bookstores have little say over the price of a book. The store simply plays the middleman and marks up all the new textbooks by 25 percent and all trade novels — a John Grisham paperback, for example — by 40 percent. At the end of its 1997 fiscal year University Bookstores walked away with a 2 percent profit, just less than $60,000 per store. Comparably, Barnes & Noble, the largest bookseller, nets $63,996 per store with a profit margin of 2.4 percent.
Another consideration is that campus bookstores don’t choose the textbooks they sell. The publishers advertise to professors, not bookstores, with a number of promotions, the cost of which eventually get worked into the textbook price. Before classes begin, professors make their text selections and at that point, their choices determine the cost to students.
Generally, there are large numbers of books to choose from, said biochemistry professor John S. Anderson. But the choices become limited when choosing books for advanced courses and those that fit the specific needs of a class. When you’ve narrowed it down, he said, “the prices don’t vary much,” and the concern becomes quality, not expense.
Even with good-hearted cost-cutting by professors and an effort to hunt down discounted used books, the fact remains that textbooks are expensive and it’s for one reason: Well-researched texts require publishers to risk tons of money on a book that might not sell.
It costs publishers a tidy $400,000 to $500,000 to produce a textbook from which they’ll make only $45,000 in profits — if sales are up to par. The production costs of an average fiction paperback usually add up to less than $30,000.
As one might guess, new biology, economics or psychology texts haven’t always had sticker prices deserving of a Mercedes emblem. One reason for the increase is the saturation of the textbook market. Because educators wisely put quality before price, publishers load on color, photographs and diagrams that push production costs higher at the rate of $20 to $30 per photo.
High prices are something University Bookstores director Bob Crabb would like to avoid, but he said that his job is to run a business and he has to mark up his product to make a profit. “We have to produce a competitive return for the University,” he said.
What might be most troubling to publishers, booksellers and the professors who assign books is that students don’t feel they get what they pay for in their high-cost books.
“It relates to how much the instructor uses the book in class,” said Steve Momper, director of marketing at South-Western College Publishing, a major U.S. publisher. If professors heavily integrate their teaching with the textbook, he said, students are more apt to realize the book’s value. Otherwise, students feel they were overcharged for a book they used only minimally.