Students pay the price for color textbooks, up-to-date editions

Sam Kean

Take a look around next time the checkout line stalls in the bookstore. Count the employees. Follow the fans swaying overhead and feel the climate control. Picture the books’ authors and remember their editors and assistants. Slide your finger along the glossy photographs. Find out who published the book.

Students sometimes overlook textbooks when calculating the cost of higher education, but for many, texts consume the equivalent of one month’s rent every year. Editing, photographs and other steps might cost only pennies per book, but now take a look at the cash register. It adds up. Fast.

When students pile into the five University bookstores in a few weeks, their textbook money will pay for more than just black ink on white paper. They pay for building maintenance, employee salaries, shipping costs, royalties, marketing and publishers’ profits. Students are last in the textbook line. But every penny has its place.

Of every dollar spent on textbooks, bookstore maintenance, lighting, temperature control and employee salaries consume one quarter, according to a National Association of College Stores report. Though University-owned, bookstores must pay for themselves and then some. In fiscal 2000, University bookstores earned $280,000 in profit, said bookstore director Bob Crabb. All this and more went to the University as part of a 3.5 percent internal tax designated to cover central University costs. The tax also represents a payment for the land and benefits an on-campus bookstore receives. Despite a small projected loss last year, the bookstore still must pay the tax.

Publishers say they have more demanding obligations: They must turn a profit to satisfy shareholders. Publishers keep an average of seven cents per student textbook dollar.

In addition to financial demands, editorial demands have also risen. Improved printing technology gives students color charts and photographs but also costs more. So too does the development of compact-disc and Web-based supplements.

Lower-cost experiments such as looseleaf textbooks or black-and-white alternatives of the same text do not sell well, said industry sales representative Patricia Vauk, who works with the University.

Students and professors have higher standards now, Vauk said. “When you shortchange (textbooks), you hear, ‘The book is ugly.'”

Trends toward shorter textbooks and custom-published books that delete unused chapters might translate to lower prices, Vauk said.

According to a Federal Bureau of Labor report, shorter textbooks are indeed cheaper, and hardcover texts usually cost more than soft covers. In addition, books from larger publishers are generally more expensive.

“Am I paying for the name? Maybe,” said Mike Reese, author of the study.

But other economic aspects of textbooks are not as straightforward. Specialized graduate texts are often cheaper than high-volume, introductory-level textbooks. And geography barely affects prices.

Publishers do not offer discounts for books purchased in bulk and rarely sell to individuals. A 25 percent markup on textbooks is an industry standard, said Crabb, meaning students in bookstores large and small pay approximately the same price.

Even the consolidation of the East Bank, West Bank and Health Sciences bookstores inside Coffman Union will not affect textbook prices, Crabb said, because while the move will save certain costs, the space inside Coffman will be more expensive.

And what seems like a saving grace to cash-strapped students -used textbooks – actually drives textbook prices up, said Stephen Hochheiser, director of campus marketing for a major textbook publisher.

Used textbooks cut into publisher revenue and shareholder dividends, said Hochheiser. In response, companies accelerate textbook revisions, pushing out new editions every two to three years. New editions do include updated information, accommodate new technologies and incorporate shifting teaching strategies. But they also render old editions obsolete, forcing students to buy full-price books.

The Internet could provide an alternative for students seeking deals, but desktop publishing hasn’t yet revolutionized textbook publishing. In many cases, Internet textbook prices are similar to those in bookstores. Online sales have cut somewhat into University bookstore sales, but, “It’s slower than we expected,” Crabb said.

The Internet will not expand the textbook market, which is limited to academics. Still, publishers channel 15 cents of every textbook dollar toward marketing because of high competition within that small market. Broad advertising is limited, but Hochheiser’s company employs more than 300 full-time field representatives who peddle books to professors. Each company also ships out thousands of free textbooks per year to professors, because, as Hochheiser said, “instructors won’t consider a book unless it’s in their hands.”

To select a text, professors generally consider quality rather than price. University book buyers said they only question professors when book prices exceed $100, and professors – who have autonomy to decide which texts their students buy – generally still approve them.

All authors – who earn about 12 cents in royalties for every textbook, a rate comparable to most books – have at least one editor, and production staffs must set every character on the page.

Professors, such as University of St. Thomas psychology professor Greg Robinson-Riegler, also prepare instructors’ manuals and editions annotated with supplementary notes.

Robinson-Rieglar and a colleague put together an instructor’s manual for the University’s Psychology 1001 class this fall. Starting from scratch, it took him seven months – including one full-time summer – to write the manual. He has since updated it.

After professors select the textbook package, industry book buyers send requests to publishers who send orders to printers who rely on increasingly expensive ink and paper. Shipping companies ship texts in boxes to bookstores, and employees stock the shelves and brace for students.

At this point, students pay. Based on the average price of textbooks, the National Association of College Stores reports they paid $272.60 for four new texts in spring 2000.

Now feel the weight of those books digging into your shoulders. It doesn’t seem like paper, cardboard and ink should weigh much, but like their cost, small amounts add up quickly. There isn’t much to do except shoulder the burden.


Sam Kean encourages comments at [email protected]