I worked at the university bookstore while in college 30+ years ago and was amazed at how the pricing worked for textbooks.

But $118 for a college algebra book? In my day, we made our own books out of bark and… Seriously, why are textbooks still being printed? Why aren’t they all pdf or html or similar, available for download? And electronic versions would be easier to keep updated and… Oh yeah. Profits.

2 at DBCC sue on book prices, seek $5 million

In a first-of-its-kind lawsuit that could affect thousands of college students who think they are overcharged for textbooks, two Daytona Beach Community College students have sued the nation’s largest collegiate-bookstore chain and their school.

The class-action suit, filed in Orlando’s federal court, alleges unfair and illegal pricing practices and seeks to recover at least $5 million in damages. It accuses the Follett Higher Education Group and DBCC of overcharging students pennies on each used-book sale and underpaying them when buying books back.

Though that may amount to only a few bucks each semester, the students argue that, when multiplied by thousands of students at each of the company’s more than 750 bookstores, it adds up to millions.

A Government Accountability Office report in 2005 found college-book prices have increased at twice the rate of inflation in the past two decades. A congressional advisory committee is undertaking a yearlong study to find ways to rein in prices.

National Association of College Stores figures show used books accounted for $1.9 billion in sales during the 2004-05 academic year. New books accounted for $4.4 billion during that same time period.

And then there’s the whole issue of grade school and high school kids with ancient textbooks that talk about how the USSR is our enemy and one day we may have computers in the home. But that’s for another day.

  1. Floyd says:

    Hardcopy textbooks exist for the same reason that other hardcopy books exist: access to them doesn’t depend on a computer. The reason “EBooks” haven’t taken off is that you can’t read them unless you have the specific reader for that book, you can’t stick a piece of paper in them as a bookmark, you usually can’t copy a few pages as a quick reference, you can’t make rude comments in the margins, etc.

    Getting back to the original point of the article, textbooks are very expensive because they’re printed in limited runs, which drives up the cost of each book. Even though I understand this, it still hurts to pay $100 or more for a college textbook.

  2. Gunnar says:

    I figured that if they put these books into E-formats they would lose profit in resale of used copies that is to follow as well as piracy issues that go beyond spending 2 days at the work copy machine or spending a week on your scanner till you go blind.
    Personally, I don’t mind buying books now since at higher level classes that I take are taught by instructors that know which books to pick to keep some extra change in our pockets, but if I had to take some lower level classes for fun, those books easily would cost me ~$130.
    Hopefully, my children would have E-version textbooks to save some back pain with a fight like this.

  3. Stu Mulne says:

    I think “Limited Run” is the key…. Back before the invention of fire, when I was in college, a used book was good for at least the year it was originally spec’d, if not the next. My daughter (in college now – a bit easier since fire was invented) is telling me that some books she’s bought are obsolete at the end of the current grading period. IOW, a combination of new material and deliberate obfuscation (re-pagination sort of thing) makes her books unsellable at anything close to what she paid for them.

    I also had a professor who’d written his own book, and got it locked into the course. “Production values” were atrocious, and it was $60 (in 1963!). It wasn’t otherwise all that bad though. I’m sure that’s still going on.

    (In elementary school the kid had a book that was state-mandated for “Ohio History”, printed on kraft paper, and full of errors. Soy ink, too, I think, which would have been OK but the contrast issues were a nuisance for these old eyes helping her out.)

    It’s all profit….

    It may be irrelevant, but it also seems that these one-time-use books are also very expensively produced. I’m not sure that’s all that good an idea either….



  4. noname says:

    Limited Run, technically yes, such a red herring the dumb just buy.

    I’ve notice people from other colleges around the country using the same text book I used. On top of that, in undergraduate college most of the material or science isn’t new. For example, Calculus was invented by Newton, yet they have to update the book every year! It’s a racket, plain and simple. And colleges (high schools too) are complicite by seeking new books each year.

    Some of the new text books with all their graphics and multi embedded text boxes and side notes are more confusing then straight text written by one knowledgable author. These book are to make people use their brain not entertain (sorry I was a physics major). These new book aren’t the doing a better job at teaching the subject. And the error rate these books have. Get it done right the first time and use the same book for everyone, damn the excessive profits.

  5. pjcamp says:

    I’ve been involved in this business as a college professor and, peripherally, as a colleague of people involved in writing textbooks. There are a few issues here.

    Part of this you can blame on Ronald Reagan, but not all. Reagan’s big tax cut bill (which, incidentally, raised my taxes on my graduate student stipend by $900/year) involved a few other things as well, one of which was a radical change in the way taxes were assessed on book publishers. Previously, they paid tax on sales only. Reagan changed that to a tax on inventory. This forced publishers to change their business model. On subjects like calculus and intro physics that don’t change very rapidly, they would make massive print runs, stick them in a warehouse, and dole them out over many years. For example, the intro physics book I used in 1977 was Halliday and Resnick, which had just been published in the second edition. The first edition was published in 1966. I paid about $20 for the book, and about $100 total for all my books that semester. Immediately after the tax law change, the price shot up to about $75.

    It was at this point, I think, that publishers had a epiphany: short print runs and rapid edition turnover dramatically reduces the used book market since what they are selling is out of date — same size market but an instant increase in share. Today, the typical revision cycle is 3 years and, in rapidly moving fields like astronomy, 2 year. I think that is a bare minimum. You can’t write a book any faster unless it is the only thing you do. Electronic distribution won’t change that.

    Electronic distribution also does not afford the right usage patterns. The way a scientist reads a book or paper is to sit down with pencil in hand and fill in the gaps, derive equations, extrapolate ideas into possible other research avenues, and so on. My books are filled with marginal notes. That is worse than inconvenient on a book reader, it is often altogether impossible. The files are locked down by rights management and even if they weren’t, it is a pain in the ass to write equations on a computer.

    I frequently read electronic versions of journals now and I’m amazed that I ever got along without them. Indeed, arXiv is now the primary means of communication among working physicists. This is not, however, due to any inherent advantage of the electronic format. It is purely a matter of convenience: communication is faster, and you don’t have to walk to the library. My usage pattern, however, is still paper based — I print the articles so that I can annotate them. I have multiple books and articles open on my desk simultaneously so I can cross reference. All of them have marginal scribbles. Try doing that with an ebook of any stripe.

    Like it or not, paper books are going to be with us for a while longer. Ebooks should be thought of as a different medium altogether, not the same medium dressed up in a new suit. The actions that the reader can take are different. There is one market, however, where I think ebooks offer a real advantage — K-12. With schoolbooks, you get in trouble for doing the things I do to my books. And it can’t be good for a child’s back to be hauling a bookbag that weighs as much as the child. They look like humpback whales going down the hallway.

    This probably won’t happen with any rapidity for one good reason — the marketing gurus at publishing houses. They see an opportunity to exploit DRM to lock in buyers to using their full product line only. Imagine a book reader that only reads Glencoe books and you’ll get the picture. Great for the balance sheet, terrible for the school district.

  6. Mr. Fusion says:

    #5, I agree with most of your insightful view. What I remember from my own “higher education” was the number of teachers that prescribed a text they had written. I remember political science, psychology, and sociology courses where the main text was written by the professor. I took one poly sci course taught by a devout, professed communist whose book list could only be purchased from an off campus Communist Bookstore.

    I can’t see ebooks becoming popular. They are static and hard on the eyes too.

  7. tallwookie says:

    And its about damn time – I figure I must have spent over $1500 in college textbooks in the last 10 yrs (having switched schools and majors a few times) – You cant experience the true feeling of being ripped off untill you purchase college text books, use them, return them in excelent condition, and are able to sell them for perhaps 10% of the original sales price.

    How can i get in on this class action lawsuit?

  8. ECA says:

    Limited run??
    something thats needed EVERY year, is limited…
    Art, languages, spelling, comprehention, MATH, electronics…

    Adding to a text in digital format is Easy, IF you want it to be.

    Selling books on CD, at $5-10 EACH…
    Sell the program to READ the CD, $100..

  9. Mike says:

    I would argue that since the students have already paid their tuition, which is supposed to be what covers the cost of the education, the schools should be selling the books at cost, and not using them to extract even more money from the students. But, as much as I agree that the campus bookstores are a racket, students should probably be lucky that they are offered the chance to sell their books back at all.

  10. Dan Ryan says:

    Eventually the school bookstores are going to price themselves right out of the market, if they haven’t already. I’m in grad school currently, and I’d guess that the majority of the students in my program do not buy or sell their books through the school bookstore. Instead, students are turning ebay and amazon where they can buy and sell directly to and from other students at much more reasonable prices. As this trend continues to take off, the school bookstores will have to more competitive in their pricing of used books since that’s where they make most of their money.

  11. Brenda Helverson says:

    I took Calculus I from the University of Washington Extension service (a bad experience overall), and Stewart, the text, cost $170 new. There were 4 (!) versions of this text by the same author. The course used the first 1/4 of the book, and a significant portion of the text was devoted to promoting the author’s other products (answer books, software, study guides). Compared to my Calculus text of 30 years ago, this text was a waste of resources.

    Rant: Some Universities teach mathematics and others use mathematics as a screening process to prevent students from pursuing engineering or other hard sciences. “Mr. Einstein, you may be interested in physics, but your grades in Calculus II were below what we expect, so we have decided to give your spot to a guy with good grades but no aptitude for physics whatsoever. Good luck at the Patent Office.” The University of Washington is firmly in the latter category and really needs to reevaluate the way that it teaches undergraduate mathematics.

  12. Tom says:

    RIGHT ON!!!! SUE THEM INTO OBLIVION, where do I sign up?

  13. uteck says:

    Someone needs to tell the people at Lulu.com that their on-demand short run printing model will not work. I know they are making money now, but the established printers say it can’t be done, so I guess we have to believe them. After all, I would not want to put all the typesetters and press operators out of business if they were to automate and modernize their…..wait a moment. I just applied for a computer tech support job at Follett. Their entire press is automated and costs virtually nothing compaired to 20 years ago to print. Maybe they are just price gouging since they have no competition?

  14. JimR says:

    Approx. wholesale cost to print 5000, 672 page 7.5″ x 10″ hardcover chemistry books, full colour on dull coated paper:

    Composition: $100,000
    Printing of 21, 32 pg signatures: $120,000
    Paper: $17,000
    Bindery: $65,000

    Sub TL: $242,000
    40% markup (profit, management, distribution)

    Net price before tax and retail profit: $68 each
    Double the order to 10,000 books: Net price $51 each
    50,000 books: $39 each

    Doesn’t include fee and royalties for the author.

  15. JimR says:

    Sorry about the math… It’s late and I’m tired 😉

    Approx. wholesale cost to print 5000, 672 page 7.5″ x 10″ hardcover chemistry books, full colour on dull coated paper:

    Composition: $100,000
    Printing of 21, 32 pg signatures: $120,000
    Paper: $17,000
    Bindery: $65,000

    Sub TL: $302,000
    40% markup (profit, management, distribution)

    Net price before tax and retail profit: $85 each
    Double the order to 10,000 books: Net price $59 each
    50,000 books: $39 each

    Doesn’t include fee and royalties for the author.

    G’night 🙂

  16. joshua says:

    Or….you could go to University in Britain at a traditional University and buy NO text books. 90% of the non-medical courses are research based, with tutorials instead of lectures.

    Medical students, and certain other sciences usually use some text books, but even these are available on the University on-line library.

    When I attended ASU, all of my classes where the same….you bought a text book that was *required* for the course, then got to class and discovered that the Prof. or student aid that taught the class used lecture notes, NOT a textbook. You took notes, and all exams were based on the lecture notes. Texts were useless, unless you actually wanted to learn the subject and read them on your own. Then you sold the texts back to the book store for 10% of purchase price, never opened.

  17. Reality says:

    What I don’t like is these book stores will sell a new book for $100 and even if you take good care of it, they only buy it back at the end of the semester for maybe $40 or $50 and then they’ll turn around and sell it used for $90. It really rips of the student and/or their parents and I hope the book store gets raked over the coals. Publishers don’t set the buyback prices. It’s the book stores themselves.

  18. AB CD says:

    About the only thing helping the college bookstores is that the textbook lists are not being revealed soon enough for students to make use of Amazon and ebay fully.

  19. Harry Ballzonyah says:

    Text book rental system. Some schools in I think Minnesota? (there is a state that does this, maybe not them) participate in this program. But do you really want to pay into a program like this if your say an art student, who spends a majority on art supplies not books.

    I hate buying a textbook only to have the class that the teacher says you “NEED” the book, but he/she regurgitates the book into your notes and tests are only on the notes. Such a waste of money it pisses me off.


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