Prepare yourself, you will lose a lot of money.
Article: Allan Hall – Distribution Manager
One of the most depressing moments of my undergraduate career was when I first set foot inside the university bookstore. I can vividly remember my jaw dropping the first time that I saw the price listings for all my textbooks.
“I think that the costs are a little outrageous, seeing that you only use them for four months and how the editions are always changing. It seems like you’re spending so much money on top of your tuition,” says Ashley Marshall, a fine arts student at the University of Regina.
According to Statistics Canada’s CANSIM database, since 2002 the cost of books (excluding textbooks) for Canadian consumers have dropped by 7.3%. This can be attributed to a multitude of factors such as the significant increase in the parity of the Canadian dollar to the American dollar ($1.5704 USD/CDN in 2002 versus $0.9995 USD/CDN in 2012), increased competition with online retailers and discount wholesalers, and the emergence of E-Books. While the cost for books has decreased during this time span, the cost of textbooks has increased by 28.4%.
The market for textbooks is inherently weird when compared to the traditional market for books and most other goods. The instructors that decide what textbooks are used for a course are not the same individuals that are paying for them. This can become problematic when instructors do not take into consideration the financial ramifications of their choices, because it does not adversely affect them. A study done by the Connecticut Board of Governors for Higher Education found that only 42% of instructors were aware of the costs of the textbooks that they selected for their course. While there are many instructors that take cost into consideration, they have no real incentive to pick the most affordable textbook that results in less pressure for publishers to keep prices low.
The group that typically gets the most backlash for the cost of textbooks are university bookstores. The University of Regina Bookstore sells its textbooks at a 22% markup. According to the University of Regina’s Comprehensive Budget Plan for 2013/14, it expects to make a surplus of $238,000 and a profit margin of 4.18% from revenues of $5,936,000 and expenses of $5,698,000. While university bookstores do make revenues for their respective institutions, they are not as high as most would intuitively think.
The more appropriate group to criticize for the rising costs of textbooks would be the textbook publishers.
One of the largest criticisms of the textbook industry today is that they have significantly increased the frequency of new editions for textbooks. According to Rayola Anderson, the manager of the University of Regina Bookstore, it is now customary to see textbook publishers release a new edition approximately every two to three years. For example, the publisher Benjamin Cummings will be releasing its fourth update of Campbell Biology since 2004 later this year. While for some textbooks the updates are necessary, in many instances the differences between editions are insignificant. According to Harold Weger, a professor of biology at the University of Regina, the content in textbooks for entry-level courses “in general doesn’t change that much year to year” and often tells his students that it is acceptable to use older editions.
“It’s a blatant grab for money. These are for profit organizations looking for a way to make the most profit,” says Nathan Sgrazzutti, the President of the University of Regina Students’ Union (URSU).
It is believed that the primary reason for increasing the frequency of new editions is to hurt the used textbook industry. According to Anderson, “the publishers have become very savvy in trying to stop of course the used market because it affects them greatly.” Textbook publishers receive no income from the sale of used textbooks and have an incentive to disrupt this market. By decreasing the shelf life of a textbook, it decreases a student’s opportunity to resell their textbooks and forces them to buy a new copy instead. According to Anderson, the percentage of used textbook sales has decreased from 25% of the bookstores sales to 15% in recent years. The sales from the URSU Used Book Sale have decreased from $257,698 in 2003/04 to $55,335 in 2012/13.
Another practice done by textbook publishers to increase the costs of textbooks is the practice of “bundling”. This is the practice of bundling additional materials like DVDs and activation codes for online materials with plastic wrap to textbooks. In most instances, this increases the cost of the textbook and makes it more difficult to return. An additional issue with this is that instructors rarely use bundled materials in their curriculum. According to a study done by State PIRG, only 24% of instructors estimate that they “always” or “usually” use the additional bundled materials.
The cost of textbooks is also influenced by Canadian book importation regulations, which can inflate costs by as much as 15%. In 1999, the federal government created book importation regulations in the Copyright Act in an attempt to help protect the Canadian publishing industry. These regulations allow distributors, if they hold exclusive distribution rights for the authored material in Canada, to charge Canadian booksellers an additional 10% (if it is imported from the United States) or 15% (if it is imported overseas) based off the domestic price of the book in the country of origin and the difference in exchange rates. Campus Stores Canada estimates that these book importation regulations cost students around $30 million annually.
The federal government has attempted to help alleviate the costs of academic materials by offering students tax credits for textbooks. The actual benefit of this is heavily debatable. Post-secondary tax credits are classified as a non-refundable tax credit. This means that while a student could have earned $520.00 in tax credits for being a full time student, they would only be able to use it to offset it against taxes owed. While the tax credit can be carried forward or partially transferred to a parent or guardian, this does not provide any functional financial relief for the vast majority of students while they are attending university.
One upside to the rising costs of textbooks is that it has spurred a movement towards open access textbooks. In most instances, these textbooks are published under an open license and can be used at no cost. Because of the digital and open access nature, instructors are also able to modify and adapt the material to better fit their instructional needs. In 2012, the British Columbia Ministry of Advanced Education announced that they would be providing free online and open textbooks for the 40 most popular courses in the near future.