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Textbook mark-ups threaten wallets

August 1, 2009

by Julienne

As Keito explored last month, many twenty-somethings (myself included) have decided that returning to graduate school is their next step.  For the upcoming semester, I am continuing to work toward my MPA by enrolling in six credit hours.

Unfortunately, this is not an easy undertaking.  I commute 1.5 hours to my campus (so as to maintain my full-time job), for a total of six in-auto hours a week.  Balancing this with research, papers, and weekly volunteer commitments is a true work of art.  Add to that the overpriced textbooks with a non-profit salary, and we have ourselves a real Monet.

In preparation for the upcoming session, I visited the school bookstore’s website to order my required readings.  That was when I learned that my finance textbook alone would cost over $200.00!  I have since purchased it online from another retailer, for a total savings of over $100.00.

However, before doing that I emailed the professor to verify the edition number and publication year.  She confirmed the information I had, but not before encouraging me to purchase from the school bookstore, citing that they had the correct edition.

This confounded me.  Did the professor have a vested interest in my purchasing the book on-campus?  If not, then why suggest that?  Immediately after reading her message, I was consumed with researching what I’ll call the “Textbook Mark-Up Question.”

The National Association of College Stores (NACS) calls themselves the “leading resource and advocate for the higher education retail market.”  On their website they state that the textbook mark-up is necessary to reflect “the work required” to supply books on campus.  Their site says that since 1989, the average profit-margin on new books has remained around 22.7%.

In their Frequently Asked Questions section, NACS states that students purchase books cheaper online because they do so through international sellers.  Such sellers can sell these products for less because, NACS believes, they have special deals with domestic publishers.

I tested the NACS theory.  Cengage Publications, which produced my finance book, uses the online market iChapters to sell their products.  iChapters is based in Independence, Kentucky.  On their website, they offer my textbook for a little over $180.00.  This is about $40.00 less than the one offered at my university.  All online.  No international retailer.  Still cheaper.

Not surprisingly, the NACS shows a great deal of bias in their online publications.  NACS claims that the international competition is what created the TMUQ and what created students’ “distrust” in the US market.  They support a “one price” system, where competition is eliminated and textbook prices are globally universal.  NACS encourages the entire industry to cooperate on this, so as to “maintain the extraordinary high quality of US higher education – which is the envy of the world.”  Quite impartial, yes?

Regardless, not everyone is taking the TMUQ lying down.  Open Text Book is an online warehouse which works to collect textbooks and post their contents on the web.  Their collection appears to be mainly mathematical and scientific in nature.  However, if you are lucky enough to find your reading, the service is free of charge.

Also, in Daytona, Florida, two students sued Follett (a major on-campus retailer) and Daytona Beach Community College in 2007.  They filed a lawsuit with the Orlando Federal Court, claiming that new textbooks were too expensive and that book buy-back is too small.

While the numbers of those speaking out against the TMUQ are still few, I am confident that we will continue to hear more about this issue in the future.  As long as organizations (like NACS) and universities ignore the issue of industry greed, student frustration will continue to build.

Maybe they should take a lesson from the current fiscal crisis.  Every country in the world has been impacted by this global recession – some more than others.  Just as industry experts attribute the downturn to the greed of US banks, gluttonous on-campus sellers, like Barnes & Noble and Follett, might see drastic repercussions if they do not modify their behavior.

If the trend toward online purchasing continues, on-campus sales will steadily fall.  American students have the potential to create a shift in this situation.  Through the power of the purse, twenty-somethings have the ability make their voices heard.

  1. Beenie Militello permalink
    August 4, 2009 6:10 pm

    As a former science major, I have been well aware of the issue of textbook markups for some time. The average price of a science text book at that time was about $300.00 US, with the pricier models running anywhere from $400.00 – $550.00. If you were lucky enough to need a textbook that was not a first edition printing (a rarity, indeed), and also managed to get your hands on one of the five used copies available online, you could pay anywhere from $75.00 – $150.00. It was a clever trick of the publishers that each year a new edition came out, and that each year that was the edition you had to have. My most expensive semester (semester, mind you, not year) reached a total of over $1,200.00 US. That was for textbooks for one math course, and three science courses, and unfortunately did NOT include the cost of new lab kits, equipment, and the lab usage fees they had the gall to charge after I had just spent $400.00 on a text book I would hardly ever use (lucky me, my professor gave us printed hand-outs, but required the book “just in case”).

    As the editions required usually changed each semester, there was little chance for any book buy-back on campus. Often times that precious tome of infinite wisdom that should have been crafted of solid gold for the price paid would be bought back by the school for only $20.00 (sometimes only $5.00 – $10.00 if the edition was to be changed). Even my 2002 semi-clunker automobile has suffered less depreciation in its entire lifespan by comparison than these text books do in a four month time span. For these companies and universities to expect a college student, often already contracted to sell their first-born to the loan officer to pay back their mile high tuition debt, to realistically be able to afford books at this price is as criminal as bank CEOs being paid millions as a parting gift for sinking the very company they were supposed to make prosper. But that’s another story for another day…

  2. keito permalink*
    August 7, 2009 4:35 pm

    A professor at my university told us once that textbook publishers buy up copies of the old editions and destroy them, so students can’t buy used and professors will be inclined to use new additions. He taught geology with an OOOLD textbook and was trying to hang on to the copies as long as possible, but got plenty of harrassment from persistent textbook salespeople visiting campus from the publishers. I have to think that textbooks are the one area of publishing that hasn’t seen declines lately, since the college environment has been so well shaped to their benefit!

  3. Julienne permalink
    August 7, 2009 8:38 pm

    You both make some really good points. One semester I paid $100 for an international business text and was offered $0.75 (CENTS!) at buyback.

    Beenie: You’re spot-on with the depreciation remark. How would a Kelly Blue Book look for university texts? =)

    Keito: It is correct that this industry is much too ignored, which brings me back to my point of the power of young people today. This won’t change if people do not start speaking out!

  4. keito permalink*
    August 18, 2009 5:48 pm

    I just got an e-mail from Barnes & Noble advertising the discounts they have on textbooks, if anybody’s interested. This is the link: If anybody has had a positive/negative experience with them feel free to comment!

  5. James permalink
    September 3, 2009 12:05 am

    This conversation must continue! Otherwise, the house wins every time and quiet compliance is holding the coats of those that stone us!

    And another thing! Not only are these books outrageously expensive, they are also some of the worst writing in the world. Would it take so much to make learning engaging? If it was a topic worth writing about, and worth $400 to purchase, why was it not worth the effort to make it even slightly enjoyable for the reader? At these prices a little man with a violin should pop out of the glossary!

    Amazon, here I come!

  6. Julienne permalink
    September 26, 2009 2:14 pm

    Brill, James. It is so true. After engaging writing, could you add to the list: “Editors who had their morning coffee.”

    Last week, I emailed, in horror, the publisher of a textbook (the same about which I write above) who used “reoccuring” on page 132. (Pardon, but it is burned into my meory. ahem.)

    At any rate, stay tuned for this discussion. The Talking Twenties is drafting a petition to ensure that the powers hear us on this issue!

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