Paychecks and papercuts: The textbook business

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Ytextbooksou can’t put a price on a quality education, but textbooks are fair game. Every September, these 600-page monsters fill students’ backpacks and empty their back accounts.

Last week, USA Today reported that college textbook costs have increased by 82 percent in the last 10 years. Prices peaked in 2007, when the average student spent $702 on books. Students responded to this trend with “creative” solutions: pirating course content and scanning pages from classmates’ books.

When students can’t afford costly materials, they usually have one (school-approved) option: drop the class. Most colleges use the same textbooks, giving publishers a monopoly. They claim about 1/3 of the profits for every book sold – forcing schools to jack up prices.

Publishers can make even bigger profits by revising books. These “new editions” make last year’s models worthless, even if the only change is a new cover or a few extra footnotes. Prices are also boosted by CDs, workbooks, graphs, glossaries, and other gadgets that teachers never touch. One possible upside: students will finish reading assignments, if only to get their money’s worth.

Rental books can cut costs, but they aren’t as user-friendly. Students need to protect their books from Doritos, Mountain Dew, and other dorm room hazards if they want their deposit back. They won’t be able to write, highlight, or doodle on the pages, either (hey, it promotes creative thinking!).

Believe it or not, English majors have it pretty easy. We buy at least 5 or 6 books per class, but most of them are novels. We can find them cheap on Amazon or eBay, avoiding most of the publisher politics (imagine what edition of Hamlet we’d be using).

Their resale price might be low, but novels have some sentimental value (which is more than I can say about Introductory Statistics). There’s a good chance I’ll read (er, reread) these books after the class has ended. I’ve built a pretty impressive library over the years, including classics (Jane Eyre), comics (Persepolis), and personal favorites (The Heart is a Lonely Hunter).

English teachers are also open to new ideas. If they approve, you can download the book to an eReader. Classics students are even luckier; if the copyright has expired, you can read the novel on sites like Project Gutenberg.

Teacher ed classes, meanwhile, are a lot harder on my wallet. I usually spend up to $200 on textbooks, which usually cover the exact same topics. Education is even more political than the publishing business; teachers will never use an edition twice.

In the Internet age, textbooks are obsolete, but you wouldn’t know it from the price. Authors can upload and update books in real-time, cutting down on materials. Students can stream info from any place, at any time; a smart phone is a better teacher than a textbook.  Here’s hoping that the web does the same thing to textbooks that dictionary.com did to dictionaries.

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