Few Americans realize that this same dynamic occurs in the sale of textbooks. On October 21, 2003, the New York Times reported that, "Just like prescription drugs, textbooks cost far less overseas than they do in the United States. The publishing industry defends its pricing policies, saying that foreign sales would be impossible if book prices were not pegged to local market conditions."
The same textbooks used in the U.S. sell for half price or less in England.
According to the US PIRG (Public Interest Research Group), American students spend an average of $900 a year on textbooks. Textbook prices have increased at four times the rate of inflation since 1994 and continue to rise.
Following the revelations about the wide variance in textbook prices between here and abroad, Congress requested a report from the Government Accountability Office [GAO].
On September 26, 2006, the Stanford Daily News reported that, "textbook prices have increased 186 percent since 1986, an annual increase of about six percent. By comparison, consumer prices rose 72 percent over that period, and college tuition and fees rose 240 percent, the GAO report stated.
The news report continued: "Nearly two-thirds of those receipts end up in publishers’ coffers. 12 percent of the book price goes toward the author’s royalties, 23 percent goes to the store, 32 percent pays for the publisher’s costs, and another 32 percent is publisher profit, according to the National Association of College Bookstores."
In June, 2006, Congressman Howard McKeon (R-CA) and Congressman David Wu (D-OR) asked the federal Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance (ACSFA) to conduct a further study of the cost of college textbooks, including recommendations on what could be done to make textbooks more affordable.
The report was released in May, 2007, and can be read here.
The ACSFA report concluded that treating both the symptoms and the underlying cause of the problem requires a dual approach:
- In the short term, steps must be taken to increase affordability for all students, but especially for those from low- and moderate-income families.
- In the long term, a supply-driven, producer-centric market must be transformed into a demand-driven, college- and student-centric market.
The report listed eight categories of solutions:
- Strengthen the market for used textbooks.
- Utilize faculty textbook guidelines (faculty can assist by giving the bookstores time to locate used textbooks and to comparison shop; retain textbooks for a longer period; use the same textbook for multiple courses; and other similar solutions).
- Provide key information to students and parents to help them budget and locate their own copies of required textbooks online.
- Increase library resources.
- Adopt alternatives that lower prices (publishers can alter format; bookstores can form buying consortiums).
- Implement a textbook rental program.
- Improve related financial aid policies.
- Utilize 21st century technology (electronic textbooks, no-cost online textbooks, open educational resources and print-on-demand services).
On Thursday, I speculated about university libraries using POD technology to lower the costs of textbooks. The ACFSA report had this to say:
Print on demand is another technological innovation that can be used to reduce the price of textbooks by utilizing a machine to digitally download, print, bind and cover a textbook within a matter of minutes. Many print-on-demand machines can easily print 200 to 300 textbooks in one day, each of which costs only a few dollars. The technology is often used by publishers to print small batches of textbooks because it is usually cheaper than traditional printing processes. Colleges and bookstores can purchase these machines to print course materials available in print-on-demand format, or those available in the public domain.
The University of Texas Co-Op Bookstore [in Austin] has a print-on-demand machine that is used to print course packs and textbooks with content consisting of materials in the public domain. Students pay only for the cost of printing the materials, typically just a few dollars. Another example comes from the University of Queensland in Australia, which has received permission from publishers to use portions of proprietary materials for a fee.
In other words, what I was describing as the future is already taking place--not in college libraries, but in college bookstores.
The ACFSA report goes on to describe a potential market system for the 21st century. I'll need some time to absorb it before trying to summarize it here.
The times, they are a-changin'.