Textbook rebels

Marketplace Staff Sep 15, 2006


KAI RYSSDAL: Apple CEO Steve Jobs announced the latest addition to the iPod family this week just in time for college students heading back to the classroom. You know, to download lectures from their professors. iPods cost a pretty penny but they won’t set you back half as much as a whole semester of college textbooks so some students have come up with creative options to lower the price of learning. Marketplace’s Sean Cole reports.

SEAN COLE: So I got this e-mail from Half.com a while ago advertising big savings on textbooks, as much as 90 percent in some cases. I wasn’t so much impressed by the discounts as I was surprised by some of the list prices. $111 dollars for a psychology text. $189 for an economics book, which didn’t seem economical at all.

Anyway, I headed over to Boston University on the first day of classes to ask what they were spending on books this semester.

STUDENT 1: I think maybe close to $500.

STUDENT 2: I think it’s absurd.

STUDENT 3: I spent $565.

STUDENT 2: I think the police should be notified.

STUDENT 3: If I was to buy all the books, close to about $700.

STUDENT 4: I mean it’s obviously expensive, but there’s nothing you can really do about it.

Actually, there’s a whole, online bazaar of specialty low-cost textbook sites now. Used books, price comparison tools, book swaps. A lot of them have names like campusbookswap.com. One site has a much cooler name: Textbookx.

BRIAN JACOBS: So what we do is plug in the ISBN . . .

Brian Jacobs is the founder of Textbookx.com. It offers about a half a million titles and connects buyers directly with sellers, kind of like eBay. We sat at his dining room table in Connecticut staring at his laptop as he pulled up a book called “Fundamental Financial Accounting Concepts” on his site.

JACOBS: You see, OK, here’s the required book that I need and it’s edition five. But if I went to edition four?

Which was published two years ago.

JACOBS: You can get it for as low as $5. Now what has changed in the space of two years in something called Fundamental Accounting Concepts?

This is one of the big complaints about textbooks, that publishers will put out a new edition when there hasn’t been any grand advancement in the field. Jacobs says some professors will just default to that latest edition, that even he didn’t think too much about textbook prices when he was a teacher at Cornell. But he says price isn’t just a commercial issue in this case.

JACOBS: If students aren’t bringing their books to school because of cost, the faculty are not able to fulfill their pedagogical obligations.

The number of students who don’t buy all their textbooks is hard to pin down. One study puts it at 36 percent. Another says 65 percent. In both studies price actually isn’t the No. 1 reason. But it is for Jason Turgeon. He’s a senior at Northeastern University.

JASON TURGEON: Not to toot my own horn, but I’ve got straight As and if it’s a choice between being a little tight that month or skipping a book that I might only read three chapters in, I’m just gonna skip book.

Turgeon isn’t just a student. He the person behind textbookrevolution.org, a site with annotated links to free online textbooks. “Textbook” is kind of a loose term in this case. The site lists everything from actual e-books to the site About.com. Still, Turgeon says there’s enough free material on the Web to teach a solid math or science class and that publishers better wake up and smell the future. I’m paraphrasing. I reminded him that publishers are winning this fight so far.

TURGEON: But if you’re in business and your customers hate you, are you winning?

BRUCE HILDEBRAND: He is blowing smoke faster than the wind can carry it away.

This is Bruce Hildebrand, executive director of Higher Education for the American Association of Publishers.

HILDEBRAND: He’s a zealot, I appreciate it. What I’m saying is if more students fail using a less costly textbook is it fair to have them fail to save $10?

Hildebrand says the cost generally comes from high-tech textbook supplements that help kids pass their classes.

HILDEBRAND: Online homework, online self-assessment, interactive softwares.

Plus he says publishers offer any number of less elaborate, less costly versions of their books now. In short, Hildebrand says, the hue and cry over textbook prices is more emotion and anecdote than fact. And the fact that this is an emotional issue was evidenced by my conversation with him.

COLE: It’s a strange market because it’s like

HILDEBRAND: Strange to whom?

COLE: Well no no nuh . . .

HILDEBRAND: Now Sean you keep comin’ back to this. It’s not strange . . .

COLE: Well no no leh leh . . .

HILDEBRAND: You know we can go back to papyrus leafs that were written by hand

COLE: No . . .

HILDEBRAND: and we’ve progressed . . .

I was just trying to say that textbooks are ordered by teachers but paid for by students. That there’s a funny dynamic there. Meantime the student activist groups say high-tech add-ons are just a pricing tactic. And Hildebrand says not they’re not and on and on and on.

The point is students can generally save themselves a lot of money if they’re resourceful and do more digging online. Although a lot of the BU students I talked to said they’d rather just go to the bookstore.

In Boston, I’m Sean Cole for Marketplace Money.

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