Steering clear of the bookstore

Jill Barshay Apr 25, 2008

Steering clear of the bookstore

Jill Barshay Apr 25, 2008


Tess Vigeland: Tuition, as you just heard, keeps rising and there’s another growing bill for college students: textbooks.

A 2004 study by a website called found that undergraduates spend about $900 a year on those books — and the prices keep going up.

A bill moving through Congress would force publishers to disclose a textbook’s price to professors. It would also unbundle a lot of the extras that now come with books, like CDs and online passcodes.

But as Marketplace’s Jill Barshay reports, there are things students and professors can do to lower costs.

Jill Barshay: Kristen Eid is a senior at New York University. She says she pays as much as $500 a semester for her books. We met up with her around the corner from the campus bookstore, a place she says she tries to avoid. Last semester, she got saddled with two pricey volumes:

Kristen Eid: Both of them were over $150.

Students like Eid are in a tough position: professors choose the books, but students have to pay for them. Textbook prices have been rising at about 6 percent a year.

Eric Frank is a former executive at Prentice Hall, the nation’s biggest publisher in the $5.5 billion textbook market. Frank says the quest for cheaper used books has actually driven up the cost of books. He says book prices really started skyrocketing after the Internet made the used book market too efficient.

Eric Frank: So all of a sudden, what was a cottage industry at a local bookstore buying back books became a national industry — highly organized — and so you started to see an increase in the supply of used books, so that starts to cut into publisher profits and so what do publishers do? Well, as publicly traded companies, needing to sustain a quarterly bottom line, they react defensively and they increase prices.

Publishers say prices are high because it costs a lot to produce multi-color glossy pages and the other materials teachers want, like lecture notes, PowerPoint slides and exam questions. In effect, students are paying higher prices to make life easier for their professors — and professors usually don’t even know what the prices are. That’s because textbook sales reps don’t disclose that in their pitches.

Victoria Anderson is an English Professor at Loyola University Chicago. She says book prices are a burden for many of her students:

Victoria Anderson: In my poetry class this semester, for example, I noticed a young woman who did not have a book and she told me she had spent a great deal of money on her other books for different courses, and so I got her a copy.

Anderson found a way to lower costs by $50 for each of her students in the class:

Anderson: I also wanted to order a poetry anthology that went for 70-some-odd dollars, but I was able to locate a vintage edition, which was about $20, so I ordered that for my class.

Not many professors take the time to shop around. Back at NYU, thrifty students like Kristen Eid have adapted.

Eid: I usually try to order my books off or and if I can’t, then I use the bookstore as a last resort, but I usually try at all costs to avoid going there.

No only does she avoid her campus bookstore markup — generally 30 percent for new books and 50 percent on used books — but she can also get a hold of foreign copies. Publishers sometimes sell the same books abroad for as much as half off the American version.

This semester, one of Eid’s professors ordered textbooks for the whole class and bypassed the bookstore altogether.

Eid: He got a discount for ordering it in bulk, so I only had to pay $76 for it.

Eid ignores which edition the profession specifies on the syllabus.

Eid: Even if it’s an older edition, it’s usually still the same.

Indeed, publishers purposely issue expensive new editions every two to three years to try to kill the used book market.

Meanwhile, the marketplace is coming up with its own solutions. The website lists books whose copyrights have expired and can be downloaded free of charge, but first, professors would have to assign those free books.

In New York, I’m Jill Barshay for Marketplace Money.

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