book price

Are Students Entitled to Forego Buying Textbooks Because of Price?

In Discussion by Edward Nawotka

By Edward Nawotka, Editor-in-Chief

book priceAs a former bookseller and someone who still owes several thousand dollars in student loans, despite now being over the age of 40, I’ve always found it a bit odd how at the beginning of each semester study after study reveals complaints from students about the price of textbooks and their learning materials in general. As noted in today’s feature editorial, “Digital Textbooks: Publishers and the Unrealized Promise,” “roughly one out of every three seniors and 1 in 4 freshmen don’t buy required materials because of their price.”

The author of the editorial, an executive at Flat World Knowledge, represents a company that offers a cheaper solution to the often $100+ textbooks offered by the monopolistic education publishers. And bravo to that!

Of course, when you’re taking 8-10 classes a year, paying $100 or more for a book can really add up — that’s an additional $800-$1,000 (or in many cases, likely more) that you need to spend.

But let’s be honest, if you don’t buy the books or required course-packs why are you even attending class? Isn’t the whole point of attending college, in essence, to spend four years (or less or more) doing nothing but reading and talking about what you read?

Yes, you might, might be able get a required coursebook out of the library — though in the case of most textbooks that is not the case — or perhaps share a book with a study group or friend. But to share, you would need to be very well organized. And how many college-age students do you know who are organized enough to keep this up throughout an entire year?

The price of textbooks is a small part of the overall price of higher education in the United States, which continues to increase by a rate of 4% per year, or twice the rate of inflation. That’s not to say that publishers couldn’t lower the price of textbooks or come up with cheaper models, as Flat World Knowledge has done, or are exploiting a monopolistic market position. But if someone is paying $22,261 (the average price for a year at a public university) or $43,289 (the average price for year at private university), books still represent a modest percentage of overall expense.

Again, foregoing books because they are expensive seems tantamount to leasing or buying a car and not putting gas in it. (And who in the United States doesn’t complain about the pervasive seasonal hikes in gas prices?)

Is there a solution? Not really. Each student has different financial demands. Some have help from their parents, some work their way through college, some have other obligations, such as family or children, and simply try to do what they can — often, it is some combination of all three.

So long as education remains so expensive then textbook publishers are going to continue to feel entitled to keep prices high. Fortunately, others will try and find a better solution.

BONUS: USA Today/Princeton Review’s 150 Best Value Colleges

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

Edward Nawotka is the Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. A former foreign correspondent, he has covered the book business exclusively since 2000, serving as daily news editor for Publishers Weekly and columnist for Bloomberg News.