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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, August 17, 2006

Urge publishers to reform textbook pricing

By Mike McKay

As your front-page article stated on Aug. 9, Hawai'i students face an issue that doesn't seem to go away: the high cost of textbooks.

Families are digging deeper into their pocketbooks to purchase mandatory textbooks, whose prices seem to exceed the rate of inflation exponentially.

In Hawai'i, public schools are required to provide textbooks to students in grades K-12. Often because of budgetary constraints and the high cost of textbooks, there are not enough, and students are only allowed to use the texts in the classroom.

Like the price of gasoline in Hawai'i, there seems to be a lot of misunderstanding when it comes to the high price of textbooks. Many believe it is the booksellers driving the prices up, but that is not the case.

Many publishers say they are in the business of selling only new textbooks, and that engaging in the resale of used textbooks reduces the sales of new books. Publishers change editions frequently, and students are often required to purchase the newer edition even though many of the older editions are available as used textbooks, at a lower cost to the student.

One publisher requires certain bookstores to sign an agreement that states that if the bookstore engages in the resale of their textbooks in used condition, then the publisher can terminate the relationship.

If the bookstore refuses to sign the agreement, then the bookstore must pay the publishers' list price, which is one-third higher.

Bookstores often act as advocates on behalf of the parents and students and do everything they can to keep prices low. One way this is accomplished is by buying as many used books as possible, to be able to offer a lower-cost alternative to new books. Many bookstores scour the national market to find used books. Bookstores, like parents and students, are at the mercy of the publishers.

Textbook prices are rising at a fast pace, and publishers use a variety of tactics to increase prices of textbooks.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Producer Price Index, the prices of textbooks are increasing at more than four times the inflation rate for all finished goods. The wholesale prices charged by textbook publishers have jumped 62 percent since 1994, while prices for all finished goods rose 14 percent.

New textbook editions are costly and limit the availability of used textbooks. Publishers raise the prices of new edition textbooks 12 percent on average between the previous and current edition. Teachers have indicated that new editions can be justified less than half the time.

There are many factors that affect textbook pricing, especially products that accompany textbooks. Publishers are notorious for bundling textbooks (shrink wrapping the books with additional instructional materials such as workbooks and CD-ROMs).

Publishers say they have increased investments in developing supplements in response to demand from instructors, yet two-thirds of faculty surveyed said they "rarely" or "never" use the additional bundled items.

One reason publishers employ this practice is that when a teacher lists an ISBN (international standard book number) on his or her syllabus, most students really try to obtain the specified ISBN. The teacher may only want the student to have the textbook, but the book is only offered for sale by the publisher as part of a package, forcing the teacher to list the only ISBN available.

Since students are unable to find the ISBN on the used-book market since now it's a package with a new ISBN, they have to purchase the bundled package at a higher cost.

With K-12 enrollments projected to rise in the coming years, revenue demands for textbooks and other curriculum materials will increase proportionately. California has created the California Open Source Textbook Project, which is a collaborative, public/private undertaking to address the high cost, content range and shortages of K-12 textbooks in that state. COSTP is not replacing printed textbooks, it is making them less expensive to produce.

Our communities, schools, parents and students need to work together so that the publishing industry will reform its practices. We need to encourage publishers to: produce and price textbooks to be as inexpensive as possible without sacrificing educational value; produce new textbook editions only when educationally necessary; and offer textbooks for purchase unbundled.

In the meantime, there are some actions that can be taken to keep the costs down: encourage teachers to put a copy of the textbook on reserve in the library; purchase used books whenever possible; offer to share the cost of a book with a classmate and work out a schedule to use it; or photocopy parts of a book you need.

As long as it is for your personal academic use, photocopying is permitted, with limitations, under copyright law, but selling copied parts of a book is prohibited. Most recently, publishers are offering textbooks in an e-book format at a reduced price from the printed version. However, there are strict limitations on the number of pages that can be printed and how long they may be used.

Mike McKay is president of uhbooks.com and 'ike pono, limited. He wrote this commentary for The Advertiser.