A look at textbook costs in the era of #textbookbroke

Graphic by Alan Li

The cost of textbooks has been a topic of discussion and debate more or less since they were first invented, but the conversation has taken a significant turn lately as the #textbookbroke hashtag began trending earlier this year.

The textbook industry is a strange one, without many direct comparisons. It is synergistically powered by the education industry to a point where materials are so hyper-focused and produced on such a small scale that the ballooning costs tend to greatly exceed the perceived value of the materials on which they are printed.

That, combined with the digital state of the modern world, creates a unique environment within which we can speculate on the future of textbooks.

Will they still be around in twenty years? Is textbook-sharing hurting the industry?

How is anyone supposed to justify paying over $200 for a thick, glossy ream of paper?

And with all that, another pertinent question arises: are students really in as bad a situation as we think we are?

“I think [textbook prices are] even higher in the US,” Mary Andraza, Laurier Bookstore’s Manager of Academic Materials said. “Several of the larger publishers now do all their distribution out of … the US, so when we’re quoted prices we have to ensure that we’re being quoted the Canadian price. And I don’t know how they arrive at it, but the prices are always less than what the US prices are.”

Mike Zybala, the Associate Director of Retail Services and Systems sat across from her, nodding his head. “I’ve heard stories where some of the books that we have for sale for that $100, $125 are, you know, $250, $300 in the US market,” he said.

“So it’s a much bigger issue in the American market and that’s where we’re starting to see a lot of — and again we go to conferences that cover both the Canadian and American market — we’re seeing a lot of discussion in the US, particularly around the affordability.”

While this helps to situate our relative place in the conversation, it doesn’t change the basic fact that textbook costs are incredibly high. And, when compared against typically published books for mass audiences — novels, biographies — there’s an enormous disparity in pricing. Why is that?

“Even if you look at academic publishers that are doing upper level things and grad studies and stuff, they are very, very expensive,” Zybala.

“And that’s one of the reasons why, just the limited audience for materials.”

“What we are seeing though is some of the alternatives that we’re selling — there’s been a shift to access codes, rental books, those kinds of formats. We’re seeing that demand increase.”

It has been a slow shift, but a positive one. If you look at the data provided by the bookstore from the past five years, Digital Resources have increased from approximately 2 per cent of sales to 12 per cent. This appears to have directly reduced the cost that the average student pays for course materials by 23 per cent.

David Swail, the Executive Director of the Canadian Publisher’s Council, was able to give a bit more insight on this.

As the former CEO of McGraw-Hill for Canada, Latin America and Australia, he has had several years of experience working within the industry.

“We’re committed to providing whatever form of resource the market — which ultimately is both a combination of the student and the professor — but whatever form our market demands,” he said.



This is telling, because it shows an aligning on part of the publishers to reconcile their product with fiscal concerns. People have expected print to die out both in the industry and in the world at large as digital mediums have developed, but that still hasn’t entirely happened. And so it is through smaller, more precipitous changes that the digital conversion of materials has occurred.

The market — and the push to online — has slowly but drastically changed how the textbook market operates, and this generally has been beneficial for students.

One of the many features exclusive to digital content is how it can assist with creating a more directly related resource for the course it is built to service.

“The promise of adaptive learning is the thing that’s really got publishers very excited,” said Swail. “And that’s where a lot of the investment and a lot of the emphasis has gone.”“It sort of completely overturns the old print model where you put something in print, it’s out there for a couple years and then you update it and revise it. You put a new one out and then the old one — people complain, well, the old one’s not as relevant anymore.”

This is where we can highlight a significant concern about textbooks, which comes down to the editions: the reality that a textbook from five years ago becomes unusable in a current classroom because certain information within it has become outdated.

In some situations, with some new editions, this is definitely the case. In others, only very minor information is changed and yet students are still required to buy this updated material for their course.

To students, this often seems like the publishers are simply releasing a new edition in order to charge more money, as well as to prohibit their options in buying cheaper, used copiesh or reusing a copy borrowed from a friend.

A digital edition here is a double-edged sword: it eliminates this concern entirely. But in doing so it also eliminates the ability of students to share their textbooks.

The rental and used textbook market can be a bit of a concern, and it’s likely at least one motivator for this kind of textbook production — after all, the textbook publishers are a business, and the fundamental ethos of virtually any business is to generate profit.

“We’d love to capture more of the market that we’re kind of squeezed out of when it comes to used books,” Swail admitted. “But what we’re more interested in is what’s sustainable and more helpful for students and instructors in the long term.”

Approached skeptically, this kind of sentiment could be perceived as insincere. But when we compare it with the trends, even with commercial interests in mind, it is to the benefit of the publisher to produce lower-cost, higher quality materials. That’s how a publisher remains competitive, and it’s also how students are given the best learning experience.

According to Andraza, 64 per cent of students opt out of buying materials for the first day of class. This is a significant number and it suggests something about how students tend to look at textbooks: that they are oversold.

To the average student, it seems that additional components — more product than is truly necessary for the course — are loaded onto the syllabus and that it is worth their while to wait and see what they actually need to purchase. If they aren’t going to be directly tested on a particular work, why would they buy it?

Textbook costs will unfortunately always be higher than the average student would prefer to pay, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are higher than they should be.

But even that is an unfortunately small look at the story: in theory, materials are added and developed to courses with the intent of being used. While not every component of the syllabus is necessarily tested on, the basis of a university education is supposed to be on the accumulation of   a certain kind of knowledge — not just on the final certification.

Regardless, that doesn’t change the fact that some textbooks students are required to buy are under-utilized. This is an issue that digital resources may be able to repair.

“To the degree that we can help by making the resources not just better but less expensive — which they tend to be when they’re digital — then that’s also kind of a win for us, I think,” Swail said.  “Because it means that instead of two people or three people sharing one textbook, we’re trying to get to a point where everybody can afford to have that resource themselves.”

If everybody can afford the resource, even if that’s only because they’re sold for a lower cost, that means that more units are moved, which will generally result in higher revenue for the publisher.

Simply, the digital field for learning resources is the new frontier, and it’s the logical step for everyone involved. These resources can be supplied to students while avoiding a great deal of the tertiary costs of manufacturing and storage.

Warehousing, distribution and returns are all eliminated from the equation. There is no waste, there is no adverse affect on the environment.

But what disappears for students? Tangibility and ease of use for one, although the same components are administered through the digital resource. But more obviously, students lose the option of reselling — or retaining — their books.

Yes, textbooks are extremely expensive. And why? There are a number of reasons, ranging from supply and demand and production costs to the types of information and studies that need to be performed and gathered in order to produce one.

We don’t resell an education, and the point of attending a post-secondary institution is to have that education administered to us. In the constant, ever-changing, to-the-minute world of 2018, that means that our resources absolutely must be current. And with digital content, those resources can be easily produced, easily maintained and sold for a much, much lower cost.

With a subscription to a resource rather than a dated hardcover, students are given a better, more cost-effective learning experience. We need to recognize that options to reduce the costs of learning materials have increased over the years, and we also need to consider the initiatives being taken by the Ontario government to assist in helping to fund students through their education.

An education requires a great amount of time and effort in development and administration, just as it requires a great amount of time and effort from the students themselves.

Textbook costs will unfortunately always be higher than the average student would prefer to pay, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are higher than they should be.

An education is an expensive thing because an education is a valuable thing.

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