The high price of higher learning

Every year, scads of our valuable beer-drinking money is wasted on such trivial things as tuition fees and textbooks. The various ways of acquiring financial aid are well-documented, but nobody seems to be giving out pamphlets on getting cheaper textbooks for students.

This is quite a pity, considering it is possible to get, say, “”Fundamentals of Physics”” by Halliday and Resnick ($120 at the UCSD Bookstore) for $25, or “”Calculus Early Transcendentals”” Stewart ($100 at the UCSD Bookstore) for $24. These books are brand new, and in most cases indistinguishable from the ones sold in the bookstores you may be familiar with. At most, they might have the words “”International Edition”” printed somewhere on them.

The international edition of a textbook is printed by the same publisher as the domestic edition, and as the name implies, is sold for profit in other countries. However, they can be up to five times cheaper than the domestic version.

Before exploring the reasons for this price discrepancy, some detail regarding the costs of publishing a textbook may be helpful.

According to publishers, the world of textbook publishing is a cutthroat business with very little profit. Only a small number of copies are printed, the warehousing costs are massive and new editions of books come out frequently, making the previous edition nearly impossible to sell. Furthermore, textbooks now usually come in color with elaborate diagrams, and therefore are much more difficult to write and typeset than your average fiction bestseller.

According to the NACS College Store Industry Financial Report 2001, for each dollar spent on a textbook, 75.4 cents go to the publishers, almost all of which goes toward the above-mentioned expenses, leaving only 7 cents as profit.

Most of these costs are one-time costs: paying the writers, editors and contributors their advances; creating the design of the textbook; and setting up the presses to print it. After all, once the textbook is written, it’s written. Also, new revisions, while representing a significant amount of work in their own right, rarely require as much effort as the first edition.

Ongoing costs to the publisher include the cost of shipping, which, according to the report, is 1.4 percent of the price, and the cost of paper and the actual printing the book. According to the report, the printing cost takes up 31 percent of the retail price, but this no doubt includes the one-time costs of typesetting and such. The price goes down if large quantities are printed and the price goes up if there are many color pages. Surprisingly, there is no appreciable change to the cost between printing hardback and paperback.

So why is the international edition so much cheaper than the domestic edition? Unfortunately, there does not appear to be any conclusive explanation.

None of the publishers that were contacted were interested in explaining their pricing decisions or revealing their profit margins. The foreign bookstores that were interviewed provided some rather surprising answers — according to one shopkeeper, international editions are cheaper because they are printed locally. However, most international-edition textbooks have the words “”Printed in the USA”” on the information page.

Another answer received was that textbooks were cheaper because they were bought in bulk — something that is done by bookstores in the United States as well as abroad. Some even claimed that the international editions were cheaper because they were printed on thinner paper, but this does not hold with observation — international editions are overwhelmingly indistinguishable from domestic editions. Also, the material cost of printing a textbook is only a trivial fraction of the total cost involved.

It’s not due to the differences in currency, as the textbooks are being sold at a fraction of the equivalent value of U.S. dollars, and any benefit of currency differences to operations is unlikely to affect the price by such significant amounts.

Additionally, some analysis suggests that the cost of selling these textbooks overseas would probably be higher than selling them locally. After all, the books have to be shipped over longer distances, and foreign chains of distribution have to be established.

Whatever the reason, it’s not charity on the part of the publishing houses. International editions are sold for profit in commercial bookstores worldwide. Prices may vary widely from country to country based on the vagaries of currency and demand, but all are substantially lower than domestic prices. Even developed countries like the UK and Australia enjoy the benefits of the international edition.

For students feeling the pinch at the bookstore checkout this quarter, the lure of cheap international textbooks may be appealing, but the publishers apparently took this into account: It’s illegal to import or sell international editions in the United States.

The only recommendation may be to cut back on the beer budget and reserve more cash for books.