State Bills Fail to Curtail Ballooning Textbook Costs

    NATIONAL NEWS — For most college students, the beginning of the school year brings with it the wallet-draining ordeal of buying textbooks.

    In a move aimed at easing the financial burden, the California legislature passed two separate textbook-pricing bills last week.

    The College Textbook Affordability Act and the College Textbook Transparency Act are similar in many regards, but contain several key differences that cause textbook publishers to support the Transparency Act, while student organizations such as CalPIRG support the Affordability Act. Although the Affordability Act is the better piece of legislation for students because it lays out clearer, less malleable guidelines for publishers, it too has significant shortcomings.

    Unlike the more stringent Affordability Act requirements, the Transparency Act does not require publishers to make lists containing prices and edition differences available online. Instead, they must merely “be responsive in a timely manner to requests for information on textbook cost and content and the full range of options.” This vague wording leaves much up to interpretation and gives publishers plenty of room to play smoke and mirrors, whereas requiring the information to be on the Internet makes it available to professors clearly and instantaneously.

    Another weakness in the Transparency Act is that many of its provisions, such as listing prices and changes on book covers, only go into effect in 2010, while the Affordability Act would go into effect immediately if signed into law. It shouldn’t take publishers three years to retool their printing presses to publish a price listing on the cover of their textbooks, when they can create a completely new textbook in that amount of time. Nor should it take them three years to compile a list of differences between editions and make them available to the public on request. The information certainly exists within the shrink-wrapped covers of textbooks themselves and it should be simple to compile such a list for the public.

    The Transparency Act also subtly shifts the responsibility for expensive textbooks onto campus bookstores, requiring them to list their retail pricing policies. But the price difference between bookstores and other retailers is tiny compared to the overall prices of textbooks. The Amazon.com price for a new copy of the 10th edition of Human Physiology, a biology textbook by Stuart Ira Fox, is $146.88, while the UCSD Bookstore sells the same book for $156.70. The difference is less than 10 percent, and is easily explained by the overhead costs of a physical store. Looking to reformation of campus bookstores to lower textbook prices is misguided at best, and a red herring at worst.

    Adding insult to injury, the Transparency Act has a section aimed at preventing universities and professors from accepting bribes. According to the bill, universities and professors cannot “demand or receive anything of value, including the … deposit of money, present or promised, for adopting specific course materials.” On top of the already illegal nature of accepting bribes, the bill’s wording lays the blame for unethical marketing practices completely at the feet of schools instead of on the publishing company. The Affordability Act has no similar section — the writer of that bill was probably aware that bribery is already illegal and that publishers are responsible for their own marketing practices.

    Even though the Affordability Act lacks many of the faults of the Transparency Act, neither will succeed in truly reducing textbook costs. Disclosing prices will not compel publishers to lower prices, or stop publishing new editions of calculus textbooks every five years, when the concepts of derivatives and integrals have remained the same for the past 100. Nor do these bills prevent publishers from passing the costs of disclosing their prices onto consumers. While professors will have more information available to be able to assign less expensive textbooks, neither piece of legislation forces the industry to lower prices as a whole.

    Additionally, according to the State Public Interest Research Group’s report “Ripoff 101” in 2004, “the average textbook surveyed costs 20 percent more in the United States than it does in the United Kingdom.” Back in 2004, the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group reported that the price of Thomson Learning’s “Calculus: Early Transcendentals” was priced at $125 in the United States but only $65 (₤35) in the UK.

    Today, the difference is less but still exists, with the U.S. copy selling for $180.95 while the British copy goes for about $175 (₤85.99). Neither the Affordability or Transparency Act would make publishers do anything to give California universities and students textbook prices that their international counterparts enjoy.

    The Transparency Act is heavily flawed in its attempt to counter the rising costs of textbooks to be considered a serious piece of legislation that would benefit students.

    And while the Affordability Act is an honest attempt at forcing change, there needs to be further legislation aimed at lowering textbook prices if a significant improvement is to be had.

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