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Textbook costs: rising across the country

The cost of textbooks has risen dramatically over the past few decades, despite little or no increase in the cost of publishing these books. It is arguably cheaper today to publish a 600-page textbook than it was in the late 1970s. New printing methods (especially digital) have lowered the cost per page than publishers pay for printing, but the price charged to students continues to rise from year to year. There is a difference of about $200 per semester spent by 2-year-olds and 4-year-olds on their textbooks, with 2-year-olds spending that extra $200 per semester. Despite claims made (in 1975) that marginal profits are 15.8% or close for a successful book for the number of copies printed and sold, the same cannot be said today. The cost of printing has fallen almost in parallel with the rise in the cost of textbooks. Why then do we pay between 800 and 1,200% more than our counterparts in the mid to late 1970s? Inflation, books below sales minimums, publisher mergers, the advent of digital books/digital distribution methods, online shopping and sheer greed.

Since our last report in 2016 on the cost of textbooks at North Idaho College, the cost of textbooks has risen sharply, whether new or used.

The total amount spent on textbooks per semester for college students would be between $1,220 (4-year private schools) and $1,420 (2-year schools). While these prices can vary and there are other factors at play here (i.e. 4-year schools tend to cost more in tuition and lab fees than 4-year schools). 2 years), the fact is that it boils down to students paying a lot more now than there used to be fathers and grandfathers, even after adjusting for inflation.

For some context here, a hypothetical textbook that in the 70s would have cost $10 then, whereas now that “same” textbook would cost $56 in 2022, before being marked up by the bookstore. Inflation between these two periods reached around 400%. Now, a real textbook that would have cost a student in the mid to late 70s $10 is now about $80-200 brand new. That’s all the difference.

One explanation for this could very well be the increased cost of printing. Another is the shift from more centralized education to standardized learning methods. Journalist Phillip Whitten, when writing for “The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences” in 1975, stated that fixed and variable costs would lead to a mere 15.8% markup. This is declared to be an acceptable profit amount, since not all books will come close to commanding this profit amount. Whitten follows this up with another example of the same book causing the publisher to lose $126,000 if the book only sold 10,000 copies, instead of 20,000.

Whitten further notes that the publishing space had become increasingly competitive. One can easily say that this is more true today than it was in his day. With the advent of many East Coast publishers buying up smaller publishing houses, we are able to see how competitive practices via fewer options can and do unfold. While Simon and Schuster’s proposed merger with Penguin might not raise an eyebrow among college textbook publishers; if it follows the merger between Penguin and Random House, prices will rise for both fiction and non-fiction, which will potentially increase the price of textbooks.

The advent of digital books (ebooks) can also, to some extent, be blamed for the price increase. However, despite the claims of many proponents of e-books, their price is not necessarily cheaper than printed books. Yes, it costs little or nothing to distribute e-books compared to print books, but their prices are somewhat comparable to print books. Lowrie’s “Histology: An Essential Textbook” is $59.99 list price as an ebook and $69.99 as a print book. Is there really a justification for this? This cost difference is incredibly common, especially for textbooks and non-fiction works. This raises the age-old debate of whether or not we pay for the materials or information they contain.

Online shopping may also be partly responsible for the rising costs. When most of the things that weren’t available where you live suddenly come online, it opens up a whole new world of possibilities. This includes finding a better price on something (in this case, textbooks) than you might find locally. This causes price increases among book and mortar stores, even though they want to be competitive, their overhead prevents them from doing so. This makes mom and pop stores more vulnerable to price exclusion from their marketplaces, allowing conglomerates to gobble up their physical sales if they are unable to lower prices. Although these conglomerates are able to maintain lower prices due to their size and buying power, these online prices will generally be cheaper, especially for used books. Selling used books used to be relegated in person, but now anyone can sell a book online. The availability of thousands of different academic and non-academic textbooks on websites like Ebay, Amazon, and AbeBooks (also owned by Amazon) from sellers like ThriftBooks, WorldofBooksUSA, and second.sale for less than $5.00 per book drives up the price of books at brick and mortar stores, as there is less demand for these books purchased in person than on the web.

Greed is perhaps the biggest contributing factor to the cost of books, especially in academic bookstores. When a bookstore buys a book for $10.00 and sells it for $30, it makes sense. This bookstore must cover its overhead costs (base cost, cost of its space, staff, etc.), as well as the need to make a modest profit to stay in business. Yet when they sell that same book for 3 times as much – God forbid 10 times – IT IS pure greed on their part.

Quotes:

Infographic: Textbook costs skyrocket 812% in 35 years (aeseducation.com)

Why poor schools can’t win on standardized tests – The Atlantic

The Rising Cost of College Textbooks – BookScouter Blog

Fixing the Broken Textbook Market (pirg.org)

Affordability of college textbooks: Textbook prices have risen dramatically over the past four years, but some strategies can help control these costs for students

The Rising Cost of Textbooks in the United States – The Cooper Point Journal (bingj.com)

Why are textbooks so expensive? – Voice

The consolidation of publishing houses, past and present

Margarita W. Wilson

The author Margarita W. Wilson