I would be willing to bet that anyone who has purchased a textbook recently has noticed how ridiculously expensive they are, but does anyone really know why those books cost so much?
I would be willing to bet that anyone who has purchased a textbook recently has noticed how ridiculously expensive they are, but does anyone really know why those books cost so much? I find it difficult to believe that the $200 cost is not a blatant attempt to price gouge those who have no choice in what they are buying. College textbook prices haven’t always been as high as they are today, but they’ve increased dramatically in a short amount of time.
To understand why prices are so high, it’s important to know that the publishing companies get most of the money from the sales of the textbook. Those companies have the largest amount of control over the price of the textbooks, since, according to U.S. News, the publishers determine nearly 77 percent of the total cost of the book, with the other 23 percent being controlled by the bookstores. According to the Consumer Price Index from the Census Bureau, inflation has caused household goods to increase by 257 percent since 1978, while textbooks have increased by 864 percent. That is mostly because of the textbook publishers.
According to NPR’s Planet Money podcast, much has happened to the textbook market recently that is causing the prices to explode as they have been. One major factor is the rise of the textbook rental business. The rental option was not commonplace until recently, but it has become a force in the textbook market, eating up a large chunk of the market share. Another major factor is the rise of textbook pirating — when copies of textbooks are obtained illegally over the Internet. This method will likely become even more common as people become more tech savvy and aware of the option to pirate books. Another factor that many don’t consider is the fact that some students simply cannot afford textbooks and forego buying them. The final major factor in the decline of textbook sales is student-to-student sales. These have always been a factor, but they have become even more common due to the ever-increasing cost of books. All of these new options, which weren’t so common just a few years ago, have drastically increased the supply of textbooks, while simultaneously reducing demand.
The reduction in demand, caused by the combination of rental markets, illegal downloads and students not buying books, has caused the average number of textbooks students buy each year to drop substantially — from about seven new books and six used books per student (13 total), down to around three new books, three used books, two rentals and 1 book obtained through other means, such as illegal downloads (nine total), according to another NPR Planet Money podcast.
You would think such a drastic decline in new book sales, on top of all of the new forms of competition, would encourage the textbook publishers to try to make their textbooks more affordable, but the opposite has occurred.
Instead of reducing prices and trying to be competitive in the market, publishers have started using gimmicks to force students to buy new books. They have begun putting add-ons in the books, such as CDs, in order to jack up the price. Another weapon in the publishers’ arsenal is the common online homework software that is bundled with the physical copies of the book.
These inconveniences might not sound that bad to most people, but these bundles require students to buy either an entirely new book to get the bundle, or to buy the unbundled homework software separately. If you choose to buy the homework software separately, the publishers charge a premium for the unbundled software in an effort to gain a large profit regardless of which option the students choose.
The methods used by the publishers might actually be economically unsound. If the poorest segments of the population that can least afford the high prices the publishers charge are forced to pay, there will be substantial backlash in the form of piracy and alternatives to traditional textbook purchases. From an economic perspective, these prices will probably end up hurting the publishers the most because rentals, piracy and student-to-student sales of books leave students with other outlets to obtain textbooks.
Michael Stock is a freshman studying chemistry at Ohio University and a research assistant at the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. Columns will be written by a different CCAP student from Ohio University each week. Email Michael at firstname.lastname@example.org