Don’t Cry for College Textbook Publishers

Anyone who’s attended college or has kids attending college will not likely shed a tear for the struggling textbook publishers out there. You’re not going to have warm, fuzzy feelings for any industry that causes you to spend the equivalent of a month’s rent, or more, on books that you know you’ll only use for four months and then not be able to re-sell because a new version is already in the works. And you have to do it twice a year for the four years you’re in college!

That’s why reading this story in the Wall Street Journal on the struggles of the textbook publishers brought on a wave of schadenfreude like none I’ve felt in years:

Some opt instead to download textbooks illegally. A report last month by the Book Industry Study Group, an industry trade group, found that 25% of students photocopied or scanned textbooks from other students, up from 17% in 2012. The number of students who acquired textbooks from a pirate website climbed to 19% from 11%.

Those trends come at a time of steadily rising textbook prices. The price of new printed textbooks has jumped an average of 6% a year over the past decade, triple the rate of overall inflation, government figures show, making textbooks among the fastest-growing consumer expenses in the U.S.

Rising prices and changing buying habits have taken a toll.

Sales of new printed textbooks made up 38% of McGraw-Hill Education’s higher-ed revenue in 2013, down from 71% in 2010, said Chief Executive and President David Levin.

This hits close to home because in our house we have three college students right now. Thankfully we’ve been able to control costs by renting books through the school bookstore or through Amazon, or buying used books when possible through Amazon. Every once in a while the book will only be available from the school, and generally those are the most expensive, but still we’re talking $100-150 per book versus the $250-350 list price for many of the books for which we found rental/used alternatives.

The cost is patently ridiculous when you consider what is freely available online. In fact we should find a way to give professors incentives to utilize the information in the public domain whenever possible. It’s surely more work for them, but imagine the savings it would provide their students and how much less debt most of those students will have when they graduate.

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