Textbook prices a bombshell

Students search for someone to blame for high prices

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

Books for sale on bookstore shelves

Jon Purdy

THESE PRICES ARE HIGH ENOUGH TO ENGINEER AN ANEURYSM. While Lamarsh and Baratta may be brilliant engineers, they also show savage capitalist savvy. Cashstrapped students everywhere shudder.

It is a bombshell dropped on new students every year: sticker shock caused by increasingly expensive textbooks.

“I bought all of my textbooks for around $600,” first-year bio-med student Elizabeth Ebert said. “I’d never bought textbooks before. I found it shocking.”

With numerous concerns about the rising costs of education and what it could mean for lower-income students, textbooks are quickly becoming a resource for the wealthy.

Although there is no comparable Canadian study, information collected by the United States Government Accountability Office found textbook prices tripled from December 1986 to December 2004, an increase of 36 per cent over inflation.

Textbooks did not increase in price at the same level as tuition, which saw a 168 per cent increase over inflation, but the fact remains " textbooks are very expensive.

“Tuition is not just the $5,300 we think it is,” Stephen Lecce, senator-at-large said. “Some engineers will be spending $1,000 for textbooks.”

Lecce said many other professional schools also face problems; text books range from carrying “hefty” prices to being simply “unaffordable.”

One of the varying problems with textbooks is the multiple editions put out.

Tony Yip, a second-year physiology and psychology student, said, “It’s too expensive [for publishers] to change editions every three years. You can’t sell [the old edition] back.”

Yip added he had spent at least “half a grand” on textbooks so far this year.

“That’s too much. Period.”

Anger has been raised over publishing company McGraw Hill Corporation’s third quarter profit margin. In the education division, revenue was $1.2 billion, with $411.1 million of operating profit.

Members of the publishing industry feel they are misrepresented as the cause of more frequent editions.

“Generally, the market itself, not the publishers, determine whether a revision is necessary,” David Hakensen, vice-president of public relations at Pearson Prentice Hall Publishing, said.

“For the past 10 years, the average length of time between editions has remained about three to five years,” Hakensen explained.

“According to a recent poll, 80 per cent of college instructors say it is important textbooks used in their courses be as current as possible.”

Current events can necessitate changes in a textbook, as can having new “test problems, applications and instructional products,” even in courses where theory does not change much.

However, Jane Doran, sales floor coordinator at the BookStore at Western, had a different perspective.

“In order to create a new edition updated information is required,” Doran said. A new edition could be as simple as new statistics, pictures, text, or even correcting spelling errors, Doran explained.

Concerns are frequently raised about textbooks being marked up in university bookstores, including here at Western.

Gail Murray, manager of course book acquisition at the BookStore, stated “[The BookStore sold books] at Canadian list prices dictated by the publisher. [Western] does not mark up the price of the book, now or ever.”

According to the BookStore, a textbook’s cost is divided into nine different categories: per dollar, publisher’s marketing accounts for 12 per cent, publisher’s profit four per cent, publisher’s overhead 13 per cent, book manufacturing 36 per cent, bookstore personnel 11 per cent, bookstore rent and overhead 13 per cent, corporate taxes two per cent, author’s royalty four per cent and editorial five per cent.

Hakensen claimed part of the reason for the high price of textbooks could be traced back to “bookstore markups, which are driven by staff and operations costs,” where markups “typically run 25-30 per cent.”

According to Zach Armstrong, senator-at-large at Westren, markups could be hard to find with regards to the BookStore. Since the Campus Computer Store, the BookStore, and Food Services are all under one financial umbrella, it is hard to identify individual markups.

Though exact numbers are unclear, information provided by Senators Reid and Lecce, along with Board of Governors representative Matt Reid, shows about $41 million total revenue with $45,000 profit for ancillary services including the BookStore " a profit margin of roughly 0.01 per cent.

“The fact you can get these books for cheaper elsewhere makes you wonder,” Armstrong said. “Because different services [are included under one financial statement], markups could be hard to spot.”

Reid agreed, to a certain degree. “Senator Lecce brought up the issue and investigated it with the Vice President ... a lot of that money goes to pay off [Western’s] debt.

“But [Western] is extremely efficient in how we run our operations,” stressed Reid. “We have a low profit margin because we pay our employees, many of whom are students, very well.

“What we need to do is target the publishers and authors, who are the ones who are really benefiting out of this situation.”

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