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The textbook case of highway robbery.

How the ever-growing cost of textbooks is impacting education in the United States and the scheme employed by book publishers to keep their pockets lined with cash.

It may be hard in the real world, but it is extra hard for students.  The textbook market for college courses has increased by over 800 percent—more than four times the consumer price index.  Even now with the fall semester about to begin, many students can feel this trend.  The confusing thing about this situation is that at the end of the semester, the same bookstore will buy the book back for pennies on the dollar, and then sell the book the next semester for the “used” price.  This “used price” however, is much more expensive than what the bookstore purchased it for.  This practice has been around for decades and has frustrated students for years.

The problem that students face is caused by two different factors.  First, the publishers and book stores are charging higher prices, and second, the professors choose these books to teach their courses.  Professors can be influenced by publisher salesmen who attempt to sell “custom edition textbooks” to professors that are claimed to be directly linked to their class materials.  Some professors make the situation even worse for students by requiring students to purchase the new version of a textbook in order to get an access code that is only valid for one student and for only one semester.

The publishers, of course, drive professors to assign newly published books as often as possible in order to reduce the possibility of students purchasing used books from alternate sources.  This practice is what drives the bookstore to offer pennies on the dollar prices to students who wish to sell back their books.

The book buyback piracy is driven by the unknown variable that is present at the end of every semester.  The bookstore does not know what classes or books the professors will use for the next year.  Typically, if the bookstore knows that the book will be used the following year, the bookstore will give 50 percent of the sticker price to buy it back.  It is when the book will not be used, or a new version of the book is about to be released where students are hit with books that cannot be sold back for more than a few dollars.

A brand new text book could become outdated months after it is released.

As it relates to law school books, the argument is that because the law is ever-updating, textbook companies must make new additions so that law school professors are able to teach the correct law.  The frustrating fact is that a brand new textbook could become outdated just months after it is released.  For instance, a new civil procedure case could render a $300 book worthless at the end of the semester.  Interestingly, the same problem of outdated books exists in the practice of law.  Reporter book volumes, for instance, are commonly used by attorneys.  However, because it would be infeasible to replace an entire reporter set for the addition of only one case, publishers have found a way to counter this infeasibility.

In order to avoid this, reporter publishers create pocket parts that are sent to registered customers whenever additions of the book come out.  However, this market differs from the textbook market in two ways.  First, the owner of a textbook hopefully only needs the book for one semester whereas the owner of a reporter series needs the books for a longer period of time.  Second, owning hard copies of reporters is not required, especially with new web services such as Lexis, Bloomberg, and Westlaw— compared to colleges which require books for every class.

Therefore, the student market has a large number of short term investors instead of a small number of long term investors.  This heavy market rotation allows bookstores and publishers to sell the books for increasingly higher amounts.  However, a number of state legislatures have heard the cry of the poor college students and began writing legislation that counters the cost of the required books.  In 2008, lawmakers in Arizona passed a bill that lessens the frequency of new additions to books that can be created by the publisher.  New additions destroy the opportunity for students to purchase used books and force them into buying the full price edition.  Other lawmakers passed legislation in 2015 to support open textbook pilot programs at universities so that students will have access to books that are covered in tuition costs.  Senators Dick Durbin, Al Franken, and Angus King were the main supporters of this option.

The cost of purchasing textbooks impacts how many and what classes they choose to take in a semester. 

Where college bookstores may be profiting from this trend, the main cause of the exuberant costs is the publishers.  Publishers, on average, make 77.4 cents for every dollar spent on a textbook.  This is quite the incentive for publishers to add a new edition every few years.  Law books are specifically subject to this sort of treatment because there are new cases published every year that could directly affect an entire field of law.  In response to this issue, a private group of sponsors have created a new way of providing textbooks without the high costs.  The group of sponsors has started a textbook sharing website that allows students to access the books from their computer.  Although this service has not yet expanded to legal textbooks, it is beginning to make a difference for college students across the country.

In addition to this, students and professors alike have found alternative ways of cutting the costs on college textbooks.  Some students have skillfully and discretely photocopied their classmates’ books for classes and saved hundreds.  Although this method is time consuming, it has saved some frugal individuals hundreds of dollars over their college careers.  On the other side, some professors have resorted to e-textbooks in order to save their students the cost of buying a book for class.  For those who do not take advantage of either of these options, the cost of purchasing textbooks can impact both how many and which classes a student chooses to take in a semester.

The days of walking into a classroom and receiving a copy of the latest book ended around the fourth grade. 

Unsurprisingly, the cost of education in the United States is one of the most expensive in the world.  Countries such as Germany pay for college through their tax base, and education is nearly free for each student.  Although the cost to attend college in the United States is also supplemented with tax dollars, there is still a very high cost to students.  On top of tuition costs, purchasing a book for $300 that will only be used for four months is highway robbery.

The days of walking into a classroom and receiving a copy of the latest book ended around the fourth grade.  Students are now, on average, acquiring around $29,000 in debt each year, just to attend college.  With the costs of education continuously rising, students can avoid the exuberant costs at the book store by shopping online at sites such as valorebooks, bookfinder, abebooks, bookbyte, and amazon.

Despite some solutions that have been proposed, this problem is driven by the constant need for new and cutting edge information, and because information is ever-changing, there is no easy solution to be had.  Although this issue would easily be solved if publishers sold “pocket parts” to update their old textbooks, maybe the next step in literature and textbooks will be e-books that the school subscribes to for the semester.

Cyrus Corbett V, Associate Editor Emeritus
About Cyrus Corbett V, Associate Editor Emeritus (16 Articles)
Cyrus Corbett V is a 2017 graduate of Campbell Law School and served as an Associate Editor for the Campbell Law Observer during the 2016-2017 academic year. He is from Murrells Inlet, South Carolina and received his Bachelors in Arts in Government from Wofford College in 2014. Since July after his first year of law school, Cyrus has interned at the North Carolina Retail Merchants Association in downtown Raleigh focusing on the Retail Merchants Handbook. His interest is in jurisprudence of the law and negotiation/ mediation.
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