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Textbook sales falter as revenue rises

As any college student can tell you, the rising cost of college textbooks has become an immediate and ongoing dilemma for students in all levels of higher education. The outrageous prices employed by various textbook publishers have sparked a series of investigations into the logical causes of the price hikes.

In August 2005, the Government Accounting Office (GAO) investigation found that over the past 20 years, the cost of college textbooks has risen at twice the rate of inflation, though followed closely behind college tuition increases. Textbook prices have nearly tripled from December 1986 to December 2004, rising steadily to the tune of six percent per year.

The study found that the average student spends nearly $900 on textbooks and supplies, which equals approximately 26 percent of tuition and fees per year at the majority of public four-year colleges.

The GAO determined that the best way to explain the increasing costs of textbooks in recent years is to say that it is due to the development of products designed to accompany the texts, such as CD-ROMs and other instructional supplements. These supplements, combined with frequent revisions of texts, are believed to be the primary reason for the increased costs and are also generally considered by students to be unnecessary.

Though 2005 marked the second year in a row that the number of new college textbooks sold by American publishers has fallen, the revenue accumulated by textbook sales has risen for five consecutive years – presumably sustained by the continuing price increases. As reported by the Washington Post, The National Association of College Bookstores said wholesale prices of college textbooks have risen nearly 40 percent during the past five years.

The rising costs have forced a large number of college students to purchase used textbooks – which accounted for $1.7 billion in sales in 2005 – rather than buy new ones, which is one reason for the decline in units sold by American publishers, combined with the rising costs of paper, binding and utilities, said Albert N. Greco, senior researcher at the nonprofit Institute for Publishing Research, in an Associated Press article. Though the price of a used book may be right, the thrifty nature of poor college students has indirectly perpetuated the problem – as the publishers lose sales, they must make up for their lost revenue by raising the price of the new texts.

To cope with the loss of sales, some publishers have begun updating their texts every two years, rather than the once-customary three years – a strategy they hope will make finding acceptable used texts more difficult for students.

This perpetual cycle could raise prices without hurting sales volume for as long as students continue to purchase textbooks in this pattern. For some students at more expensive colleges, the cost of texts is less of an issue; though for students at USF, the costs are becoming a serious problem, and students have no other answer than to purchase the cheapest book they can possibly find.

Most USF students look to alternative routes, such as sharing books with other students and used bookstores to fulfill their textbook needs.

“I usually wait to see if I need a book in a class before I buy one, and I usually will share a book with another student if at all possible,” senior finance major Jeremy Jackson said. “Though this last spring I had to spend over $300 in used books.”

Aside from students, some professors at the University level are also attempting to come up with alternatives for their students. USF professor Marc Defant, who published his own textbook, A Voyage of Discovery from the Big Bang to the Ice Age, offered some insight to his personal struggles with the publishing industry.

“The original publisher, Mancorp Publishing, was a U.S. company that went bankrupt,” Defant said in an e-mail. “I was left with no royalties, a $16,000 debt because I lent the company money (for an advance on future royalties) and only about 10 copies of the original book. Unknown to me, they sold all the books they had originally published (they completely refused to ever let me know how many copies were ever published) to my students and other buyers, and then refused to pay the royalties, hiding behind their bankruptcy.

“Unfortunately, things are very expensive in the publishing industry,” Defant said. “My book should have color pictures in it to help the students understand better the graphs and pictures in the book, but the cost to publish in color would make the cost to students outrageous.” As an alternative, Defant said, “I found out that to republish the book myself was too expensive. The USF bookstore offered to print the book so I could continue to use it in classes.”

Universities like USF are doing what they can to help lessen the financial burden placed on professors like Defant and the University’s students by the publishing industry. From the bookstore printing the book, to archive copies located in the library, there are some alternatives for those students out there who strive to be financially frugal.