Monday, May 1, 2017

The Textbook Wars: Students and Publishers Face Off Over Prices

With savvy students ducking high textbook prices, publishers will have to work smarter to maintain profits. ♦ 
Most college students are familiar with the unreasonably high cost of textbooks. According to a 2005 Government Accountability Office report, textbook prices increased at twice the rate of inflation from 1986 to 2004. Even today, the National Association of College Stores recommends that students budget $1200 for books and course supplies annually. But recent studies show that, despite the growing price, spending on course materials has fallen 14 percent in the last ten years. This decline in student spending shows that students are getting creative when it comes to accessing academic texts. Publishers will have to change the rules of the industry to force their target audience to keep coming back.
   This January, educational publishing giant Pearson Education announced a pre-tax loss of nearly $3.3 billion. The international company is struggling with changes to the technological landscape that affect the way college students are purchasing textbooks. The result has been the greatest loss in company history, but sympathy for Pearson’s plight is likely limited among students who are seeking out alternatives to big publishers.
   When I interviewed students at Miami University of Ohio on the subject of textbook procurement, a few answers stood out as universal textbook truths that college students use to save money. The number one piece of advice for freshmen was to avoid the campus bookstore.
   “Miami makes it easy to buy everything you need in one place,” said senior Elizabeth Baldwin, “but they definitely aren’t going to tell you that you have other options. You can hunt around for online stores that offer free shipping or discounts, and make sure you check out whatever used copies your campus has available before you commit to anything.”
   Finding used textbooks certainly has advantages. The savings gap between new and used book prices has increased along with textbook prices over the years. According to the National Association of College Stores, the average difference in price between a new textbook and its used counterpart has risen from forty-nine to fifty-nine dollars in the last decade. Used textbooks are sometimes available at campus bookstores, but Amazon, Barnes & Noble,, and also offer good deals. The greater access to used textbooks in recent years has been a real challenge to publishers who depend on new book purchases for a steady stream of revenue.
   Similarly, renting a book is often cheaper than purchasing one. Book Renter, Chegg, and CampusBookRentals can help students find rentals with easy return processes and great prices. An even more temporary solution is to utilize campus libraries. Reference books for most classes can be checked out for library use, and sometimes scanned for home use, if students only need certain sections at a time.
   Another unorthodox method of finding academic content is searching the web for PDF files of textbooks, or hoping that a free e-book version exists. Online copies of textbooks are convenient for students who can live without print; for liberal arts majors, much of English literature is offered on public domain sites such as For those who aren’t picky about design, sites such as TextbookRush can help students find international editions of textbooks. These editions are usually paperback and printed in black and white, but often run much cheaper than the domestic versions. Publishers do their best to curb piracy by producing digital textbooks, which require an internet access code and are rendered inoperative if used after the code expires.
   Publishers also fight back against students’ search for loopholes by expanding textbooks into multimodal online resources. Digital learning textbooks are part of online programs complete with further readings, audiovisual components, online quizzes, and problem sets, all of which may be required course material accessible only with a code. By distributing textbooks that require an access code to online learning materials, companies ensure that students will need to buy new codes each year. This eliminates the option to rent or buy used books, as well as the option to borrow from friends or libraries.
   Even if a textbook is still good old-fashioned paper and ink, publishers keep their hold on the market by constantly revising textbooks, some of which are updated with new editions as often as every eighteen months. Since many are not changed significantly from edition to edition beyond design, students can get away with buying older editions of textbooks, especially if the student is attentive in lecture. However, these versions become less useful if the older edition doesn’t include problem sets or questions that are essential to the class coursework. It is always wise to ask the instructor if an older edition will suffice.
   Whether students are hunting deals on print books or e-book packages, the small pool of publishers that dominates the textbook market does not allow for much competitive pricing. Pearson, McGraw-Hill Education, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt hold large market shares, along with Cengage Learning and Barnes & Noble Education. All five dominant publishers are undergoing significant structural change as students become savvier and seek out alternatives to traditional textbooks.
   There’s certainly hope for Pearson if they are strategic about where to focus their efforts in the new textbook marketplace. Cengage Learning fought its way out of debt in 2014 by reinventing itself as a digital learning solutions provider. McGraw-Hill Education built its digital offerings and recently reported that its online learning platforms sold more units than its paperback division. Meanwhile, Barnes & Noble Education’s purchase of digital platform and analytics provider LoudCloud Systems is getting the company back on its feet after a reported decline in sales last year.
   Pearson plans to invest around $930 million annually to keep up with the changing market. Only time will tell what the future of textbook publishing will look like, but as students get more and more creative with their procurement of course materials, publishers will need to be one step ahead to stay afloat.
  • About the Author
    Kate Stoneburner is a senior at Miami University with a double major in Professional Writing and Strategic Communications. She is currently the president of an all-female a cappella group and a pianist for Cobblestone Community Church. She is trying to kick her Netflix habit and find a career in grant writing or copywriting before graduation.

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