Why you’re paying so much for textbooks: Part 1 ⁄ 2

Before blaming the Bookstore, there’s a slew of factors to keep in mind

Image credit to Tiffany Chan, Staff Illustrator

By: Alexander Kenny, Peak Associate 

Purchasing textbooks has become a macabre ritual amongst post-secondary students. Students at SFU, myself included, always spend time discussing, comparing, and ultimately asking the question to end all questions: “How much do you have to spend on textbooks this semester?”

At first glance, the issue would seem to lie between students and the institution bookstore. Occasionally, students also lay blame at the feet of professors for requiring textbooks that are too expensive, or not critical to the learning of course material. However, further research and interviews indicate that the issues regarding textbooks are not just a bookstore issue, but involve students, bookstores, publishers, course instructors, multiple levels of government, and e-commerce retailers. In fact, there are so many players involved and so many sides to the discussion that one of the initial issues in mitigating costs is the loud cacophony of voices from different groups with different interests.

Much of the reason why comes secondary to students, who, according to the Canadian Federation of Students via The Globe and Mail, says that the average Canadian post-secondary student spends $500–$1,000 on course material per semester. To exacerbate the problem, Canadian copyright law allows Canadian publishers and Canadian branches of foreign publishers to charge up to a 15% premium on foreign titles, and 10% on titles from the USA to cover the costs of shipping and handling books from abroad. Needless to say, there are complexities to examine before painting this issue with large brushstrokes.

I set out to understand the complexity of the situation, the solutions being proposed, how they are progressing, and where they may go.


A student’s perspective

Eva Zhu, a fourth-year health sciences major admitted that “this semester, I haven’t actually bought a textbook yet. I need to buy my toxicology textbook, which is $100, I think. If I had bought my film textbook, it would have been $158.” Zhu’s is a common sentiment: when faced with hundreds of dollars in textbook costs per semester, avoiding the purchase if it’s deemed unnecessary is appealing.

There is often discussion about whether or not there are certain faculties in which textbooks are more expensive than others. Zhu commented that biology and chemistry textbooks, from her experience, are the most expensive of the faculties in which she has taken courses, saying, “I bought my chemistry textbook secondhand, and I still spent $120, new was about $180. [For] my biology textbook, I spent $260.”

Like a large number of university students, Zhu tries to avoid SFU’s bookstore wherever possible, stating that she has been buying the majority of her textbooks using Facebook buyer-exchange groups since her first year, and only uses the bookstore if there are no other options and it is absolutely necessary. Spending potentially hundreds of dollars per semester on textbooks can add up to the cost of a whole other course. She also stated that “the majority of the time, I’ll buy a textbook, and I’ll open it once or twice in the entire term.”

When asked, she believes that it is the bookstore that is responsible for the high prices of textbooks. Her experience and comments paint a picture of distrust towards the institutions that administer textbooks.

Meanwhile, Maxwell Gawlick, a first-year intended psychology and criminology joint-major, shared a similar story. Gawlick attested to the high prices of textbooks, saying, “I generally spend close to $250 on textbooks. I could spend close to $500 . . .” He also said that the most he’s spent on a textbook was “a $130 Crim textbook I bought from the SFU bookstore.” Like Zhu, Gawlick gets as much as he can secondhand, and he isn’t pleased with the cost, commenting, “I don’t think it’s very reasonable for them to cost that much, especially when they’re targeted to a demographic of famously poor students.”

Gawlick also had thoughts when asked who’s to blame, but saw a silver lining in the process, noting, “It probably comes down to the authors. Not that it’s necessarily avoidable, because they put a lot of work into compiling a textbook that goes through a small run of prints. That isn’t easy to do cheaply, though certain authors like those of my psych course attempt to lower the cost by producing loose-leaf and so on. I still feel like textbooks are overpriced, but I do recognize that there’s a reason for some of it, at least.”

If Zhu’s and Gawlick’s thoughts are any indication, textbook prices have indeed become a part of the university student culture, as early as first year. While students may feel alone in that fight, it may not be the case, after all.


What the professors want

Course instructors have their own agenda for their use and selection of textbooks. Tara Immell, a business professor with a background in finances, plainly stated that in her classroom, she “will use the textbook that has been used in the past,” adding that “if something major has happened in the world that is related to that course, I much prefer the newer textbooks.” She indicated that otherwise, in the case that simply the order of chapters has changed or material has been expanded, she is OK with students using older editions of the textbook if they are willing to do the extra work of finding the correct material in the old textbook or working with a classmate to compensate.

Textbook cost does affect her decision, however, as she said, “Possibly, it is cheaper to buy the online problem solving package, plus access to the online textbook, than it is to buy the brand new printed textbook. So, I find the online problem solvers give students extra practice at no added cost above a new printed and bound textbook.”

Immell believes strongly that the best value both for readings, and practice problems lie in digital copies. She also commented that from her experience, the discrepancy in cost between different faculties’ textbooks lies in “the technical nature of the material in a textbook,” citing the amount of human work in textbooks, such as proofreading and oversight. This would explain, to an extent, why some faculty’s textbooks are far more expensive than another.

Immell’s case illustrates that instructors have their own approaches to textbook selection, and that many factors regarding textbook costs are out of their control — but that they too are often aware and concerned of the cost of their materials.


The Bookstore’s conflict

When I spoke to Mark McLaughlin, the chief commercial services officer who oversees operations at the SFU Bookstore, he was very clear that “our objective is really to drive down the price of learning resources.”

He said that there are a number of factors when determining the price of textbooks at the bookstore. This includes the price charged by the publisher to the bookstore and shipping and handling costs, which McLaughlin indicated were higher for SFU in particular.

“Most of the books are from Toronto, Chicago, they get shipped across the country. You know, Vancouver, we’re at the furthest end of the country, so we’d be more expensive than textbooks in downtown Toronto.”

He also cites labour cost as a major factor, as the students who work as cashiers and the people handling, shipping, and receiving textbooks all need to be compensated. Something he outlines a major issue with the cost of textbooks being “inefficiencies in the system,” including textbooks that need to be returned.

He uses the example of textbooks that are requested by instructors as required texts, then later are determined to be unnecessary, are not purchased, and have to be returned to the publisher. He explained that “the cost of shipping here and shipping back get embedded in the next textbook we sell.”

Such costs are necessary in order to pay expenses and attempt to break even. However, McLaughlin did not stop at inefficiencies simply in shipping, also noting that the publishers are “consistently increasing textbooks by 6% per year.” It is worth noting that a 6% increase in cost annually can be considered quite high, as the common standard for the inflation rate is around 2% annually. The US dollar exchange also drives prices upwards when the Canadian dollar isn’t doing well. These are issues that can no longer be considered within the realm of control of a university bookstore (even one that, as McLaughlin notes, has good purchasing power due to the size of its institution) but that belong to an international marketplace that lacks regulation.

McLaughlin also pointed out that getting mass support from other post-secondary institutions in order to present a united front on the mark is an uphill battle. According to him, not all institutions have non-profit bookstores like SFU, meaning that not everyone favours making the system cheaper and more efficient.

However, McLaughlin was enthusiastic when discussing solutions to the current system, including some investigated by the SFU Bookstore . . .


Editor’s note: To read more about the issue of textbook prices and these solutions, check out part 2 which will be available next week.