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

Possible solutions: the future of textbooks may be flipping through databases instead of pages

Image credit to Tiffany Chan, Staff Illustrator

By: Alexander Kenny, Peak Associate 

When students discuss the topic of textbook prices, it is almost unanimous amongst them that prices are too high. Last week, we discovered that textbook prices arose from a complex network of reasons. University bookstores were just the tip of the iceberg.

Students aren’t entirely wrong to assume that prices will never drop because the main players of the industry seek to make profits. However, when The Peak sat down with Mark McLaughlin, chief commercial services officer at SFU’s bookstore, solutions were a popular topic. As it turns out, SFU is at the centre of the effort to reduce cost. It’s possible that in pointing the finger of blame, SFU students are often shooting the messenger.


The potential of used textbooks

During our interview, McLaughlin mentioned that “we would prefer to sell used textbooks to students because they’re more affordable . . . [But] we can’t get our hands on enough used textbooks.” He noted, “The challenge is, the price we’re offering students . . . [for textbook buybacks] is less [than other selling platforms]. Also, sometimes, the professor doesn’t tell us what textbook is required the following semester. If we find out what textbook is required for the following semester too late, we don’t have a chance to buy them back. So we’re trying to work with professors to let us know, well in advance, what textbook is required.”

He then explained that selling more used textbooks would decrease the costs involved in shipping and returning textbooks, further lowering costs. In a system that McLaughlin describes as inefficient, he suggests some simple solutions tied to communication between professors and the bookstore, saying “We’re trying to work with professors to let us know as soon as they can. One of the things that’s going to drive down the price of textbooks is professors ordering early.”


Open-source textbooks

Looking to the future, and considering more universal solutions, McLaughlin says the bookstore has been pushing professors for the use of open-source textbooks, something that he encourages students to mention to professors as well. He points to the province, saying: “The BC province is the leader in Canada, in North America really, in promoting open-source textbooks. There’s a slew of them that are available through BCcampus that government has made available.”

Open-source textbooks are free, and considered to be of comparable quality and just as peer-reviewed as buyable books. He later explained that organizations such as BCcampus gather materials which have been released for free, either by their authors or by organizations that have purchased their copyrights, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

One such organization is BCcampus, an association funded by the Ministry of Advanced Education, Skills and Training, with administrative support from SFU. BCcampus amasses content and makes it publicly available at no charge to the province’s students, and even commissions authors when need be. According to McLaughlin, the SFSS has also worked with BCcampus.

Further, McLaughlin encourages students to request that their professors look into using open-source textbooks and “to be conscious of the prices students are paying, because sometimes professors aren’t aware of the actual cost. They don’t think about that, they think about learning material, but there are different options out there.” McLaughlin believes strongly that this is the approach that has to be taken to fix the textbook market. He also sees new players in the market playing a role, saying that “publishers have taken advantage of their monopoly, have driven up the prices, and they’re kind of paying for that position now. There’s a lot more disruption, [and] new players — Google, Amazon are into the textbook delivery and distribution . . . Publishers are scrambling and they’re realizing that textbooks are overpriced. It’s driving the used textbook market, and it’s driving [BCcampus].”

McLaughlin said that with the direction of the industry, “there’s tremendous opportunity for digital learning resources . . . which can be much cheaper.” He also noted that with the aforementioned options, the bookstore is also pushing for the use of custom course packs, to reduce the need for textbooks where only a few chapters are used in the entire book, something that has arisen in student discussions as a main reason for an unnecessary purchase of a book. McLaughlin commented that custom packs can be printed at the bookstore, which avoids many inefficiencies such as extra fees and shipping costs. He also noted that publishers have given the bookstore the copyright to do that, so it could be far more efficient.


Price-matching at the bookstore

The attempts to lower costs haven’t ended there, according to McLaughlin, who was pleased to say that SFU has begun matching the prices of new textbooks on Amazon.ca, if it’s in stock on Amazon. This is a clear step by the bookstore in an attempt to keep pace with the new players in the textbook distribution industry. McLaughlin said, “It’s hard to compete against Amazon or Google, but we’ve taken a stance this past semester.”

He also mentioned that the bookstore will be trying a new locker system, which will allow students to pick up their textbook orders 24/7 at a locker, instead of having to come within bookstore hours, in an attempt to further make the system more efficient.


Textbooks: there’s an app for that

If this isn’t enough, McLaughlin says that the SFU Bookstore has considered the possibility of creating an app to help make the used textbook market more efficient, and thinks the university can help make the process of buying and selling easier.

McLaughlin envisions an app that could match students who want to get rid of old textbooks with students looking for them, and facilitate payment through PayPal or credit cards- that way students wouldn’t have to arrange meetups and carry cash. The SFU bookstore would simply facilitate exchange and provide a safe drop-off point and pick-up point for students.

He sees this as possible, since it was SFU computing science and engineering students that were used to create the now-widespread SFU Vault app.


Digital education

McLaughlin believes that there are pros and cons to selling ebook copies of textbooks, saying that these ebooks “have to be more than PDF versions of textbooks, that’s where the whole digital resource world comes into play. An ebook would probably have embedded quizzes, animations, videos. Then there’s value added. Unfortunately, some publishers will sell an e-code, but they’ll bundle it with a textbook, so it’s just a way to drive up the price. So that’s not going to be successful in the long run.”


Cooperation as key

One of the biggest solutions that McLaughlin discussed, however, was a coalition that the bookstore is working to form with other institutions. He said that they’re trying to look at the digital learning resource model to come up with a unified model for the entire province, saying that “[when] we have purchasing power, then we can really drive down the price. Then we can say to these publishers, ‘if you want to play ball with us, here are the conditions that the province of BC, the institutions, are willing to play ball.’” Examples of these conditions include price cuts and price increases “capped to inflation.” McLaughlin describes pricing caps as crucial, so that prices cannot continue to rise at significantly higher than inflation rates.

He also mentioned the possibility of something like a “U-Pass model,” in which students would pay a subscription fee, as they do for transit, allowing students to access all their necessary course material at a fraction of the retail cost.

McLaughlin continued to stress the need to fix inefficiencies throughout the system, while explaining the initiatives that the bookstore is pushing in order to help fix them. He made it clear, though, that he sees the most permanent solutions being in digital learning resources, either a unified coalition of purchasing power, a subscription access model similar to the U-Pass system, and a shift towards professors using open-source materials, provided by organizations such as BCcampus.

Clearly, while the system appears imperfect, and students are skeptical of any possible solution, the SFU Bookstore and Mark McLaughlin are working on a variety of solutions to try and alleviate the problem. Despite what many think, McLaughlin and the bookstore might be one of the closest allies in the fight to fix the system that SFU students have.

Whether it’s students encouraging their professors and departments to look into open-source textbooks or professors liaising with the bookstore, McLaughlin stressed the need for the topic of textbooks to become a larger debate. He urges the need for the post-secondary community to take charge, saying: “If we don’t play a leadership role, the market will dictate where all this goes, and the market’s ugly . . . It’s complex, [there are] a lot of different players, [and there are] a lot of market forces and competitive forces at work.”