Sticker Shock

Sticker Shock

The average price of a college textbook is $61.66 and rising. Why are books so expensive?

By Cyndi Allison


After twelve years (thirteen years if you were a member of the mandated kindergarten crowd) with subsidized lunches and free books compliments of the public school system, college can be a real pocketbook wake-up call.

If you’re not on the school meal plan (and most returning students aren’t), then you can coupon clip for fast food deals or grab a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on the way out the door. In other words, you do have options.

Books for school are another story. Even if you buy secondhand through the college bookstore or secondhand online at eBay, you’re still paying sticker shock prices. The average cost of a college textbook is $61.66 according to the National Textbook Data Project 1999. Since most classes require one or more textbooks, the typical student will spend $300 to $400 (and up) per semester for a $2,400 to $3,200 price tag for texts per degree. Although the sale of university press books went down in 2000 (-2.4%), professional and scholarly books (the category where many textbooks fall) went up 8.7 percent for sales of $1.25 billion as reported by the Association of American Publishers, Inc.. Many returning students are strapped for cash and while scholarships, grants, and loans may be available for tuition costs, book costs are usually shouldered by the student.

Why Do Textbooks Cost So Much?
It takes a village to put together a textbook, and all the villagers expect some compensation for getting information from point A (the head of the scholar) to point B (the hands of a student).

The writer (usually a professor or group of professors) develops and writes out the textbook. He or she typically builds on years of experience and research as well as the expertise of friends and fellow scholars. In addition, the writer gathers samples (which may include a copyright payment to the original creator), photos, and graphics.

Once the book goes to the publisher, the book is produced and marketed. Manufacturing costs top out as the biggest portion of your text receipt at around 30 percent with marketing running second at over 15 percent.

Texts today include color, illustrations, photos, and other reference materials such as page tabs, which make textbooks more expensive to produce than straight words on paper. Not only are the bells and whistles more costly, the time involved in lay out is increased with high tech design.

The publisher must also get the word out about a new text. The book won’t sell if people don’t know it exists. Textbooks are typically not the “browse and buy” sort of purchase that someone might make at Barnes and Noble. Advertisements, color brochures, and complimentary copies to professors all drive up the cost of the text.

Once the book hits the shelf at the bookstore (after storage, delivery, and stocking costs), the final markup is added. In addition to the profit margin for the store, which runs from about 3 to 6 percent of the price paid by the student, bookstore operations and personnel costs are factored in at about 17 percent.

How Does the Price Break Down?
Although it is difficult to pinpoint exact numbers on a text, the National Association of College Stores provides a dollar break down reflecting the market. The information was collected from college and university bookstores and textbook publishers across the country.

New $50 Textbook $ %
Publisher $33.50 67%
Author $4.50 9%
Freight Company $1.25 2.5%
Revenue given to college or university for academic programs, student activities, capital improvements, etc. $4.50 9%
Employee salaries and benefits $5.00 10%
Earnings and other direct expenses including taxes, equipment, maintenance, repairs, etc. $1.25 2.5%
Total: $50.00 100%

©2002 National Association of College Stores, Inc.

What Can I Expect to Pay This Year?
The price of textbooks continues to rise as noted in a recent study by the New Mexico Commission of Higher Education. Several factors come into play including advances in technology with higher production prices and faster turnover of editions. Online outlets like Efollett and offer some reduction on prices of new books as well as listings for used texts which average about 25% less than new. Forrester Research estimates that about 10 to 15 percent of textbooks will be purchased online by 2003, so more students are logging in and buying. Internet access means that students can buy direct at outlets like College Book Service, swap books with programs like College Book Swap, or buy/sell used books at eBay. The bottom line is that textbooks are expensive and prices continue to rise; however, students today have more options and can, in many cases, save on texts on a short-term basis by going online.

What About the Future?
Technology has reached a stage where material can be stored and accessed online. This means that textbooks can be published and updated on the Internet. For example, many medical texts including Grays Anatomy can be viewed or downloaded at Doctor’s Reference Online. In the future, students could buy all or portions of books online as needed. Some materials would likely be free like Grays while others would include a charge with login to access.

Overall, prices would be lower, updates faster, and access less limited (since you could log in anywhere).

Cyndi Allison is a lecturer in the communications department at Catawba College and a freelance writer for national magazines.

bluearrow-2839161For more information on how to get a better return when selling your textbooks, see Textbook Buybacks.