High book prices can deter reading

“Excuse me while I go through your wallet here and take a huge chunk of money. Thanks!”

This never happens, right? No one says “excuse me” or “Thanks!” when they’re taking money from you. The taking, though, that happens all the time.

One of the worst scams that college students endure is the textbook scam. Large numbers of college texts are insanely overpriced for the benefits they could possibly grant.

It’s easy to see how this would happen. The most obvious control on an object’s price in the marketplace simply doesn’t apply to college textbooks. I’m talking about supply and demand.

If something just costs too unspeakably much, a consumer will find some way to do without it or get it by some other means. If the seller wants to sell the thing, he’s got to price it somewhere near what consumers will accept.

But that doesn’t work with textbooks. The guys who order textbooks and require students to buy them don’t have to pay for the things themselves. Those guys (and I’m one of them) get their books for free, and may even be surprised at how much students have to pay.

It’s a constant gripe of college teachers that college students frequently don’t read assigned texts, and there’s something to that.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been talking with a student about the subject matter of a course, and I say something like, “All that is covered in chapter 13 of The Required Text,” and the student replies, “Oh, I don’t have the book. Can’t you take several hours out of your day to tell me what it says?” And I say, “Arrrgh,” or the semantic equivalent.

This is a problem. But it’s a problem with more than one cause. Some people just don’t like to read. (Not you, because you’re reading this, but the person sitting next to you spilling their fries on your newspaper or your laptop: maybe that guy.)

Some people don’t mind reading, but they always skate through doing as little as possible, even if they create more work for other people. (Those people drive me nuts because I myself am always trying to skate through doing as little as possible.)

But one cause is certainly the exorbitant, sometimes extortionate, cost of textbooks themselves. In my own field (Latin, in case you were wondering) an introductory course might cost as much as $300 or more. Those are only US dollars, but still: that’s a lot of coin.

And some lucky students in some fields may pay as much as that for a single textbook, to be used and then discarded in a single semester.

What can be done?

Finding used textbooks is one way to lessen the sticker-shock of textbook costs. But textbook companies are on to that and frequently bring out new editions to make used books obsolete.

Textbook rental services, like the one BGSU pioneered, are another way of cutting costs. (http://www.bgsu.edu/offices/bookstore/textrental)

The people ordering books (often, but not always, the instructors) can try to be more aware of the economic footprint of their decisions.

That $300 Latin course I mentioned above is a beautiful thing, but the book I actually order retails for $21.99 (less than that from Amazon.com).

But the real answer may be the most extreme: to break the back of the textbook industry. In an age where information is becoming ever more widely available, how is it that these particular information-sources, textbooks, are becoming more and more expensive?

Partly because people are letting it happen (see above) but also because it has been difficult to find alternatives, especially digital alternatives to printed textbooks.

That era may be coming to an end. This week Apple announced a new line of digital textbooks, in conjunction with the release of iBook 2, and also iAuthor, heralded as “Garage Band for textbooks” by someone who writes their promotional material. These texts will have to be used on the (still costly) Apple products. But if an open-source competitor arises, maybe via the Android platform, we might start to see widely available textbooks that can do more (text-to-speech functions, interactive exercises, etc.), yet cost far less.

In that not-too-distant day, our only problems will be finding new excuses for not doing the assigned readings, and pulling stray french fries out of our keyboards.

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