Coffee heat rising

Textbook Ripoffs: Why college leaves kids in debt

One of next fall’s English 101 students e-mailed yesterday. This is a kid who was in one of my other courses and decided to take the upcoming class because she liked my style (read: she got a good grade). She asked how much we will be using the textbook and then said she went to the bookstore and found it was selling for $150. She’s not eligible for financial aid this semester and says she doesn’t think she can afford that much. She’s doing the best she can, she adds, to stay out of debt.

A hundred and fifty bucks. For a freshman comp book. That, my friends, is a $30 paperback.

It would be one thing if the book contained a lot of difficult-to-typeset equations (though most publishers use LaTex for that purpose—works like magic, and it’s freeware!). And it would be one thing if the book contained a lot of expensive four-color graphics. Or if writing a freshman comp book required a great deal of arcane and difficult-to-acquire knowledge.

But none of these apply. When I say this thing is a $30 paperback, I’m not kidding. It’s printed on decent paper and it does use color on almost every page. But otherwise…

Graphics? There’s little in this book that can’t be done with an ordinary word processor, and nothing in it can’t be accomplished—easily—with InDesign.

Permissions? It doesn’t cost $150 a copy to get permission to reprint a few sample articles. When I published my textbook, The Essential Feature (which, BTW, sells for a mere $40), I was amazed to discover how many publishers will give away rights to reprint if you murmur the words “and my publisher is a nonprofit.”

Expertise? Research clout? Gimme a break! This is a freshman comp book! A smart graduate student could write it. A competent junior editor in her 20s could write it. What is required is basic literacy, an acquaintance with mechanics and the structure of essays, and passing familiarity with MLA style. That’s it. This is not Laboratories in Mathematical Experimentation: A Bridge to Higher Mathematics!


So I say to the kid, “The school just started a book rental program. Call the bookstore and see if you can rent the thing.”

Says she, “I did. They told me this text isn’t included in the rental program.”

I call up on the computer. Lo! One vendor is peddling the thing for $14.95 used. New copies are going for as low as $40, though most sellers try to extract $80 or $90. This morning I see the $14.95 copy is gone—hope the kid snagged it. If not, she may manage to snare the one that’s selling for $17.90. That’s more within reason.

Even at $90, a book like this is a shameless rip-off. But in the “shameless” department, what excuse is there for campus bookstores to gouge kids $150 for a book that’s overpriced at $90?

The departmental chair told me we are required to order the book and we are required to use it in the classroom. When he heard that another faculty member remarked to me that she knew of an instructor who was not having his students buy the book but instead was using material freely available on the Internet (yes, Virginia, everything in this book—even most of the essays used as examples—is available on the Net), he demanded, with arched eyebrow, to know who this guy was. Luckily, I didn’t catch his name.

Not that I’m suggesting any collusion with a rapacious textbook industry. To the contrary. A department can’t have every faculty member wildcatting Internet sites as study material and hope to maintain any pretense of academic integrity. The chair would fail to do his job if he didn’t see to it that all the courses came up to the standards set out by the institution.

Nevertheless, it’s not surprising that young people commonly graduate from college $40,000 in the hole, more debt than they’d incur by purchasing a Lexus sedan. At $150, this textbook would cost my student almost two-thirds of what she’d pay to register for the course!

So, if you have a kid on the way to college, or you’re en route to those ivied precincts yourself, what can you do to protect your checkbook?

First things first: As soon as the bookstore puts the next semester’s texts on the shelves, pay the place a visit. Note all the required texts, and write down their ISBNs. The ISBN is a number that appears on the copyright page, usually on the reverse side of the title page; it’s unique to each specific edition of a book. The ISBN for The Longman Writer, for example, is 978-0-205-7399-8. Knowing this number will ensure that you get the correct edition—in the case of this book, that’s important, because earlier versions do not include the revised 2009 MLA style guidelines.

Next, the path of least resistance is to check Enter an ISBN in the search function and it will bring up the correct textbook. Buy used. It’s much cheaper. As we’ve seen, even though new prices are less than you’ll pay in the bookstore, even at Amazon they’re out of reason.

If you don’t want to own these objects (and really: why should a freshman comp text collect dust on your bookshelf from now until you die?), google “textbook rental.” Thanks to our handy ISBN, we see that The Longman Writer can be borrowed for a semester from for $26.49, about what the book is actually worth.

Speaking of borrowing, check the campus library. Often faculty members put textbooks on reserve. Even though you can’t take it home, few textbook reading assignments require more than an hour or two.

And between you and me, at 10 cents a page for photocopying, you could xerox the entire Longman text for $68.20, considerably less than the bookstore wants for a new copy. Though I’m asking my students to read many chapters in this thing, I’m not testing them on the entire book. A smart student with an advance copy of the syllabus (generally available at the departmental office) could buy a copy from the bookstore, photocopy the relevant sections, and then return the thing before the deadline to receive a full refund.

Ethical? Legal? No. But when publishers and retailers are openly ripping off 19-year-olds, I wouldn’t feel too bad about a little larceny. You can always plead self-defense…

If you bought the book, resell it at the end of the semester. Check online for resale opportunities that will return more than the campus bookstore will pay you. Remember that you can resell the book on Amazon, possibly for more than you could get on-campus. Enter the ISBN, check the amounts people are getting, and compare with the figure the bookstore is offering. Don’t stop at Amazon; textbook renters often buy used books, as do other marketers—google “buy textbooks” to bring up a variety of sites. Sell to the highest bidder.

Oh, I’m getting all worked up over this. It makes me so angry! The textbook business, which ought to be an altruistic endeavor, has turned into industrial exploitation of a captive audience, made even more inexcusable by the buyers’ youth and financial naïveté.

If you’re a kid, don’t put up with it!

If you’re the parent of a new college student, teach your student where to find textbooks at reasonable prices, and help them to find ways get supplies from sellers that don’t steal from them.