The dangers in college textbooks as a business

N.C. State student Miranda Beshears, a freshman from Boone, shops for textbooks at the N.C. State University Student bookstore on the school’s campus.
N.C. State student Miranda Beshears, a freshman from Boone, shops for textbooks at the N.C. State University Student bookstore on the school’s campus. CHRIS SEWARD - cseward@newsobser

College students have many choices to make as they squeeze their material lives into a shared dorm space or apartment and prepare for a new semester.

Beyond the bedspreads, wall decor and storage solutions, though, new choices regarding textbooks have arisen in recent years. For decades students typically went to the college bookstore and either sprung for a new book or settled for the stained, highlighted copy with the “used” stickers all over it. But textbook prices have soared in recent years – one source reports an 82 percent increase between 2000 and 2013 – and the marketplace has broadened far beyond the campus store and student bulletin board.

Students can now shop online for bargains or rent their books, and these are legitimate options. Others take matters into their own hands and use their smart phones to snap images of classmates’ pages, range around online for something close to the assigned readings or, worst of all, do without the text in any form. As an English professor who cares about the quality of students’ reading experiences and as a parent who plunked down $900 for my own son’s fall textbooks this month, I am invested in and concerned about this issue.

And it’s a complicated one. Textbooks are expensive, with new editions rolling off the presses at what seems like greater frequency than in my student days. Reasons vary by discipline. Some academic subjects call for regular updates to reflect new knowledge; others are taught best with pricey full-color graphics. Surely some authors and publishers take advantage of a captive market and charge what they can.

While classic literary texts are pretty stable, we continue to benefit from the discovery of poems, plays and novels tucked away in unlikely places. The publication of Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman,” for example, will start whole new conversations about the author and her work. More importantly, the way we look at subject matter across the disciplines changes to reflect the world we live in. And so the teaching materials in our books evolve in a quest for relevance. As soon as faculty settle into a given edition, we often have to repaginate our syllabi, study new texts and even rethink our entire approach to a topic or question. These changes are exciting for us, yet costly for students.

The latent student rebel inside me reels to see commerce mixed up with the ideals of academic life. In a broader sense, though, academics need a strong publishing industry to disseminate our own writings, and it needs us as partners to encourage an educated and well-read public. And ultimately publishers have copyright laws to protect against our own or students’ unauthorized sharing of their property.

One option might be to maintain an edition for several years and update it with material available online. But the publishers have thought of that, too. Some textbooks now come with access codes that expire at a certain date or prohibit transfer, thus rendering the entire package useless on the resale market. Yet that doesn’t stop sellers from listing the book online, to the detriment of an unwary buyer.

High prices and the reduced buy-back options have taken their toll on campus bookstores. One store manager told me her sales volume has fallen by two-thirds in the past five years, and so she orders fewer copies to avoid return costs. Students might then appear at the store and find the book sold out, and some simply walk out and assume nothing can be done. (Actually, a book can be ordered and shipped overnight.) A couple of these students will ask to borrow my book and express disappointment when I have to put some limits on that in order to prepare for class myself. And class discussions will suffer when students can’t point to a passage to support their ideas or follow along when we’re reading and discovering something new together.

In the textbook market, free enterprise is winning, and students who protest via boycott do little more than undermine their investment in a college education. I can only hope that when students and their families balance the checkbook and draw up that list of “must haves” for college, textbooks will survive the cut.

Rebecca Duncan is a professor of English at Meredith College in Raleigh.