Textbook capitalism

Opinion by Sarah Myers
Oct. 20, 2017, 1:00 a.m.

The average American college student spends $1,200  on textbooks and supplies per year, according to the College Board. I probably don’t have to tell you that, though — most of The Daily’s readers are American college students. That number is obviously unreasonable, but what can anyone actually do about it?

Universities, students, professors, experts who write textbooks and textbook manufacturers all have the opportunity to decrease costs, but so far little to no serious efforts have been made to rein in prices. Unfortunately, Stanford is just as complicit — if not more so — as any other college. According to an email sent to PSYCH 1 students this fall, Stanford professors are explicitly told that they cannot recommend that their students buy textbooks anywhere other than the campus bookstore, even though many books are available new or used for much lower prices on Amazon or at other online stores.

Although the Stanford Bookstore advertises that it has a price-matching program, promising discounts if students can find a book available for a lower price somewhere else, students can only use that discount if they find a lower price on Amazon or at Barnes & Noble — any other retailer is not eligible. To make matters worse, the discount only applies to students willing to engage in the negotiation process, and it doesn’t affect the price of the book for anyone else. And students have only one week after the first class of any course to return any textbook they bought for it. This makes no sense at a school with a three-week shopping period.

Students have failed to stand up for themselves and each other. If every college student in America decided not to buy textbooks that cost most than $70, or even $100, and stuck to that decision, it’s true that prices would not immediately fall. However, textbook companies would be forced to justify their pricing to the American public at large, and colleges would be forced to consider how textbook prices impact their students. But organized and sustained action by college students is unlikely and unfair — for some students, risking disciplinary action or lower grades would directly jeopardize financial aid or their ability to graduate.

So what’s a cash-strapped student, or a student who can afford books but wants to help others, to do? Straightforward solutions include renting books (only if no online access is required), reselling your used textbooks as cheaply as possible, sharing textbooks and sharing your login information for online workbooks with students who will be taking the same class next year. If you’re feeling particularly bold, drop some hints to your professors about the high price of taking their class.

Professors also can do more to mitigate this issue. Your professor may be genuinely surprised to learn about the price of the books they assign — a study by the Connecticut Board of Governors for Higher Education published in 2006 found that only 58 percent of Connecticut state schools’ faculty knew how much the books they selected for their classes cost. Some classes may be impossible to teach without very specific and unavoidably expensive books, but most aren’t. And, at the risk of endorsing illegal activities, most professors have access to both the books they want their students to read and a copy machine or digital scanner.

That last idea raises a legitimate concern — how much textbook creators should be paid for their work. Unfortunately, though, the money you pay for textbooks almost never goes to the person or persons whose work you’re using. It’s impossible to say precisely how much money authors make from every textbook, but the National Association of College Stores estimates that the average textbook creator can expect to receive only 11 cents of every dollar spent on their book.

These authors aren’t all victims, though. In a world where it is increasingly easy to self-publish books in electronic and print formats, authors who choose to publish through textbook companies rather than retaining the rights to their work are choosing higher prices for students and lower compensation for themselves. This isn’t to say that these experts want to hurt students — just to point out that their decisions are unintentionally doing so.

Going forward, it’s easy to imagine a more fair and efficient system, in which all books are published electronically by the people who write them and sell for reasonable prices. Without textbook manufacturers as middlemen, authors could be paid more even as students paid less. E-publishing is easy to do and significantly reduces production costs. Furthermore, if all textbooks were published electronically, only students who truly needed a hard copy would print their books out, saving paper and reduce colleges’ carbon footprints.

As we await the e-publishing utopia and the lower prices it should bring, students, university administrators, professors and authors should take steps to lessen the absurdity of this situation and help students who can’t afford their books. A nationwide textbook boycott isn’t feasible, but going out of your way to help your classmates or students certainly is.


Contact Sarah Myers at smyers3 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Sarah Myers '21 is pursuing a BA in International Relations while also studying Physics, Mandarin, and German. She enjoys writing about politics, ethics, and current events. She spends her free time reading and convincing herself that watching Chinese television counts as studying Mandarin.

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