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On Textbook Prices

by David Sturtz

The New York Times has an opinion piece today by Yale law professor Ian Ayres, Just What the Professor Ordered, which references a report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO-05-806). Both the article and the report fail to adequately address the online market for used textbooks. By dealing with each other more directly, students are now able to buy used books less expensively and sell them for more money.

From the GAO report:

Although only new textbook prices are collected, standard industry pricing practices generally result in used book prices tracking the movement of new book prices. Wholesalers and retailers agree that the standard pricing practice for used books is to assign a price that is equal to 75 percent of the new price of the same book, so that if the new book price increases by 3 percent, the used book also increases by 3 percent.

As an example, Ayres mentions the textbook he co-authored, which lists for $103. I found it for as low as $19.00 (18% of full price) from an individual on Amazon’s Marketplace, and a number of copies were available for about $35. The 1997 edition in “Good” condition was listed on Half.com for under $5.

Obviouisly prices as a whole have been rising rapidly, and that’s a problem, but it’s important to consider the whole picture while looking for solutions. Here are a few thoughts for professors who are concerned about the cost of their assigned texbooks:

  • Give students time to purchase books. This is now the law in Virginia. I’ve had one or two professors send an e-mail to registered students several weeks before the beginning of the term with information on required texts. Since purchasing online involves having books shipped, more advanced warning = lower shipping costs. Also, Media Mail is often the only shipping option and can take weeks.
  • Consider the availability and price of used books in the online market. ISBN.nu is a quick way to check prices at a number of sites.
  • Be flexible with allowing students to use older editions. (Of course this is not always possible or advisable.)
  • Use and contribute to an open source or Creative Commons textbook project (e.g. Open Textbook Project or Wikibooks).

Update 11/2/2005

James Surowiecki has written pretty much everything here in a New Yorker column, Class Action, with the addition of the following interesting points:

You can often buy the same textbook abroad for significantly less than it costs in the U.S., so students have learned to buy directly from places like the U.K., and a host of small businesses have sprung up to import books.

He also references Austan Goolsbee and Judith Chevalier, economists who found, “that the year before a textbook is revised new-book sales drop sharply. That’s because a textbook in its final year is significantly less valuable, since you won’t be able to resell it. ” This suggests that resale value is a factor in a student’s decision to purchase a new book.

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