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Noah Kaplan

Students purchasing textbooks now have a range of alternativesto brand new textbooks. While the market for used books has beengrowing steadily on the internet, even more options have surfacedrecently, including book rentals and e-textbooks.

In response to exorbitant prices, students have become morewilling to experiment with alternatives to purchasing newtextbooks.

“I bought all of my new books off Amazon or Half.com if theywere available, I bought a used textbook, and I bought twoe-textbooks, which saved me a lot of money,” freshman Isaac McCluresaid. “I bought the e-textbooks because of their cheaper prices. Iwould definitely feel more prepared if I had a paper textbookversus an e-textbook.”

Despite his efforts to save money, McClure, who is a chemicalengineering major, spent $650 on textbooks this semester. Currentestimated averages range at approximately $1,000 per year fortextbooks for full time first-year students.

Rising prices are not the only concern. According to a reportfrom the U.S .Government Accountability Office, students in theUnited States pay higher prices for the same books than students inother countries.

One reason for this discrepancy may be that the United States isthe predominant market for textbooks, so American students absorbthe costs of writing and developing them. Once textbooks arealready produced, global distribution becomes less expensive.Additionally, restrictions exist to prevent foreign books fromentering the United States.

Another explanation in the report is that American students havea higher demand for textbooks and are simply willing and able topay more for them.

“I would think it’s misleading to use the price of textbooks asan index of the social value of education.” said Michael Bernstein,Tulane provost and economics professor. “High prices are caused bythe market strategy of manufacturers.”

Some of these strategies surfaced in a survey performed earlierthis year as part of the Make Books Affordable Campaign by theStudent Public Interest Research Group. Many of the 1,900 surveyedstudents reported changes to the cost or value of their booksbecause of new editions, school customizations, and the addition ofsupplementary material such as booklets, CDs and online accesscodes, known as “bundling.”

“Publishers say they have increased investments in developingsupplements in response to demand from instructors,” according tothe Office of Accountability report. “Wholesalers, retailers andothers expressed concern that the proliferation of supplements andmore frequent revisions might unnecessarily increase costs tostudents.”

Even in the traditional sale of new textbooks, the books – andthe money paid for them – travel through a complex web ofdevelopers, publishers, distributors, wholesalers, retailers andconsumers. Add in buyback programs and rentals, and the factorsthat affect supply and demand become even more complex.

The factors affecting costs, however, can be relativelysimple.

“There are two primary ways to drive down costs,” Bernsteinsaid. “Increase the supply and reduce the cost of production. Inthe case of textbooks, if you have a rental market and anelectronic market, then that’s going to achieve both of thosegoals.”

Incidentally, the rental and electronic market for textbooks areboth new and growing. Barnes and Noble, which operates more than600 college bookstores including Tulane’s, began renting textbooksonly 18 months ago. E-textbook sales began in 2003, though saleswere initially slow.

“Students were reluctant to buy them,” said Jade Roth, Barnesand Noble vice president of books and digital strategy. “There waslow content and the technology just wasn’t compelling. That changedlast fall. Students were willing to experiment more.”

While e-textbooks are still a small percentage of the market,Roth said she believes the sales increase was driven by lowerprices, a wider selection of textbooks and the release of NOOKStudy, a free software download that allows students to accesse-textbooks on their Nooks and laptops.

Other companies are also aiming to lower textbook costs. BookSnatcher, founded by Reed Wendorf-French, is a company thatcompares the price of textbooks of multiple vendors, includingAmazon and Kindle. The site also serves as a market for usedtextbooks.

“It’s a short-term fix to a large problem,” said French, a 2011graduate.

“Textbooks are moving to the digital world and the open-sourceworld,” French said. “My goal is to eventually start creating freetextbooks. The textbook companies are just raising the prices witheach new edition. We’re going to get to the point where we won’t bewilling to pay these prices anymore, and we’re almost therealready.”

In the Make Books Affordable Campaign survey, seven in 10students reported not purchasing a textbook due to its price.Nearly eight in 10 reported that they would do worse in a classwithout a personal copy of the textbook.

It is possible that there is a correlation between textbookprice and quality, Bernstein said.

“Maybe lower profits will drive some excellent authors out ofthe market,” Bernstein said. “On the other hand, there’s a value inacademia for open access and the dissemination of knowledge. If apublisher were to launch an initiative saying, ‘We want to drivedown the cost of textbooks,’ it might actually attractauthors.”

Bernstein said he takes the price of textbooks into account whenchoosing them for his classes.

“Unfortunately, I often find myself backed into a corner,” hesaid. “When I go out there on the market, and ask, ‘What textbooksare available?’ I don’t necessarily have an inexpensiveoption.”

Ultimately, the students may shift the market. Increases in usedbook sales and textbook and e-textbook rentals rely on studentdemand.

“I saw a problem, and it was highlighted during my time atTulane,” French said. “My friends were buying their books on Amazonalready, so I created a way to make it easier. New Orleans ingeneral is a great place to be an entrepreneur.”