Textbook Prices

As seen in the Oregon Daily Emerald!

After three weeks of Winter Vacation, when the most stressful thing I had to do every day was make it to the TV in time for King of the Hill, it came as something of a shock to me a few days ago when I arrived in Eugene and remembered that, one, classes would begin on Monday, two, I had to buy books for those classes, and three, that I apparently wrote a column for the school newspaper and had to submit something ASAP. Opting as usual to forego my responsibilities as a journalist until the last possible second, I printed a list of the textbooks I needed and went to the University Bookstore to see what I could find.

The pre-term ritual of buying new textbooks is a great way to ease back into the bureaucracy of college after the indolence of vacation. In my case, I slowly relearned innate hunter-gatherer skills as I stumbled through the shelves in search of the necessary texts for my classes. At the checkout line I quickly relearned outrage when I found that I’d still be paying close to $100 for my textbooks even though the majority of them are just stacks of printed paper bound by OfficeMax dowels.

Why does a 200-page book about journalism cost $90 when a 550-page book about teenaged vampires costs $30? According to Minding The Campus, a subsidiary of the Manhattan Institute think-tank, the reason is that demand for textbooks is inelastic. If you’re enrolled in a history class, you have to buy a history textbook – you do not, however, have to buy a copy of Twilight (unless you’re 15, in which case you apparently do). With their customers essentially required to buy, textbook publishing companies have free reign to charge as they please. Contributing to the problem is the fact that many universities own their bookstores, which serve as a large source of income.

As much as I’d love to follow my liberal tendency to demonize large corporations, textbook publishers are justified to some extent in their pricing. Texbooks are more durable than run of the mill books. They’re printed on higher quality paper and in many cases incorporate big colorful graphs and illustrations that use up more ink and cost more to print. Until the Big Four publishing companies decide to forego any sense of business and start selling textbooks at a loss, prices are likely to remain well above that of ordinary books.

So we can thank a combination of ordinary human greed and also the cost of doing business for the ridiculous price of our textbooks. And when a problem is created by the combination of two near-unstoppable forces, there really isn’t much that can be done about it – take the shark-velociraptor hybrid, for example. However, if you want the textbook pricing game to change, you can always opt to shop for books in other stores or online, where prices are often much lower. Barring that, seek out used books for lower prices. These tips aren’t just about saving money; if enough people start circumventing the ordinarily high price of textbooks, it’s reasonable to assume that the Big Four publishing companies might exercise a little restraint on their exploitation of inelastic demand and drop their prices to reclaim the lost business. Even then, textbooks are always going to seem too expensive; nobody ever feels good about taking enough money to buy an Xbox and using it to buy Principles of Economics. At least, not until Principles of Economics comes with a Blu-Ray player.