June 25, 2010
By Mark Ferguson
As the cost of textbooks continues to rise, so has the number of alternatives like open source material and electronic books, and this has many people on campus exloring ways for students and the institution to save money and embrace online course materials.
When it comes to making money on educational text-books, publishers have cited the used book market as one of their biggest obstacles – an even bigger obstacle than online materials.
This is information student union groups, including the University of Saskatchewan Students’ Union (USSU), have been gathering over the past few years.
For Daniel McCullough, 2009-10 USSU vice-president of academic affairs, affordable education includes keeping the cost of textbooks down. He champions the Be Book Smart campaign, which he hopes can educate the university community about textbook alternatives. McCullough gave an abridged version of his Be Book Smart presentation to Council in April, encouraging faculty to consider other options when they prepare course reading material.
“The fact is students want to come to university, but it’s getting more and more expensive,” says McCullough. “If professors can do something to lower the cost of textbooks, it will encourage students to come to the U of S.”
According to national averages posted on the USSU website, students can expect to pay about $120 per class for books. Textbooks for a year of full-time study will cost around $1200. “Then, you can multiply that amount by four years or more of study,” added McCullough. “That is a lot of cash.”
He says there are options to drastically reduce the amount students are spending, including the use of electronic books, loose-leaf textbooks, open source materials and, although sometimes difficult to track down during finals, reserve library materials.
The issue is behind the USSU’s Be Book Smart campaign, launched in 2008 by McCullough’s predecessor Brea Lowenberger, who now works for the University Learning Centre. She scoured the campus, taking the pulse of students with regard to books. “That pulse,” said McCullough, “was that students were spending too much on textbooks.
“This is a Canadian issue,” he added, citing his involvement with the Canadian Roundtable on Academic Materials (CRAM), a national dialogue of student unions.
According to CRAM, the University of Alberta Students’ Union conducted a price survey of 196 textbooks in 1995. The books selected were chosen because they were stable or common books – they had been used for years by many different instructors and peer universities – and represented standard textbooks in their respective fields. In 2007, they revisited the original survey and found that 137 of the textbooks were still being produced, and found the price had increased by 75.2 per cent. Inflation for the period 1995-2006, according to Statistics Canada, was 27.1 per cent; the textbook prices had increased by 280 per cent the rate of inflation.
While most publishers charge less for high-volume books, a book that sells comparatively fewer copies (a medical anatomy textbook for example) is priced much higher to cover costs. The term “longtail publishing” is used to describe this technique.
Some institutions are piloting a textbook rental program to help students save money. The University of Toronto bookstore conducted a survey that showed 66 per cent of students were interested in renting textbooks. According to a news release, the U of T is planning to charge a rental rate of about 40 per cent of what a new book would cost.
Publishers who already cite the used book market as an obstacle will now have rentals to deal with. Shipping prices are also factored into the cost of textbooks and oil prices are making shipping a costly venture for book companies, says Mark Jagoe, manager of the University Bookstore. He has seen the increase first-hand and thinks publishers have a great deal to gain with alternatives to the traditional bound text. The future, he says, “will most certainly be moving more and more digital.
“I think publishing is a tough business to be in because of the cost,” says Jagoe. “We’ve noticed a big difference in the move to digital and online, and one big reason for that is publishers don’t have to ship materials.”
Last year, at the launch of Amazon’s reader, the Kindle, the company stated that of the books available in both electronic and print form, 35 per cent of the sales were for electronic books – a number that steadily goes up every year, said the company’s CEO, Jeff Bezos.
According to information posted on consumer websites, the iPad, Apple’s new portable gadget, is projected to sell three to four million units in its first 12 months on the market, and double that number in 2011. One of the primary advantages of the iPad is its usability as an e-reader, so expect the number of electronic book sales to go up, way up, suggests Jagoe.
The U of S online bookstore has hundreds of e-books available free of charge. Most are works of fiction that would be suited to English classes, along with online study guides and practice texts, but more and more will be come available, he says.
“For me, digital just makes sense for publishers… so we have to think, how can we build on the digital model here at the bookstore? How will we live without selling books? As long as we can ensure the books are getting into the hands of students, then selling electronic books makes sense.”
Electronic books still come with a price tag, but the cost can be up to 50 per cent less that a regularly bound book. Then there is a move to making material available in an open source format – free of charge. Materials that appear online in the open source format are meant to be shared, and several websites, such as www.doaj.org include a library of 5,000 journals and about 400,000 articles and research papers from a variety of academic fields.
Connexions (www.cnx.org) is another open source website out of Rice University in the U.S. and one of the frontrunners for online open source materials at a post-secondary school. Connexions not only boasts that “sharing is good” but it was the first to incorporate an on-demand printing machine, the idea being that some people prefer a book to reading online, or for professors who want to put together course packs of open source material.
Other institutions like McGill University and the University of Alberta have purchased the mini printing press manufactured by New York based On Demand Books. Known as the Espresso Book Machine, the $150,000 press will print and bind a hardcover text of open source material that would otherwise be only available online. A printed book costs about $25. The espresso can print about 100 pages per minute of selected open source materials, giving professors and students the ability to put together their own course materials.
Jagoe is not sure whether the U of S Bookstore will purchase an espresso machine, but conversations about open source materials and electronic books are happening across the country through networks like the Canadian Campus Resellers Association (CCRA). The CCRA, says Jagoe, will look at ways of distributing electronic books in an online store and actually formatting them so they can be read on a variety of electronic devices. Epub (like .doc or .pdf), is a new file format that will format documents for anything from laptops to e-readers.
“Students don’t want to carry around a whole bunch of books anymore,” added Jagoe. “The vision I see is that devices like the iPad are what students will really need.”