The high cost of college textbooks used to be like that old joke about the weather: Everybody always complained about it, but nobody ever did anything about it. A new campaign launched by several state Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs) wants to change that. Started in late 2003, has already drawn the ire of the publishing industry by releasing two reports about the industry practices that keep textbook prices high—and by engaging faculty, students and parents in a nationwide push for reform. Just last week, the PIRG campaign released letters signed by over 600 math and physics teachers calling on Thomson Learning, publisher of two of the most popular calculus and physics textbooks, to curtail the practice of regularly issuing new editions of their introductory textbooks, thereby making old editions obsolete.

Matt Bors“Not a lot has changed in calculus in the last 100 years, so it’s very unlikely they need to put out a new edition.” says Weston Lenker, a junior applied math major at UCLA and a CALPIRG organizer on the campaign. “For all intents and purposes, the only difference between these books is the price.”

The high price of textbooks has long been a gripe on campuses, but David Rosenfeld, the PIRGs’ campaign director, says that a few years ago, organizers began receiving such a barrage of complaints from students that they decided to take action. “There had been no research done about the topic and the only thing we were going on was our experience,” he says. “The first thing we wanted to do was research the problem, figure out the extent of it and figure out who was to blame.”

In the fall of 2003 CALPIRG and OSPIRG (the Oregon PIRG) conducted a study of the most commonly used textbooks at ten public universities in California and Oregon, interviewing over 150 professors and 500 students as well as university bookstore staff. In January 2004 they issued their report Rip-Off 101: How the Publishing Industry’s Practices Needlessly Drive Up Textbook Prices, which charged that the textbook publishing industry uses “bells and whistles” like CD-ROMs and other bundled material to justify high prices while routinely issuing new editions of popular textbooks with few substantive changes. The report sparked an avalanche of media interest, state legislative action and even a congressional hearing.

In February 2005, PIRG published a follow-up (cheekily titled Rip-Off 101 Second Edition), which expanded on their original data. The study found that textbook prices are now rising at a rate four times inflation, and far faster than non-textbooks; since 1994 book prices in general are up 19% while textbooks are up 62%. New editions of books are priced significantly higher than old editions (on average twice inflation) and, to add insult to injury, the prices for the exact same textbook are often significantly lower for consumers in other countries, such as the UK.

Not surprisingly, the American Association of Publishers has pushed back hard, with statements and studies meant to refute the campaign’s charges. They cite data from the market research firm Student Monitor that students spend $625 a year on textbooks as opposed to PIRG’s finding of $900. And they insist that both the “bundled” packages with CD-ROMS and online testing components and the three to four year revision cycle for popular editions are the result of market demand from professors who want the “cutting edge.” “Give the market some credit, give the professors some credit,” says AAP spokesperson Bruce Hildebrand, “if they don’t like it, they won’t buy it.” Hildebrand points to a recent Zogby survey of professors commissioned by the AAP that found that 62% prefer to order books with the most recent copyright date. Though, if you think about it, that’s not so impressive – given the framework of the question, 38% of professors prefer books with an older copyright date.

Books with new copyright dates – otherwise know as new editions – are a mainstay of the industry, and the reason isn’t hard to divine. If you scan the bookshelves of most college students and recent grads you’re bound to see a sea of small yellow tags with the word USED in all caps along spines. It’s not surprising, college kids are generally broke and used textbooks can cost as little as 10% of the price of their brand new counterparts. Since publishing companies don’t make any profits from the resale of used books, they are less-than-psyched about the robust trade in second hand books, because each one purchased is a rent, to put it in economic terms, they cannot capture. One solution is to constantly generate new editions of popular textbooks, forcing professors to upgrade and thereby make older editions – and used copies – obsolete.

Those within the publishing industry deny that new editions are motivated by a desire to shut down the used-book market: “The professors are looking not just for the newest amplifications, which is critical, but they’re always looking for the new teaching tools,” says Hildebrand. But even if there is desire on the part of professors for new editions – a point contested by PIRG and many faculty – it’s hard to believe planned obsolescence isn’t at last part of what’s going on. “Nobody would have said it outright,” says Anne, a recent college grad who worked in the marketing department of a major textbook publisher. “but I would hear people I worked with talk about ways to take relatively small changes and market them as if they changed the book dramatically. Let’s say you’re marketing a book for writing composition that’s maybe in its 10 th edition and most of it’s the same as the latest edition. Maybe what they’ve done is added something in each chapter that now has a little box summarizing the chapter or they took out an old glossary and put in a new one. It takes about five or six, maybe seven or eight of these kinds of changes to make a new edition. When you market it, you use words like “new approach,” but from a student’s perspective it really comes down to a question of things being on slightly different page numbers.”

In a December 2003 op-ed for the New York Times, former publishing executive Erwin V. Cohen confirmed this point: "Publishers release new editions of successful textbooks every few years – not to improve content, although that may be a byproduct – but to discourage the sales of used books by making them seem obsolete."

Hildebrand argues that at least part of the reason students are upset about prices is that they ultimately don’t have control over what’s being chosen for them to buy. “If you have a group of students that are close to the margin, professors are saying make sure they have study guide,” he says. “The student then says, well I never used it.” The textbook market is one in which the purchasing decisions aren’t made by the people doing the purchasing, what economists calls a “third party problem.” Since professors don’t have to shell out the money for new textbooks, they’re not as inclined to search out the lowest prices or demand cost-cutting measures from publishers.

Rosenfeld, and other PIRG organizers however, say that while faculty in the past may been underinformed about astronomical textbook pricing, they have been incredibly receptive to students’ concerns. “When we made textbook decisions we didn’t really ask the price,” says UC Irvine physicist Dr. Michael Dennin, who now is active with CALPIRG in pressing for lower prices. “In the last few years the student groups have gotten active in and at that point we got interested in what the prices are and how they work.”

Recently, there’s been evidence that the combined student/faculty pressure is bearing fruit: California passed guidelines to reduce the cost of textbooks, and these new rules rely heavily on PIRG’s proposed remedies. UCLA’s math department successfully negotiated a 20% price cut on introductory calculus textbooks from Thomson Learning, who also recently agreed to produce a history textbook with fewer pictures and charge a third its usual price.

“The way they’re going to make a difference is by continuing to shed light on what’s going on and faculty members pushing back and saying we’re only going to buy from you if you play the market fairly,” says Rosenfeld. “ And what you have now is a movement.”

Want to get involved? Find out how.