Surviving School: Week 1 -- Cutting the High Cost of Textbooks!


Hunting textbooks for my fall semester this week, it hit me that provincial governments have the power to control tuition costs (currently Quebec, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland have tuition freezes), but there's no controlling the escalating costs of textbooks. 

Today, a single textbook can set you back $200. If you take a full course-load, you could easily spend more than $1,000 a semester on your textbooks.

In comparison, I recently saw a roundtrip ticket from Vancouver to Tokyo for just $401 (including taxes). If only textbooks could experience price drops like that! 

Instead, I read in an online blurb for Edmonton's King's University-College bookstore that the cost of textbooks over the past 15 years has increased four times the rate of inflation. 

Four times! Imagine getting that kind of return on your savings account.

 On Montreal's Concordia University bookstore's website, there is a pie chart that roughly tells you where each dollar of your textbook goes to: 


Freight = 1.3%
School bookstore personnel = 11.2%
School bookstore overhead (insurance, electricity, etc) = 4.8%
School bookstore pre-tax income = 6.5%
Publisher printing, paper, editing costs = 32.3%
Author's income = 11.6%
Publisher's administrative costs, including taxes = 10%
Publisher's marketing costs = 15.3%
Publisher's income after taxes = 7.3%

 This may vary, of course. In BC, I saw another chart at a university bookstore that said the author's income was less than 10% and the publisher's take was more. But since students aren’t getting four times more money than the cost of inflation, something has to give.

 The easiest and most common way people buy textbooks is to get everything at the campus bookstore. However, that’s not usually the cheapest way.

 Buying used textbooks is the most common way to save some money (campus bookstores often stock a small amount), but publishers counter that by bringing out new editions every couple of years.

 How much “new” information could make, say, a history book, outdated after a couple of years is beyond me. Canada became a nation in 1867, Einstein's Theory of Relativity hasn’t changed and ditto for the human anatomy.

 Wanting to find a way to line their pockets even more, publishers are now exploiting the way that computers have become essential to education. So the latest way publishers are trying to eliminate the used books market is to bundle textbooks with supplementary workbooks and online components requiring passwords that can only be used by one person for one year. You can often buy the online component separately, but at a cost that makes purchasing a new book only a few dollars more. 

While most instructors don’t require you to use those extra components, a growing number do and that trend will likely continue. 

One thing the publishers can’t control is if you choose instructors by the costs of their textbooks. When I was in school the “first time” (I’m back again for more torture), I realized that instructors often used different books to teach the same course at the same school – and the prices varied. 

Here’s an example. This semester at Vancouver's Langara College, six instructors teach the same Sociology 1120 course, but use different books. One instructor requires you to buy two books at a total cost of $150, another requires only one book at a cost of $113.85 and – at the high end – one instructor wants you to get that book plus two more for a grand total of $216.45. 

Makes me wonder if publishers offer kickbacks to instructors who require students to buy more than one book. 

The other day, I asked an instructor if she consider textbook costs when deciding which ones to assign. 

“Oh, I know it's so expensive, but sometimes the best books cost more,” she said to explain why she disregarded price. 

Overhearing us, another instructor gave me her two cents. 

“Unlike her, I do pay attention to the price,” she said, adding that most books are similar and that so often the better-organized or better-looking books are just not worth the extra money. 

I’ve also met thoughtful instructors who encourage students to use the previous edition if they can get their hands on it. When these instructors teach, they give page numbers for the new and previous editions. Gotta love those instructors. 

What if you can’t find out what textbook an instructor is using when registering for your course? Or what if you want to know if you can use the previous edition? Contact them directly – they all have email addresses. 

Every school also has a student association or student union involved with buying and selling used textbooks. Some handle books directly, others run a website where buyers and sellers can connect. And of course, there are always your campus bulletin boards. 

Other ways to save money is to buy outside of your campus, either from outside bookstores or online. Just make sure you’re buying the right edition and check to see if it includes workbooks or online codes, if you need them. Getting the ISBN barcode numbers from the bookstore will help you buy the right edition. 

Last week, I bought a new criminology textbook from a private seller in Ontario through the website. I looked at the seller’s reviews and other than one unhappy person, all were positive. The price was right, as it would cost me no more than buying a used textbook from my school's bookstore (with shipping and tax factored in). 

Five business days later, I received the book in a bubble-lined envelope. It was new, but the soft-cover book was bent in a couple of areas from shipping. I wish the seller had used cardboard inserts to protect my book, but I did save money. 

One note if you’re buying books online. Most of the sellers are from the United States and the cost of shipping books across the border sometimes erases your savings. On top of that, Canada Customs can hold up your order for weeks. 

There are ways to minimize those problems. If you have friends living just south of border, have your books mailed to them. Or get a U.S. postal box, for as little as $40 USD a year. Or just use one of the private shipping and mailing stores located near the border. These services let you use their address for a few dollars. They’ll even call or email you when your package arrives. 

For cities very close to the border, such as Windsor and Vancouver, this can work well. In Vancouver, for example, you can find these ‘mailing’ stores in Point Roberts and Blaine. And with Point Roberts, you can even take public transportation to get close and then walk or bike across the border to get your textbooks at the mailing store. 

Next semester, I plan to buy a book from the States, so I’ll share the result. 

An option that has grown in the past five years is e-books. They cost much less than ‘real’ books, but can only be downloaded to one computer or viewed when logged into a website. 

Personally, I hate being on the computer more than I need to. I’m also used to thumbing through a book and reading it while on the bus, waiting for an appointment or sitting at the beach during an Indian summer in Vancouver. But if you’re able to make the switch, it can save you. 

Another option, which I’ve tried, is to not buy a textbook at all – just make the school library your second home. School libraries always have the most current textbooks in stock as reference books (used only in the library). And sometime, they have copies that you can borrow. I used this option when I took a (useless for me) Canadian political science course years ago. Perhaps I would have received an 'A' if I’d owned the book or actually read all of the required readings, but I was happy with my 'B.' 

Finally, if you can, try to share a textbook with a classmate. I’ve done that and it worked out well.


© Christopher Sun 2009-2012