Still going by the book -

Still going by the book

Textbooks remain costly in an increasingly electronic age


Studying at the University of Guelph (Jessica Darmanin)

From the 2013 Maclean’s University Rankings

It’s a textbook case in how to annoy students. This year, OCAD University in Toronto required students in its first-year visual culture course to purchase a “custom reader,” comprised of parts from two American text- books plus additional material on Canadian and Aboriginal art. Separately the items retail for over $300. The custom text was priced at $180. But there was a problem—this art book didn’t include any actual art.

Due to unexpected expenses in obtaining copyright, the publisher simply left large white boxes where the pictures were meant to go; students were told they could look at the art online. They got outraged instead—a petition was organized, parents began blogging and local media soon picked up the cause of the artless art book.

“I think a number of students found the whole thing to be a wonderfully rebellious episode,” observes Kathy Shailer, dean of liberal arts at OCAD. Along with holding a pair of town hall meetings with students and parents, she worked out a deal that saw the publisher apologize, promise to buy back the books and to provide necessary print materials free.

While the OCAD controversy may have had a satisfactory ending for students, text- books remain one of the most contentious— and expensive—aspects of a university education. Despite a proliferation of new options, technologies and marketplaces, the cost of books continues to be a source of eternal complaint on campus. What can students do to cut the burden?

“Year after year our surveys of undergraduates tell us textbooks are the single biggest financial barrier to education, after tuition,” says Dustin Chelen, vice-president academic of the University of Alberta student union in Edmonton. His group warns incoming students to expect to shell out $1,200 a year on books and other academic materials. In 2008,

Turning the page: Alternatives to buying pricey new textbooks are proliferating online his predecessors at the student union produced a manifesto on textbooks showing their inflation rate to be almost triple the consumer price index.

Publishers counter that most textbooks, particularly those written for Canadian courses, are expensive because of small print runs. “There are obvious issues with scale in the Canadian marketplace,” says Steve O’Hearn, president of the higher education division of textbook publisher Pearson Canada. “And that plays itself out in price.”

While some texts, particularly those for first-year courses in unchanging subjects such as math or history, can be enormous money- spinners, many aren’t. Jean-Franc?ois Wen is an economics professor at the University of Calgary and co-author of the recently revised Public Finance in Canada, aimed at third-year economics students. “The benefits are mainly non-pecuniary,” says Wen, wryly, considering his motivation for weeks spent writing, revising and fussing over the book. Three-digit royalty cheques are surprisingly commonplace among Canadian textbook authors.

Despite the disadvantages of the Canadian textbook market, lately students have found themselves armed with some important new choices. While used textbooks have always found an appreciative audience on campus, since 2010 Canadian university students have also been able to rent books through websites such as, and Ramona Macleod, founder of Vancouver-based, says her rental business “has been growing exponentially since we opened.” Wen’s $130 Public Finance in Canada, for example, can be rented for $57 a semester. Procrastination- prone students may even choose to rent for just 60 days at $51. When the course is over, books are returned in postage-paid envelopes.

There are other ways to tackle the high cost of books. Most campus bookstores now offer guaranteed buybacks of popular texts; a deal similar to renting but with a bigger upfront cost. At the University of Calgary, 40 selected low-income students are loaned their books for the entire school year at no charge courtesy of the student union. For everyone else, Chelen advises waiting until the first week of class before buying anything and quizzing professors on alternatives to a new textbook, such as searching out earlier editions, course packs, different formats or even using the library.

This proliferation of options for students has led to a variety of strategic responses from publishers. Bundling textbooks together with access to online resources or other supple- mental material makes renting somewhat less attractive and has pushed down used book prices significantly. Some publishers also sell their own texts online at a discount.

Lurking in the future, however, is the prospect of e-textbooks and paperless course work. “Once we leave the paper world, we will see a complete transformation of student learning,” boasts Pearson Canada’s O’Hearn. Textbooks downloaded onto e-readers hold the promise of greater inter- activity and functionality plus continually updated material, not to mention (at least in theory) lower prices. At the forefront of this pedagogical revolution is Indiana University, which recently made e-texts mandatory in certain courses, building the cost of the book into the price of tuition.

And yet, despite their reputation as children of a digital age, today’s students don’t seem entirely sold on electronic textbooks. U of A’s Chelen points out e-texts typically expire at some point, meaning there’s nothing left to keep or resell. This sort of electronic rental arrangement has him skeptical students will ever see any cost savings. (Wen’s book can be accessed electronically for six months at $71.) Further, a survey at Indiana University last year revealed less-than-enthusiastic responses from students who found e-texts hard to read, cumbersome to navigate and unhelpful in collaborating with other students or professors. All of which suggests it’s possible students actually prefer to hold a big, expensive textbook in their hands, despite all their protests.


Still going by the book

  1. Just a correction to the above article. The book loan program at the University of Calgary is actually provided by the Bookstore and not the students union.

  2. Blaming the publishers for high prices of textbooks has let another band of culprits, the campus bookstore, operate under the radar for too long.

    I go to the University of Calgary, and allow me to assure you that the University of Calgary bookstore is hardly a saint. Its prices are consistently much higher than prices at . Here’s an example of one of my textbooks this semester: Fundamentals Of Database Systems by Elmasri, Ramez , U of C bookstore: $152.65 (NEW), What I bought it for on $106.39 (NEW) (I have a receipt if the bookstore would like to challenge this price). That’s nearly $50 difference!. Online the books are typically at least 10-20% lower in price (new not used). U of C bookstore, which should be providing a service to students by offering mandatory course texts at a reasonable price, has gouged students badly for years.

    The excuses they have used in the past are:
    – high publishing fees (Sure, but how does this explain the $50 difference from the price and the U of C bookstore price for my database book ? It pains me to think of how much the store is gouging students when one considers that the university presumably buys books at a wholesale price)
    -those great prices online are only for used books (This is just plain false. I buy my texts new on-line from amazon which is highly reputable)
    -the shipping fees (My fees are usually paid for in the price difference of 1 book. $50 easily covers it. I’m pretty sure the bookstore gets more than 1 book in a shipment)

    Abusing students this way is just plain wrong. Only now, with access to online retailers has the amount of abuse become clear. Maybe one day the U of C bookstore will change the way it runs things so that I can afford to buy my books from them. Until then, I will save hundreds of dollars by buying my textbooks online.

    • Although it’s true that every bookstore has to be able to turn a profit in order to continue operating, it’s not always the case that they are purposely “abusing students” or that their reasons are excuses.

      Consider that university and college bookstores sell to a much smaller market than Amazon. Amazon is able to purchase much larger quantities, and has considerably less overhead costs than the average higher-institution bookstore does.

      The other thing to keep in mind is the fact that your bookstore is contributing funds back into the on-campus student life as well as the institution itself. Your bookstore is often a source of revenue for the university and/or college in many cases. It is also often responsible for employing a large number of students who are working to help support their education costs.

      Online retailers have very different pricing, cost and operating models than brick and mortar stores. This has to be considered. It also has to be considered who actually runs the bookstore. Is it a private store? Is it a Follet store? Is it run by the university? The student’s union? Does it sell used books? These are all important questions to ask yourself and find out.

      If you do this research and find that you’re still not willing and/or prepared to pay the price your bookstore is selling a text for, there are a lot of options for you to explore (as you have) such as eBooks or going online to the publisher’s website itself and buy directly from them.