Textbooks: to copy or not to copy Police crackdown on photocopied textbooks

University students already face high tuition fees, so when students make their way to the campus bookstore and are forced to fork over an extra few hundred dollars, it hurts. University textbooks are notoriously expensive with hardcover books regularly ranging between $100 to $200 each (especially for the science textbooks). Why are these books so expensive and who is making money off the backs of students?

“The majority of the cost of these books, approximately 80%, goes to the publishers,” says McGill Bookstore manager Jason Kack. “The rest of the money goes towards covering overhead, shipping, and other costs. We’re really not making much money.”

The price of textbooks has been steadily increasing as publishers release new, shinier editions every few years (I’m pretty sure the principles of Calculus haven’t changed very much). Students, purveyors of ingenuity, will do whatever they can to save a little money on these expensive backpack fillers, including buying used books through friends, on Craigslist or through the bookstore itself (where they are usually gouged again), or even by buying illegally photocopied versions of the book, usually through local photocopy shops.

Recently police raided local photocopy shops seizing “close to $540,000” in illegal photocopied books and arresting 13 individuals. I’m not saying that there wasn’t anything illegal going on here but I think we need to look at the bigger picture as to why this happened. Larissa who runs the Concordia co-op bookstore had this to say:

“What most students don’t realize is that the purchase of illegal copies in the end, hurts them as well. When they spend $30 on an illegal copy of a book originally priced at, say, $100, they get a stack of black & white printed paper, which is only fit for recycling when they’re done. If they could get the $100 text, take care of it while they use if for the semester, they could easily resell it, using a consignment service like the one offered at the Concordia Co-op Bookstore, and potentially get back $50-$70 dollars. This also means that the time they are using the book, they do not sacrifice on the full-colour diagrams that would be rendered into grayscale
in a photocopy”.

The raids were initiated not by concerned parents, teachers or the ingenuity of the police force but rather by “mounting complaints from legitimate businesses in the university press industry,” cited a RCMP press release.

The textbook industry is a 6.2 billion-dollar industry annually (2006) and prices for books have risen steadily over the past 12 years. But the industry is facing a mounting threats from digital downloads, online resources and piracy. While their revenue hasn’t decreased, the number of published books being sold is slowly eroding. Even web sites like Amazon.com are taking a bite out of revenue by offering better prices and more access to used books. Publishers openly detest the used book market.

Dr. Michael Granof of the University of Texas at Austin noted in a recent NY Times article:

“As might be expected, publishers do what they can to undermine the used-book market, principally by coming out with new editions every three or four years. To be sure, in rapidly changing fields like biology and physics, the new editions may be academically defensible. But in areas like algebra and calculus, they are nothing more than a transparent attempt to ensure premature textbook obsolescence. Publishers also try to discourage students from buying used books by bundling the text with extra materials like workbooks and CDs that are not reusable and therefore cannot be passed from one student to another.”

The publishing industry is another media branch facing the ‘evolve or go the way of the dinosaur’ threat. In response they are turning up the attack on illegal distributors and anyone threatening their profits.

It is no surprise that digital copies are on the rise, as digital books allow readers to easily highlight, save and search content as well as to link to outside resources. Digital downloading of course material also saves students a lot of money. Costs such as printing, transport and middleman (read bookstore) fees are also removed. On average, a digital copy of a book is less then half the price of the hard copy. Unfortunately the revolution won’t happen overnight.

“Digital copies of books will be something that we see soon but that we think students aren’t quite ready for yet”, says Jason of the McGill bookstore. “Teachers have tried giving their students digital links to required course texts, but a lot of those students are still going to the copy shop and printing out hard-copies. I think the next generation of students (students currently in High School), will be much more receptive and will embrace digital copies with a much greater zeal. Students still like to have a physical copy that they can bookmark, annotate and touch.”

Personally I think, the reading platform will be the thing that really changes the game in terms of digital copies going mainstream. With the introduction of the iPad, and the availability of the Kindle, there are more people using digital books, but I think a company will come along with either a piece of software or hardware that will be made for students and textbooks that will make digital the only logical way to go. Just wait until Apple jumps aboard the reader market!

My closing thought is that, I think other then cracking down on piracy, textbook manufactures should be looking at ways to decrease their costs and improve their products. Innovation rather then censorship & pettiness, but that is just one humble blogger’s opinion.

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One comment

  • Apple, jump aboard the reader market? We’ve already seen that in the bloated form of an iPad, and I think the reader market will be much more receptive to Chinese knock-off models, which I think will excel at what they are designed to do. An e-reader is an extremely simple device electronically (by today’s standards) and one that wouldn’t suffer from corners being cut, such as trademarks and proprietary software.

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