Textbook woes: why do they cost so much?

High textbook prices, like all nighters and Ramen, can feel like an inevitable fact of student life. But why exactly do textbooks cost so much?

Before they arrive on campus with that price tag attached, faculty members decide on the book they want for their course, and submit it to the buyers at the Bookstore. According to Debbie Harvie, director of the UBC Bookstore, this process of buying textbooks has been more or less the same for the past 25 years.

These buyers might look at wholesale options first, or whether the book is available for a better price as an e-book or in loose leaf. If not, the bookstore will order new copies directly from the publisher.

The trouble, generally, is that the Bookstore has very strict constraints on where it can source its books. Each textbook is produced by a single publisher, which means that these publishers can pretty much set their prices as high as they want.

“Unlike a clothing vendor -- where we can buy a sweatshirt from probably a hundred different vendors -- if a faculty member chooses a specific book, we have to bring that in at their request. So we don’t have a whole lot of latitude in choosing where we get the book from,” said Harvie.

Similarly, the Bookstore does not receive a discount from publishers for buying course materials in bulk, as they do for other products.

“Publishers are loath to make any deals on buying. For general books we carry in the store -- say a John Grisham novel -- the more of those you buy, the better the discount you get. But that doesn’t happen with textbooks,” she said.

According to Harvie, many textbooks also have a very short print run compared with popular novels, which is an expensive undertaking for publishers. Further technical costs -- such as printing colour photos and graphs -- can also rack up the price, especially for medical and scientific texts.

In addition, the endless production of updated textbook editions can short-circuit the market for used books.

Although Harvie says her staff tries to negotiate with faculty on whether old editions of textbooks will do, it’s ultimately up to the instructor to decide whether to upgrade to the newest version, and by constantly churning out new editions, publishers prevent students from selling back their textbooks at the end of the semester, and force the Bookstore to buy new books for the coming year.

“I think the official reason is that the publishers will honestly say that they believe the new edition has better learning materials in it," said Harvie. "Obviously in some disciplines there is new research that comes out, and they certainly try to keep that in there.”