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Saturday, August 26, 2006

Fully booked...but at what cost?

Today I bought the last of the books I need for Fall 2006 semester at Woodbury University. I was able to cut a lot of my costs through buying most of the books at Half.Com, but I still went into debt at a sick-making amount.

Eight books for four classes. $260.12, including shipping. The books for Stats for Behavioral Science, First Semester, don't even show up on the Woodbury/eFollett website, so I can't figure out an accurate total from there. However, the books for only 3 out of my four classes, if purchased there, totaled over $270 without factoring in the tax and the shipping. And that's buying them used. If I bought the books new, I'm sure they would be easily $350 or more.

One of my books is one I am buying as an "International Edition." I was unaware of such things but after doing some digging at eBay looking for a bargain on the last damn book I needed I found the book for less than used price by buying as an "International Edition." And it looked like it would be a new book, not a used book.

Apparently the big market for these "International Editions" is India, with something like 100 languages spoken in the various provinces of the subcontinent but English is the language of academia, business and the burgeoning tech sector. Michelle Singletary of NPR and The Washington Post estimates that an "International Edition" book can cost as little as 10% of the new price. Even British students can and do buy these books and save themselves a bundle on the price of books. Obviously this shows that textbooks can and should be much cheaper than they are.

The textbook producers, of course, want to make selling these "International Editions" illegal in the US. This brings to mind the situation when "Parallel Imports" of records was made illegal in the late 1980s by congresscritters deep in the RIAA's pockets. The move destroyed a whole sector of record importers like Jem/Passport. It also affected independent music because the same importers were also selling the music of domestic indie labels like SST Records. New distribution channels sprung up to "route around the damage" but it set back indie music a few years. The eruption of alternative music in Seattle, where indie labels had different arrangements for distribution, obscured the fact that the same scene had been going on for years in SoCal, and that really nothing new was going on in the Pacific Northwest that hadn't started here first. But I digress, as I often do.

And of course, the same congresscritters who slop at the RIAA's trough are also getting slopped by the small cartel of academic publishers who charge exorbitant prices to US college students. Thomson Learning, Pearson, McGraw Hill and a handful of smaller firms basically have the market cornered. Could it be that this is what is preventing national action on this fleecing of college students, a market that can afford the fleecing the least what with student loans and other expenses of college?

Here are some resources on the problem and the "International edition" solution.

Textbook inflation in general:
Michelle Singletary: College's Budget Busters
Ripoff 101: State PIRG's Higher Education Project (PDF)

International edition books are legal (for now at least):
Google Answers: Selling International Edition books

UPDATE 8/30: I had to buy ANOTHER fucking book. It only cost $30 but still, it really stinks. I hate it when Profs spring a book on you as a surprise. Dammit.