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CalPIRG Rip-off 101 and the followup report:

The Hype, and the simplistic nature of the report.


While CalPIRG's report upon textbooks has garnered significant media attention few ever really stopped to look upon how useful the information was nor how meaningful the report was towards providing useful policy decisions.

The local CalPIRG chapter for example erroneously claimed to have lowered the price of the Calculus textbook at UCI nevermind that the textbook Calculus: Early Transcendentals by James Stewart was the same book that was used at UCI.

While not in the report the news release did make a heavily erroneous mistake:

“ Thomson Learning also charges American students significantly more than their British and Canadian counterparts. According to the publisher's website, Calculus: Early Transcendentals sells for $125 to American students, but only $97 ($125 C) to Canadian students and only $65 (35 pounds) to British students . This practice is widespread in the industry, and has come under a great deal of recent scrutiny. “ 1

Even before the final report was released CalPIRG was citing this figure as though it were gospel, but there was one problem they never showed us where it came from until a year later. They claim that they compared Amazon.com to Amazon.co.uk, but they failed to mention one thing: they were comparing the price of a new book in the US to used in the UK!!! I checked several books where there were new books prices for both the US and the UK and found the differences far less significant. Many were less than 10%. Needless to say their example from their initial report was deceptive.

Their policy recommendations were somewhat vague or meaningless.

The first recommendation was a good example of this:

“ Publishers should work to keep the cost of producing their books as low as possible without sacrificing educational content.”

That seems like a rather silly recommendation because it offers no actual recommendation as to how to achieve this goal. Such a recommendation is like someone telling the government to build a safe highway, but to build it as cheap as possible. At some point one must sacrifice some amount of one virtue to get the other. A shorter book will be cheaper than a larger one, but will likely contain less educational content. A longer book can cover more material in greater depth, but will be more expensive because there are more raw materials used and more pages of material to edit.

Some of their other recommendations share the same contradicting goals:

Each textbook edition should be kept on the market as long as possible without sacrificing the educational content. Publishers should give preference to paper or on-line supplements to current editions over producing entirely new editions.

Again educational quality and the length that any particular book is in print can be contradicting goals. College textbooks especially in early editions are notorious for making errors. A textbook that has pages of errata shouldn't be “fixed” with a supplement that tells you that what you already read was wrong and now you should learn what is in the supplement which is right. Supplements only make sense when the information within the book is right that there is merely new information that adds to the original as opposed to making it obsolete.(A law textbook could have a supplement with new cases because the old cases aren't obsolete.)

Some of the recommendations simply ask corporations to give away their profits:

Publishers should pass on cost-savings from online textbooks to students.

It is interesting that they mention online textbooks because since their report I have never heard anyone ask whether publishers would be willing to develop digital based texts. In addition, to the best of my knowledge no one from CalPIRG has ever asked any college or university to use a royalty free textbook. If they have it certainly hasn't occurred at my university.

Some of the recommendations are goofy:

Faculty should have the right to know how their textbook choices will financially impact students. Publishers should disclose all of the different products they sell—including both bundled and unbundled options, list how much each of those products cost, the length of time they intend to produce the current edition, and how the newest edition is different from the previous edition.

Who exactly is going to pay for financial impact reports upon students? No answer is provided. Any given book decision is likely minute it is only the cost in total that is relevant. Finding what products that publishers sell only takes a few minutes browsing the website of the publisher. The knowledge that unbundled products exist isn't the problem, but rather that in many cases unbundled editions don't even exist. Knowing how long a current edition will stay current would be useful information, but such information is usually already available up to a year in advance. Other than that colleges could pick textbooks which would keep printing longer there wouldn't be much value in such information. Since there isn't a great deal of variation in difference between new editions in recent years I don't know whether such information would save students very much since faculty would likely pick the same textbook due to insignificant differences in the life of a book. In addition, what has changed is frequently listed in most textbooks in an introduction to this edition over a page or two. One could provide a bigger changelog, but providing too much information would inside the book would add cost to the book.

Some are too obvious:

Faculty should give preference to the least cost textbook option when the educational content is equal.

Other recommendations are already widely available and of limited value:

Colleges and universities should consider implementing rental programs similar to those at several universities in Wisconsin and Illinois. Students would rent books similar to the way they are shared in K-12 but the students would pay a fee that covers the cost of the books.

- Colleges and universities should encourage students to consider using online bookswaps so that students can buy and sell used books and set their own prices. CALPIRG has set up a non-profit, student-run, online bookswap, www.campusbookswap.com .

Book swapping is something people were doing for decades before CalPIRG wrote their report! In addition, CalPIRG actually did more harm than good by setting up another bookswap site. For bookswaps to be effective they need to be popular and hence one shouldn't have multiple swapping sites competing. CalPIRG wasted their resources upon an endeavor that was replicating existing sites. CalPIRG underestimated how many sites already exist. As a dmoz editor I know that many california college campuses already ran sites either through their AS or through individual students. CalPIRG would have been wiser to have encouraged student governments to get behind existing book swapping sites that already existed for their campus instead of creating another one.

Rental programs have a limited track record and don't always result in as significant savings as some might think. One book leasing program in the LA Times charged 65% of the new book cost. Since one has to return the book at the end of the lease one could end saving less ironically than had they used the campus bookstore. If one buys a used book at their campus bookstore at 75% of new one would only need to get 10% of the purchase price back through selling it to another student or through a used book seller. If one got >10% they would have ended up better off buying the book at their campus bookstore. The report doesn't give any examples of book leasing that is more efficient.

Since the writing of this report many different ideas have been bandied about some of which are impractical or goofy. Over the next few pages I review what I see as a fairly comprehensive look at suggestions I have heard.

Reviewing options for lower textbook prices:

Legislative measures

Legislative price caps(per book/per course)


The state or federal government could create price caps upon either the books themselves or the costs of books per course.


With government regulation the price of textbooks could be predictable and adjustable for students.


If the regulation were per book than the publishers would simply make quarter/semester length books instead of year long texts. Hence, the publishers would have circumvented the price caps. In addition, there is the question of the academic freedom of faculty to use the textbooks that they see as the best, regardless of the cost. A per course cap would limit the number of books that could be required and hence could force a course to cover less material than it ought to cover. Hence, students might be educationally harmed by such solution.


Ignoring the publisher opposition to such a proposal which would make the likelihood of implementation near impossible it would be difficult to ensure that publishers didn't circumvent the cap by dividing the book into smaller books. Unless you prevent such circumvention one is likely to create minimal savings is there are any savings at all! The low likelihood of such a measure going into effect make this a proposal have little hope of fixing textbook prices.

Require debundled textbooks

Pretty self explanatory


Allow students to buy books a la carte could save students who don't need certain components money


Additional production lines would increase costs for individual items and ultimately if sales of ancillary materials were weak the cost of the book would be increased to cover lost profits. Eliminating CDs would save little as CDs cost very little to produce and when spread over about a million books even development costs add little cost. In most cases a CD is likely to add no more than a $1 a book. Bundled workbooks are expensive, but unlike bundled CDs which are common bundled workbooks are not nearly as common.


Not likely to happen, but could be good if it did. Unbundling CDs wouldn't do much and mandatory bundled workbooks aren't very common.

Student alternatives

Buying books through alternate book stores(bricks and mortar)

Advantages: Books can sometimes be 10+% cheaper.

Criticisms: Alternative book stores aren't always any better about buying back used book sales. In addition, there isn't always a copy of the book that you want at the alternative book store. While savings can be 10+% the savings over the campus bookstore the savings are usually <10% and closer to 5%.


It is worth a try, but the sav ings aren't significant and often you have to buy one or more books back at the campus bookstore or through another source. While useful and worth looking into the savings will never be significant. Alternative bookstores still have to make a profit off the wholesale price and hence unless they overstock something you will probably never get huge savings.

Buying through internet sellers(Used/new)

A dvantages:

New books that aren't textbooks can sometimes be 30%+ cheaper and when one adds the fact that provided that the seller does not have a major “nexus” instate you can avoid paying sales tax because it is interstate commerce. Depending upon the county and state this can large.


Shipping costs can reduce the savings. Many companies will waive shipping for orders over a certain dollar amount, but this is usually only for slow shipping. If you want faster shipping you pay a price which will eat into any savings over the campus bookstore. In addition, you have to wait for the books as opposed to being able to buy the books immediately and start reading the books.

Book swaps/exchanges


Savings can be huge if the seller is desperate to sell it!

Criticisms: This proposal essentially is old idea that is new again. Back in the BC(before computers) era people used bulletin boards or wherever they could post something to tell other students what books they wanted to sell. This “solution” doesn't overcome the problem of new editions nor does it overcome the problem of a course that isn't offered the next quarter/semester. Except for some first year math and writing courses most universities have course which aren't offered every term and sometimes as infrequently as once every two years. Book swaps within one college/university won't get the student anything for there book for another quarter/semester or even longer assuming that the book is reused the next time that the course is offered.


It is an old idea swaddled in new clothing. CalPIRG hasn't really thought of anything new or creative. Other from moving the bulletins online where people can connect faster there isn't a whole lot that can be innovated.

Other solutions




While online texts were mentioned no publisher would publish an entire book online, but ebooks might be a better alternative. One could simply have publishers move to an ebook format and cut their distribution costs without cutting profits.


One could update the books easily and cheaply. In addition, students could carry all of their books under their arm with one ebook reader.


Can one convince publishers to move their paperback books to this format? Piracy concerns would make publishers leery. In addition, what would the licensing be? If a student lost the reader could they download the books they purchased to a new reader? There is also the issue of ebook formats and DRM issues as to whether one could transfer the ebook to computers and other ebooks.

Copyleft (opensource) textbooks

While CalPIRG mentioned online books there was no mention of copyright. Save looking at the web based “textbook” there are problems determining whether the book could be used by other professors without paying royalty and so forth. Books that were under a GPL style license could be copied with license agreement freely and printed on paper without royalty and stored in ebooks or other digital format.


Zero royalties.


There are few non-royalty textbooks available and even fewer which are at the point in their development that are ready for use as a full replacement for a commercial text. In addition, few academics are willing to set aside the equivalent of a year of time to invest in a textbook that they would get to monetary rewards. Not all professors are so stingy, but many professors at research universities would want some payment for keeping them out of their studies.


While such a solution seemed far fetched the ability to distribute these books into any format for free would make the costs drop exponentially. If such books can become comprehensive enough to be a complete replacement for commericial textbooks this will be the ultimate fix for textbook prices. Ultimately even the colleges that don't adopt non-royalty textbooks will benefit from the competition. Much like users of Microsoft software have been able to leverage Microsoft to reduce the price of MS software at the threat of using open source the users of commercial textbooks could leverage cheaper non-royalty textbooks to encourage commercial publishers to lower their prices.

1 New Report Shows College Textbooks Are "Rip-off 101": Publishers Increase Prices Through Gimmicks, Faculty Are Concerned

Released January 29, 2004