Mass. textbook bill an educated decision

by Beacon Staff • October 10, 2007

Our view: An intervention is necessary.,Last week, the Massachusetts Legislature held hearings to discuss what can be done about textbook prices, a constant cause of the holes being burnt in the pockets of Massachusetts college students.

The proposition being considered, the Affordible Textbooks Bill, would act to force more transparency in textbook publishing, resulting in lower prices for the consumer.

Usually, this sort of meddling with the free market is a bad idea in Massachusetts' already regulation-laden economy, but in the Bay State, higher education is a major industry, and a boon for the financial situation of students benefits the entire state.

With more than 100 colleges and universities in the Greater Boston area, Massachusetts has much to offer prospective students. But as the state must compete against other attractive college markets such as New York and California, Massachusetts needs every point of boasting it can chalk up.

Lower textbook prices are no exception.

According to the Massachusetts Student Public Interest Research Group (MASSPIRG), the cost of textbooks has risen at a rate four times greater than inflation in the past 10 years.

The explosion in textbook costs is more objectionable than the rise of other college-related costs like tuition and room and board, given that students have no other way to obtain the specific book they need other than through a single publishing company.

Students can attend tuition-light community colleges or commute to school to avoid housing costs, but there is no way around buying books.

Publishers have cornered the market and put students in a bad situation.

Every textbook is a micro-monopoly. Different titles on the same topic do not equate.

Publishers strategically reshuffle chapters, change layouts or rewrite forewards and introductions, issuing these minor, inconsequential changes as part of a "new and revised" edition. This can happen several years in a row. How much can a title like Exploring the Classics or The Ancient Far East possibly change?

The profit burden of the publishing industry is shifting from mainstream books to academia.When students buy textbooks, they do not only pay for the book's paper and binding, they pay for the right to call themselves college graduates.

Think of it as societal hazing-a secondary tuition assessed on students, but not charged to Sallie Mae.

America is experiencing two concurrent, contradictory trends: decreased reading across the nation and a record percentage of students continuing their education beyond high school.

According to information from the Association of American Publishers, in 2006, academic books accounted for $3.45 billion in sales, compared to $8.27 billion of sales for trade books (though students are required to buy many trade books for classes as well).

More than a quarter of Americans hold at least a bachelor's degree, and this share is increasing.

Never has higher education been so essential to success, and never has the thirst to learn cost so much.

Our publishing market cannot regress to the days of Gutenberg and the first movable type, when ownership of books was not an expression of a want to learn, but a signification of higher placement within the societal structure.

And this is the purpose of books: to level the uneven nature of human existence, to enable upwards mobility, and to encourage the collection of books for self-betterment or-gasp-learning's sake.

Openness of information and an informed citizenry are crucial in a healthy democracy, and the consequences of pseudo-price gouging in the textbook market undermines this essential social principle.

While supply and demand are preferable in fixing the injustices of our capitalist economy, pragmatism in the form of economic regulation is sometimes in order.

Hopefully, markdowns will ensue.