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Shop Smart, Students

October 28, 2003

Students at American colleges pay more than $800 a year for textbooks on average. That figure would be higher if students bought all their required texts, but half don't, according to the National Assn. of College Stores, largely because of the expense. Students borrow, share and try to calculate which texts will see the least actual use in class.

Life would be easier for such students if publishing companies merely sold their textbooks in this country for the same prices they charged overseas.

A story last week in the New York Times revealed that many textbooks from U.S. publishers cost one-third to 50% less in Britain, India and other nations. Students can make their own price comparisons on www.Amazon.com and www.Amazon.co.uk, the British version.

This dual-pricing scheme has thrived for years. But unlike the drug companies' efforts to keep U.S. consumers from buying drugs more cheaply via Canada, publishers can't claim to protect college students from dangerously inferior books or adulterated information. Instead, their chief explanation is that, if charged more, students overseas would make pirate copies of expensive textbooks. So U.S. students are overcharged for their surfeit of honesty?

The Supreme Court ruled in 1998 that copyright laws do not prohibit people from shipping back to the U.S. books that were intended for sale abroad. Despite this ruling and their Internet savvy, college students have been slow to learn their options. Publishing houses work hard to keep it that way, including forbidding overseas wholesalers from selling to U.S. retailers.

Professors, both intentionally and unwittingly, often feed the problem. In a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, some professors admitted to requiring a textbook because they had been paid thousands of dollars to do so. Such a blatant quid pro quo is rare, but publishing houses commonly pay professors a few hundred dollars to review a text in the hopes of making more sales. Detached from the financial burden to students, many professors will adopt the new edition of a book even when it's barely different from the previous edition that's available secondhand.

Alert students can get better deals by looking at overseas booksellers. Colleges should also be helping students by establishing rental libraries. If the same $120 textbook can be used in a given class for four years, that's eight semesters of use, with the cost spread over eight students. Illinois and Minnesota have passed legislation to encourage such libraries in their state universities; California ought to do the same. Professors should be required to disclose financial dealings with publishers whose texts they adopt.

Informed buyers get better deals. That old lesson doesn't change in new editions.

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