Clippings: College books lead to Chapter 11

Believe it or not, we reporters are asked from time to time if we are ever going to write a book. I personally take such inquiries as compliments — unless of course they come from a friend or wisecracking family member who adds, “You might as well write a book, you’re already doing a great job with fiction right now.”
But if I were going to write a book with the prospect of making a buck or two, I’m not sure I would delve into the fiction genre.
The real money seems to be in college textbooks.
Our son Mark and many thousands of other high school graduates throughout the country made the transition to college earlier this month. It is a transition that has, in the case of many families, required careful financial planning and sacrifice. You get a budget in place, believe you have most of the expenses covered and then — the book bill comes.
In Mark’s case, the first semester’s damage was just north of $600 for a handful — albeit a heavy handful — of texts for his biology curriculum. And he is just scratching the surface of his book buying. To become a physician’s assistant he will have to refer to many glossy-image- and chart-filled tomes during his college career.
Now, you’ll never hear me begrudge an author’s effort to exact a reasonable return for his or her creative and intellectual property. Being in the print industry, this is an issue near and dear to my heart.
But it seems mind-boggling in this era of heightened environmental awareness and electronic gadgetry that we can’t lessen the financial load on students who are in some cases being assigned wheelbarrow-sized cargos of texts at top-dollar prices.
One of the easiest solutions that comes to mind: Make the course texts available on-line and charge students a subscription fee to access the material. Trees get saved, authors receive compensation, students get to upload material during and after class through their laptops.
We, of course, didn’t have this option when I was a journalism student at Northeastern University in Boston during the early 1980s. No laptops and very few computers. The hottest sellers at the campus store were pre-owned texts that were not only cheaper, but often had pre-highlighted sections that helped your studying — provided the previous proprietor hadn’t flunked the course.
Or how about this possible solution: Students rent the textbooks and also pay an up-front deposit, which they can recoup if they return the tomes in good condition at the end of the semester. The books are then passed to the next crop of students, and so forth, until a revised text is published and put into circulation in the same fashion. Again, authors get paid, less paper gets harvested and students learn an extra lesson in protecting their books or risk losing their deposits.
Students are already looking to on-line vendors — such as — to get better deals for textbooks than are offered at campus stores.
Something has to be done, because the current textbook dispensing system continues to generate a lot of resentment and financial hardship. It also spawns conspiracy theories about professors and/or institutions allegedly being in cahoots with publishers to maximize revenues from financially strapped students.
With college tuitions already increasing at an alarming rate, here’s hoping that colleges, publishers and authors can write a new, common-sense chapter on textbook economics before students can’t afford to make the grade.

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