Still going by the book

Textbooks remain costly in an increasingly electronic age

From the 2013 Maclean’s University Rankings

It’s a textbook case in how to annoy students. This year, OCAD University in Toronto required students in its first-year visual culture course to purchase a “custom reader,” comprised of parts from two American text- books plus additional material on Canadian and Aboriginal art. Separately the items retail for over $300. The custom text was priced at $180. But there was a problem—this art book didn’t include any actual art.

Due to unexpected expenses in obtaining copyright, the publisher simply left large white boxes where the pictures were meant to go; students were told they could look at the art online. They got outraged instead—a petition was organized, parents began blogging and local media soon picked up the cause of the artless art book.

“I think a number of students found the whole thing to be a wonderfully rebellious episode,” observes Kathy Shailer, dean of liberal arts at OCAD. Along with holding a pair of town hall meetings with students and parents, she worked out a deal that saw the publisher apologize, promise to buy back the books and to provide necessary print materials free.

While the OCAD controversy may have had a satisfactory ending for students, text- books remain one of the most contentious— and expensive—aspects of a university education. Despite a proliferation of new options, technologies and marketplaces, the cost of books continues to be a source of eternal complaint on campus. What can students do to cut the burden?

“Year after year our surveys of undergraduates tell us textbooks are the single biggest financial barrier to education, after tuition,” says Dustin Chelen, vice-president academic of the University of Alberta student union in Edmonton. His group warns incoming students to expect to shell out $1,200 a year on books and other academic materials. In 2008,

Turning the page: Alternatives to buying pricey new textbooks are proliferating online his predecessors at the student union produced a manifesto on textbooks showing their inflation rate to be almost triple the consumer price index.

Publishers counter that most textbooks, particularly those written for Canadian courses, are expensive because of small print runs. “There are obvious issues with scale in the Canadian marketplace,” says Steve O’Hearn, president of the higher education division of textbook publisher Pearson Canada. “And that plays itself out in price.”

While some texts, particularly those for first-year courses in unchanging subjects such as math or history, can be enormous money- spinners, many aren’t. Jean-Franc?ois Wen is an economics professor at the University of Calgary and co-author of the recently revised Public Finance in Canada, aimed at third-year economics students. “The benefits are mainly non-pecuniary,” says Wen, wryly, considering his motivation for weeks spent writing, revising and fussing over the book. Three-digit royalty cheques are surprisingly commonplace among Canadian textbook authors.

Despite the disadvantages of the Canadian textbook market, lately students have found themselves armed with some important new choices. While used textbooks have always found an appreciative audience on campus, since 2010 Canadian university students have also been able to rent books through websites such as, and Ramona Macleod, founder of Vancouver-based, says her rental business “has been growing exponentially since we opened.” Wen’s $130 Public Finance in Canada, for example, can be rented for $57 a semester. Procrastination- prone students may even choose to rent for just 60 days at $51. When the course is over, books are returned in postage-paid envelopes.

There are other ways to tackle the high cost of books. Most campus bookstores now offer guaranteed buybacks of popular texts; a deal similar to renting but with a bigger upfront cost. At the University of Calgary, 40 selected low-income students are loaned their books for the entire school year at no charge courtesy of the student union. For everyone else, Chelen advises waiting until the first week of class before buying anything and quizzing professors on alternatives to a new textbook, such as searching out earlier editions, course packs, different formats or even using the library.

This proliferation of options for students has led to a variety of strategic responses from publishers. Bundling textbooks together with access to online resources or other supple- mental material makes renting somewhat less attractive and has pushed down used book prices significantly. Some publishers also sell their own texts online at a discount.

Lurking in the future, however, is the prospect of e-textbooks and paperless course work. “Once we leave the paper world, we will see a complete transformation of student learning,” boasts Pearson Canada’s O’Hearn. Textbooks downloaded onto e-readers hold the promise of greater inter- activity and functionality plus continually updated material, not to mention (at least in theory) lower prices. At the forefront of this pedagogical revolution is Indiana University, which recently made e-texts mandatory in certain courses, building the cost of the book into the price of tuition.

And yet, despite their reputation as children of a digital age, today’s students don’t seem entirely sold on electronic textbooks. U of A’s Chelen points out e-texts typically expire at some point, meaning there’s nothing left to keep or resell. This sort of electronic rental arrangement has him skeptical students will ever see any cost savings. (Wen’s book can be accessed electronically for six months at $71.) Further, a survey at Indiana University last year revealed less-than-enthusiastic responses from students who found e-texts hard to read, cumbersome to navigate and unhelpful in collaborating with other students or professors. All of which suggests it’s possible students actually prefer to hold a big, expensive textbook in their hands, despite all their protests.