Students to face textbook price shock

Euan McTear

Text BooksStudents at the Glasgow University could be in for a shock when it comes to purchasing textbooks for the new term, as the prices of several texts used by the University have increased by up to 300%.

It is not just at Glasgow where prices have risen considerably; anyone who purchases textbooks outside of the US will notice the price rise in some texts following a US Supreme Court ruling in March of this year.

The highest court in the US ruled that the “first-sale doctrine” applies to all lawfully copyrighted works, including all those published abroad. Put simply, that means that any literary work purchased at any price from a US publisher in an overseas country could be legally resold back into the US.

The ruling, which dealt with practises that had previously been in a legal gray area, means the public are now aware that they can purchase cheap texts abroad and import them into the US for a fraction of the domestic price, either for personal use or resale.

Worried publishers were looking to combat these actions and in May Cengage Learning Inc. was the first to announce a global pricing strategy. The overseas prices of their textbooks increased drastically, bringing less expensive titles sold in Asia, Africa, Australia and Europe closer to the US prices.

A number of titles currently used by University departments are published by Centage, meaning many student will this year begin to feel the effects. One such title which has increased by a huge 295% is Cengage’s “Oggi In Italia” used on the University of Glasgow’s beginners’ Italian course. The price last summer was £39, but this year it has risen to £115.

John Smith’s bookshop on the university campus has been seeing the effects of these changes first-hand. Through communication with University lecturers, including those in the Italian department, John Smith’s has been able to arrange in many cases for alternative textbooks at more reasonable prices to be used this term.

David Marshall, Director for Product and Commercial Development at John Smith’s, said: “We have been working very hard to limit the impact of these changes, specifically to our student customers… We have either managed to negotiate lower prices on affected titles, or have arranged alternatives at substantially lower prices.”

Students should see only small price increases – if any – at the John Smith’s store in the Fraser Building. However, some other bookshops have not taken action to provide a good deal for students and many buyers could be caught out.

Those students who prefer to use online sites such as Amazon will also begin to see price rises, if not this year then next. Any Cengage texts published after July 31 and sold on the online retailer will have the new more expensive UK RRP.

Over the coming months, other publishers are expected to set similar global pricing strategies to Cengage and significantly more texts may be higher priced both online and in-store by the time second term classes begin in January.

The price hikes that have followed the ruling could well see increasing numbers of students look to online and even unauthorised resources rather than purchase the traditional paper texts.

A study in the US by The Book Industry Study Group showed that US students – who have had to deal with much higher textbook prices for longer than their overseas colleagues – have looked to downloading content from illegal websites. 34% admitted doing so in the past year, an increase from the 20% when last surveyed in 2010.

Peter Donoughue, a University of Queensland publishing expert, wrote on his blog: “Cengage’s panicky, over the top reaction is entirely unjustified… Sales outside the US will collapse and piracy will get a huge boost. Cengage’s name will be mud.”

It remains to be seen just how many publishers follow Cengage’s move. If it proves a successful one for the company, then further price increases in the worldwide textbooks market could follow.