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ONLINE SEARCHER: Information Discovery, Technology, Strategies


May/June 2014 Issue

The key to publisher success in the out-of-control pricing during the last 30 years of academic and scholarly journal publishing has been coercion. A dysfunctional system still controls the majority of academic library budgets. Publishers are now poised to make the implicit coercion in textbook sales explicit. They have in their sights the long-term goal of destruction of the secondary textbook market and freedom to price as they see fit without competing forces.

Nancy Herther’s excellent article in this issue provides an overview of the current scene. Her analysis points out the dysfunction of the textbook market, which outpaces even the medical services market in price increases, and targets some of the perils and promises of etextbooks. The 25% of book sales represented by textbooks is ready, given current dynamics, to explode. Many of the same publishers who brought us the existing system are ready to supercharge it. Several who publish in both journals and textbooks understand well how to exploit customers who have no choice but to pay the bills. The source of content is the same for both systems, researchers, and faculty and universities. And shunting costs and milking the profits from secondaries is the standard unregulated plum for reaping out-of-control profits. The more dysfunctional the market, i.e., the less control end purchasers have over choice, the higher the potential profits from forced sales. Those who drive the purchase are not those who pay the bills in either scholarly journals or textbooks.

Two basic models are developing besides the traditional, and not everyone making textbook decisions is aware of them. For the most basic “new” model, the chemistry department at UNC–Charlotte provides an exemplar. The introductory chemistry course enrolls, if I have read the rolls correctly, 1,630 students during the course of the academic year. The department modified the basic text (McGraw Hill’s respected Burdge’s Chemistry), which—as in most examples of this model—comes with “access” to a website offering supplementary material and homework assignments. The list price on Amazon for the looseleaf version is $201.51. The price with access to the website for our students is $120, or 60% of the list price. This is the standard list for a negotiated rate title. Still, given the number of students involved, the gross on this title is $196,000 a year—for one course (many sections), one title.

A less favorable “deal” for students is University Physics with MasteringPhysics access from Pearson. Given student enrollment for the year, the bottom line number is at least $132,000. The price to students on my campus is in line with Amazon pricing. Since the physics course is also required of chemistry majors, those students can expect to spend more than $350 between the two courses if they purchase “new” looseleaf (which means a three-ring binder) plus access to the websites.

The second model, one Internet2 and Educause have had some role in, is exemplified by the California State University System. If I read correctly, semester rental for etextbook access with access to the supplementary website for the physics title mentioned above is $92.90. In fact, most e-rentals are 60% of list price. It’s the same model as above but without “residual” to the students, who don’t really buy anything. It’s a pretty expensive temporary rental. But the potential for lowering prices gets better than that. Sage on the CSU eTextbook site offers the following: Faculty who arrange a mandatory course fee as a part of student registration will be able to guarantee a 70% discount for their students or as low as $15. Final prices are determined by the regular retail price minus eligible discounts. To learn more, contact your CSU Sage representative (

The bottom line is that there are essentially three price points at which publishers sell into the market: Traditional (usually with a 20% margin for the bookstore or other middleman), 60% of list negotiated often with “modified” text and/or modified web access, and deeply discounted at 30% or less of list, usually with an “Everyone in the class must pay the price” proviso.

But if you really put the gun to students’ heads, oh what deals you’ll find! “Mandatory” purchase schemes abound, especially for rental etextbooks. You can find them for specific titles and publishers and combinations of institutions and enrollments supported by discounts in the 80% to 90% off list-price range. Talk about a teaser rate! Some librarians believe a “flat” per title rate per student is possible, rather than a “discount” from the increasingly hypothetical print list. Publishers have “discovered” this last model, perhaps emanating from their experiences with CourseSmart (now sold to Ingram) and even the Internet2/Educause pilots, where the effective price came to around $15 to $18 per title.

What is the antidote to disparate pricing for the same title, for outrageous price increases, for faculty who give publishers customized text or web content to be sold back to their students? The solution is simple: Get a librarian on every textbook adoption committee in every department on every campus and have an experienced library negotiator on any campus-wide textbook and/or etextbook effort.

A well-informed librarian is critical, not for pedagogical reasons, but for negotiations with publishers and for valuing the intellectual property from institutional efforts. Librarians have more experience than anyone else on campus dealing with publishers. They know the ins and outs of contract negotiations for published intellectual content. They know how to protect students, and recognize the possibility that student performance on those ubiquitous “with access” websites could become public knowledge or end up in the wrong hands. They may be the only voice at the table concerned about contract provisions to keep the government from spying on student work. They will be the only voice at the table searching for a way to archive this year’s hot textbook so future scholars can see what was taught in 2014.

As publisher schemes of mandated “fees” for disappearing, i.e., “rental,” etextbooks mature, librarians who understand the insatiable appetite of publishers for captive audience pricing will be invaluable allies to faculty and institutions in their quest for the best content at a reasonable price. At UNC–Charlotte, the library is purchasing individual e-titles as faculty identify them for course adoption. Although in the past many librarians have shunned responsibility for textbook purchases, if we alone can negotiate a fair price for unlimited access, then perhaps we librarians will emerge with yet another role as a valued partner in the academic mission.

Charles Hamaker is associate university librarian for collection development and electronic resources at the J. Murray Atkins Library, University of North Carolina–Charlotte.


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