Students scramble to find affordable options for course materials



colin mcconnell/torstar news service


Students line up for textbooks at the University of Toronto bookstore.


The beginning of an academic year at college or university is stressful enough: searching for lecture halls, adjusting to demanding professors, figuring out which classmates could be lifelong friends. It all pales next to the mandatory and maddening challenge most students must confront — the campus bookstore.

For students, it’s all about long lineups and the sky-high prices. But one person’s headache is another’s bliss.

“This is our Christmas on campus,” says Nancy Masocco, course materials manager at the University of Toronto Bookstore.

It’s the busiest time of the year for textbook sales, the culmination of months of planning by publishers, university bookstores and professors to create a $285 million university and college textbook industry.

At York University, for example, more than 350,000 books are sold in September. Over the remaining 11 months, the university will sell 200,000 more.

Maria Luisa Vitti, a second-year York University student, spent an hour waiting in line at the campus bookstore last week only to have to run to class without buying her books. But the store didn’t lose the sale. She had to return this week to buy the books she needed for her courses.

“It makes me feel frustrated,” she says. “I think they (book prices) are pretty high, especially considering tuition is high. Most students are on OSAP or are working part-time. They don’t have parents who pay for everything.”

Students should budget between $1,000 and $1,500 for books and supplies, according to York University’s website. In faculties such as medicine, students can pay hundreds of dollars for a textbook, while an English student can pay $10 for a novel. The English student, however, may have to buy 18 books for a course, while the med student needs one or two.

Despite the general penny-pinching budgets of most students, there is little relief when it comes to buying textbooks.

In the United States, the Government Accountability Office released a study last year that found the price of textbooks between 1986 and 2004 grew at twice the rate of inflation. During the 18-year span, textbooks increased 186 per cent, tuition fees 240 per cent and overall inflation 72 per cent. The average annual price jump for textbooks was 6 per cent. The study blamed the products attached to books, such as CD-ROMs, for the heftier prices.

Higher production costs for textbooks are inevitable, says Michael Campbell, vice-president of Pearson Education Canada, a subsidiary of one of the largest textbook publishers in the world.

“If a reader opened up a Steven King novel and a biology textbook, they’d see two different things,” Campbell says. The graphics, illustrations, charts and colour prints typical of textbooks all add to the manufacturing cost.

And since textbooks have print runs of a few thousand, while mass-market books can have print runs of millions, textbooks don’t benefit from the same economies of scale. That means the cost to produce one textbook is more than a best-selling novel.

There are also royalties to the author and marketing costs. And like all products, the textbook prices also have profit margins built into them.

The rise in textbook prices is also blamed on professors choosing the textbook without considering price.

Students, meanwhile, become more price conscious the longer they are in university, says Masocco. First-year students are more likely to buy new textbooks, whereas more senior students opt for used books.

From online bookstores to marketplaces, students also scour the Internet for deals. Amazon and Indigo may offer some of the mass-market books students need, but online specialty services are a cheaper source for textbooks.

Abebooks, based in Victoria, offers an online marketplace similar to EBay. Last year more than $150 million US worth of books were sold, and over the past three years the company has experienced tremendous growth in the textbook segment.

“We saw that textbooks online would sell quickly, so we started to actively recruit textbook sellers,” says Richard Davies, spokesperson for the company.