The broken college book market

It would be hard to be  involved in American higher education and not know that the market for books is dysfunctional. Most of this concern is about pricing and publishing practices, especially the overproduction of new editions of textbooks, and how that affects students. One way that this also affects professors and instructors is in the selection of books for classes. I am always conscious of prices when building a syllabus. I have adopted a variety of strategies for helping my students to manage the cost of their educations by looking for ways to teach with books written for broader markets, or settling for one book when more would be ideal, or working with library reserve. In any case, the economics of college texts is such that students often look for ways to avoid buying books, while many of their teachers are compelled to plan their courses around book costs as well as academic considerations.

One actor in all of this that doesn’t get discussed as much is the college or university bookstore. As more students attempt to get away with not buying their books, or look to alternate sources with better prices, our bookstore, like many I’m sure, has taken to under ordering so as to avoid taking on the cost of shipping back a bunch of books to distributors (and, for all I know, it isn’t just the shipping that is at issue, but fees from publishers or distributors, too).

I can understand this adaptation, but it is a strategy that does not always work out well for students or professors, and this term, at least, it has become my biggest challenge to getting my classes going, notably my intro level course. A half or more of my students were unable to get the main textbook this week, and only a couple report having ordered from another source, which means that I have twenty or so students who had planned on walking into their university bookstore and buying the class text, but were unable to do so for lack of stock (and, no, this does not appear to be an availability issue with the title).

The thing is, I think that my students who thought they could walk into the bookstore in the first week of the term and get the text they needed should have been able to do just that. There is something very wrong with a system that makes that seem naïve.

Which raises another point.

If bookstores are going to be playing the odds with orders, it seems to me that there should be more thought given to the size and nature of particular classes when deciding how far below the cap is too far. It’s one thing to go halfway for an upperdivision class with a cap of twenty, or to severely under order for an instructor using books made for a wider market, but when dealing with a large class, with a high percentage of inexperienced college students, and a text pretty much made for the classroom, it seems shortsighted to cut an order significantly below the planned enrollment (and, at WOU anyhow, intro level courses rarely enroll below their caps by any significant number).

I don’t have much to offer as to the deeper issues, I don’t fully understand why the college book market is as broken as it is, but I would like to see more holistic thinking and cooperation with students and faculty as we all ar seeking strategies for dealing with the ways that the market does not work for our needs. Right now, at my university in any case, everyone is mostly working in isolation and on their own side of the problem, which is why I’m dealing with the unintended consequences that I’m now having with my intro class.

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