A textbook example of supply, demand

Material World


Prescription drugs aren't the only things that have Americans looking outside the country's borders for lower prices. College textbooks also cost less in some parts of the world, and Web shoppers scouring the globe for better deals have publishers scrambling to keep foreign books out of American classrooms.

American students spend an average of almost $900 a year on new textbooks and supplies, according to a Government Accountability Office report released late last month.

Because textbooks are developed primarily for U.S. classrooms, Americans must bear the brunt of development costs for new textbooks, publishers told the GAO.

"The cost of preparing textbooks is high," said Bruce Hildebrand, a spokesman for the Association of American Publishers. "They take thousands of hours to produce and the market for them is small. For every unit you sell overseas, you can help defray some of your intellectual costs and keep prices down in the U.S."

Prices are based on things such as students' ability and willingness to pay for books, local market conditions, exchange rates, demand and income levels.

A popular 2003 edition calculus book that sells for about $130 in the United States was selling to British, African and Middle Eastern students for less than half that, about $62, according to a survey of publisher prices by Make Textbooks Affordable, a nationwide student movement.

Many American students who see their textbook bills going up just want to get the same deal on the same books as students in England and Canada.

"The cost should be spread among everybody," said Cynthia Veliz, a San Antonio College student who has spent more than $300 on books so far this semester. "It's not fair to make us pay more than everybody else."

In the past two decades, U.S. college textbook prices have risen about 6 percent a year - twice the rate of inflation. Prices have nearly tripled since December 1986. Publishers blame the increases on learning supplements such as CD-ROMs and Web resources that come packaged with new editions. Students and teachers say those supplements are rarely used and that new editions are being released more frequently than needed.

Science, engineering and math texts, because of global applicability, are most likely to be cheaper outside the United States. Different prices fordifferent countries isn't illegal, said Marc Fleischaker, an attorney for the National Association of College Stores, an organization calling on publishers to stop that practice.

But buying books from foreign sellers and bringing them back to the United States isn't illegal either. "If someone buys a book," Fleischaker said, "they can resell it to anyone."

Still, publishers contest that point, calling re-importation a violation of their copyrights.

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