Publishers, professors debate Virginia bill to limit textbook costs

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According to a survey conducted by the Virginia Council of Higher Education last fall, 42 percent of students said there had been at least one semester where they couldn't afford to buy their books. The survey recommended several measures that are now part of legislation to make textbooks more affordable.

Virginia House Bill 1478 unanimously passed the House of Delegates in late January and will go to the Senate on Feb. 15.

The bill was proposed by Del. Glenn Oder, R-Newport News, who has worked with Virginia 21, a young voters advocacy group.

Students, faculty and bookstore owners generally support the legislation, but publishers are questioning the fairness and constitutionality of some of the bill's measures.

Among the culprits the bill cites for high costs are: textbook "bundling" by publishers, communication problems between faculty and bookstores, and the lack of availability of used textbooks.

The bill would require governing boards of state universities to implement policies requiring faculty to know the price of textbooks they assign and submit lists to bookstores in a timely manner.

Campus bookstores would have to offer alternatives to "bundled" textbook packages that often include software and workbooks. University libraries would have to carry copies of textbooks for students to check out.

The governing boards would have to "encourage" professors to limit use of new textbooks _ SCHEV listed used books as the best way to hold down textbook prices.

Oder said his bill, like a bill he successfully sponsored last year to give students early notification about required books, is a "common-sense" approach to holding down costs. He stopped short of blaming any one group for the rising costs of books.

Jerry Diffell, manager of Tech Bookstore, an independent store in downtown Blacksburg owned by Nebraska Book Co., the largest used-book wholesaler in the country, wasn't so diplomatic.

"It's lying and deceiving so that they can sell new books," he said of publishers. "The problem is, first of all, the publishers set the price and then every year they raise the price."

Diffell, who estimates 45 percent of textbooks in his store are used, said publishers use different tactics to keep students buying new books.

The most obvious way to do it is by publishing new editions. He estimated new editions came out every five years when he started in the industry in 1970. Now they come out every two years, he said.

Dave Wilson, academic division manager for University Bookstore, said new editions come out about once every three years as opposed to every five or six years when he started in the late 1980s.

"How can you revise a calculus book every two years?" Diffell said. "Early American history _ how can you revise that every year?"

Bruce Hildebrand, executive director for higher education at the Association of American Publishers, said technology forces revision even in subjects as basic as calculus. He said a new edition of a book is made every four years on average.

"All of these students live and die on the Internet. There's no writing on the blackboard anymore," he said.

"In the 21st century, the publishers have taken the initiative ... to develop the tools that students need in their classrooms."

One of those tools proposed to Virginia Tech professor Kerry Redican led him to list a special textbook customized for Virginia Tech students taking his educational health class in the spring of 2006.

Instead of paying $49.95 for a used version of "Core Concepts of Health" that came out in 2005, the 500-plus students in his class were asked to purchase the new customized book for $79.95.

The $30 price difference accounted for one content difference _ a passcode students use to activate remote controls that Redican is debuting in his class.

He can ask questions about health topics such as binge drinking and get immediate anonymous feedback from the class via their personal remote controls. He hopes the gadgets will help engage students.

While Redican sympathizes with students about the cost of the textbook, he doesn't believe there's anything sinister behind what publishers are doing.

"The publisher comes in, they wind up promoting their book," Redican said. "They say, 'Here are some of the other things you can do with it.' It's not a ministry for them, it's a business."

As for bundling, Hildebrand argues that forcing publishers to end the practice is a violation of the First Amendment and an unfair restriction of commerce.

"Textbooks are protected just like any other form of media," he said. "Books are books, thank you very much."

But Virginia 21 spokesman David Solimini said Hildebrand's charge is nothing more than a red herring.

The legislation doesn't tell publishers what they can publish or how to sell their books statewide; it only instructs state universities to offer unbundled options in their bookstores.

"They're put in a very unbalanced market," he said of students. "All we're really trying to do is bring balance back to purchasing ... free markets, lower pricing."

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