Outsourcing the Textbook

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Randy Faris / Corbis

Textbooks in the U.S. are so expensive that even used versions can give students a sharp pain in the wallet. The 7th edition of Francis A. Carey's Organic Chemistry — a standard text for pre-med students — costs $213 new and somewhere around $150 used. Add to that the companion study guide ($113 new; $90 used) and a student would pay between $326 and $240 for just one class. With four to five classes a semester — many assigning multiple textbooks — the costs add up.

The same edition of Organic Chemistry, however, is available on a Canadian website called AbeBooks.com for $12. The book is an international edition, printed in English but sold in India, and identical to its pricey American counterpart except for its soft cover. With a click of the mouse, a cash-strapped student could save hundreds of dollars.

According to the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance, U.S. textbook prices rose 186% between 1986 and 2004, or twice the rate of inflation. College students now spend roughly $900 on textbooks every academic year, books they are required by their professors to purchase. This disconnect between the buyer and the seller allows publishing companies to artificially inflate their prices. "Publishing companies generally don't disclose prices to faculty," says Luke Swarthout, a higher education advocate at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. "The person buying the books isn't the person paying for them — it's what we call a 'broken market.'" The result is a price increase free-for-all, with publishing companies charging inflated prices for new textbook editions on subjects that haven't changed. "Of course you'd update the computer science textbooks every year, but do you really need a brand new edition of a calculus book?" asks Swarthout. "Calculus hasn't changed much in hundreds of years, and certainly not since last year's edition."

International textbooks are printed — frequently in India, although sometimes in other Asian nations — under copyright agreements with Western publishers that allow the books to be sold for a discounted price. "The reasoning is that people in other countries can't afford the higher prices," said Swarthout, "so this is a way to provide them with the same quality of education as we get in America." But just as the Internet has enabled illegal access to music and movies, so too has it opened the international book market — especially to the hands of college students. International textbooks are available on major bookselling websites including Amazon, eBay and Half.com. It's legal for students to buy them for personal use, but illegal for anyone to resell them outside of their intended country. "It's a copyright infringement not for the person buying but for the person selling," says Jane Ginsburg, a professor of literary and artistic law at Columbia Law School.

Individual sellers that use eBay or AbeBooks are breaking the law, says Ginsburg, but whether the sites are also liable for the auctions is unclear. Ebay recently won a court case absolving it of responsibility for policing its auctions for counterfeit items — although it will remove an auction if contacted by the company that owns the rights to an item — but international textbooks are not technically counterfeit. Like eBay, AbeBooks acts as a third party for sellers — generally stores in foreign countries. One copy of Organic Chemistry found on its site was being sold by the William Bookstore in New Delhi. AbeBooks includes a disclaimer on its textbook page, warning that selling an international edition in the United States or Canada may violate copyright law. However, "no legal precedent has been set," says AbeBooks spokesman Richard Davies. "Until we know otherwise we will continue to allow our booksellers to sell the books."

Last year, Stephanie Rodgers, then a senior at Vanderbilt University, bought a brand new, international edition of a physics textbook for $75 on eBay instead of the $298 U.S. version for sale in the university's bookstore. The only difference between the two was the fact that the U.S. textbook was divided into three separate volumes, while the international version came as one book. Rodgers also purchased a $68 mathematical logic textbook ($130 new), which was nearly identical to her classmates' version except that it was paperback instead of hardcover. "Which is fine, because I prefer paperback," says Rodgers.

As a biology and chemistry double major, Rodgers' classmate, Asmitha Sathiyakumar, purchased more than 15 international textbooks during her four years of college. She says she has noticed a change in the way international books are sold online. The country of origin is now advertised instead of hidden, the way it was a few years ago. The listing usually includes a description of the book — soft or hard cover, printed in color or black-and-white — which helps her decide the best deal. She says that international book buying is still pretty rare on campus and that most students look at her paperback textbooks with distrust. "Some of the covers of the books say NOT FOR SALE IN THE U.S., which may turn some people off," she says. "Also, there is always the fear that the international and American versions are going to be different." But Sathiyakumar says that isn't true; all of her books have been identical to their U.S. counterparts, right down to example problems and page numbers.

With luck, students won't have to outsource their educational needs for much longer. This summer, Congress hashed out a new law that would require textbook publishers to provide pricing information to professors, to help them decide which books to select for their courses. There are also e-books — digital texts available on the Internet either for free or a small price — not to mention book rental services and good old-fashioned hand-me-downs.

But for students who want a complete, original copy of the textbook, free from someone else's roving highlighter or absent-minded doodles, international editions are hard to ignore. "Not all of my books were available as international editions, and sometimes the price break between ordering off eBay and buying in the bookstore wasn't large enough to warrant the extra effort," says Rodgers, who graduated last spring with a degree in neuroscience. "but I always checked." (To see the evolution of the college dorm room click here.)