Textbook publishers have come under intense scrutiny because the prices of textbooks keep going up. Students have been hit by these prices and must pay hundreds of dollars for books from which only small portions are assigned. Yet innovations, from faculty use of online resources to students’ exchange of books through Facebook and online retailers, might soon change this industry.

There is no doubt that prices are high. In 2005, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that textbook prices had increased at an average annual rate of 6.14 percent from the 1980s through 2004, and recent updates to the Consumer Price Index indicate this trend is holding steady. A report from the College Board, Trends in College Pricing, states that an undergraduate in the South can expect to spend $852 annually on books and supplies at college, slightly lower than the $988 national average.

One response has been the expansion of the used-book market. Internet retailers Amazon.com and eBay.com and private used bookstores are selling used books at a fraction of the cost of new ones. Social networks are now in the distribution chain, as students consult others to find the cheapest texts, whether sold at local bookstores, online, or on Facebook.com and other networking sites.

Students often wonder why their school doesn’t just rent textbooks, especially those for which the content doesn’t change much from year to year. But textbook rental programs have been implemented at only about 25 colleges nationally, according to the Illinois Board of Higher Education. One of these is Appalachian State, where students pay a rental fee of only $87.50 in exchange for most of their books. Though the program is non-subsidized and popular with students, few schools have copied it.

High overhead and start-up expenditures would cost “well into the millions” said Cathy Marks, textbook rental manager at Appalachian State, whose program started in 1938. Also, faculty tend to dislike it because it requires everyone to teach from the same textbook.

Aware of the high prices, some professors have begun to post articles, chapters and other texts, formerly assigned in books, on Web sites operated by companies such as blackboard.com, aplia.com and others. These university-endorsed sites permit students to view copyright-protected readings without having to buy them.

UNC-Chapel Hill history professor Louise McReynolds is a proponent of the system. It saves students money because they don’t have to buy so many books and it saves faculty money by not “Xeroxing articles, syllabi, review questions and exams for distribution to the class,” she said.

Unfortunately for students, publishers appear to be responding with tactics that force students to buy more than is necessary. One, called “bundling,” caused enough furor that Congress banned it in the recent Higher Education Act reauthorization. Bundling is the practice of combining a textbook and supplementary materials such as workbooks, CDs, and DVDs and selling them as one unit. Although ancillaries may make a textbook “user-friendly,” they are easily misplaced through the course of a semester. A student who doesn’t keep them will not be able to resell the book to the bookstore, at least not at a normal resale price.

Publishers have also increased the frequency of new editions, according to the GAO report. It said that new editions come out every three to four years on average, instead of every four to five years as in the past. On the other hand, professors and students do prefer up-to-date texts for class.

A new practice of “customizing” books is also designed to strengthen publishers’ hold on the market. Textbook publishers delete or add content specifically for a particular university. Officially, this is an attempt to suit the course content to a school’s approach, say, in a freshman composition class.

However, a Wall Street Journal article by John Hechinger (July 10, 2008) suggested that “custom” books are a way for publishers to make more money at students’ expense, and some practices may border on the unethical. Hechinger cited a customized writing reference book at the University of Alabama that merely adds a 32-page section about the university’s writing program to the generic text, yet it costs more and is hard to resell.

Furthermore, the writing department receives a $3 royalty — a “kickback,” Hechinger writes. Custom books are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. textbook market, according to the Association of American Publishers. Time will tell, however, the significance of their impact.

Textbook publishers have implemented measures that may improve students’ educational experience, yet the greater effect might be to raise prices and impede book resale. As these companies attempt to remain viable in a competitive market, students, with the help of some faculty, are using their power as consumers to bring the prices down.

David J. Koon, a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill, was a 2008 summer intern with the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.