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Saturday, November 28, 2020

Columns

Digital textbook prices prove unfair to students


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The digital age has taken the textbook industry by storm. Students have the convenient choice to download a file of their book instead of having to carry around a hard copy. | Justin Cross/The Cougar

The digital age has affected the textbook industry just like any other.

Publishers have now set the price for each textbook, expecting consumers to sit back and be grateful not to have to lug around a much more expensive textbook. Students have flocked to the new idea of digital textbooks and don’t realize or don’t care that they are paying a high price set by a major publisher.

Macmillan, Cengage, Pearson, McGraw-Hill and Wiley — these publishers control the overwhelming majority of the textbooks that you purchase for your classes each semester.

As such, they also control the prices, which have risen more than 1000 percent, you must pay to rent or own this knowledge.

For better or worse, I’m what marketers and pundits would label as a member of Generation Y. I grew up during a time that saw the proliferation of peer-to-peer networking. It shook up my fellow millennials preconceived sentiment toward paying for media.

We were instilled with the idea that everyone should have the right to freely participate in the cultural life of the community. There are uncharted gateways allowing us to attain many forms of art and information around the turn of the century.

Idealism aside, we live in a capitalistic society. As time went on, the big bang that birthed these gateways was doomed to be followed by a big crunch.

Although most of these platforms for free media have been mitigated or eliminated altogether, the transfer of purchasing power from distributors to consumers in the film, television, music and print industry cannot be more apparent.

In contrast, attempts from independent companies and subscription services to provide electronic formats in the book business have largely failed. The elite of book publishers resolved the threat of competition through a series of price-fixing practices and the eventual adaptation of agency pricing.

The digital space has created cheaper ways to lull our minds into passivity with various forms of entertainment. When it comes to expanding them, the drop off in price for an updated printed version versus a digital version of a textbook is almost laughable.

On occasion, you can find a substantial gap in price between the two formats, but the reality is that you can only rent — not own —  that information. The drop in the cost of production associated with textbooks are cheaper on a digital format.

Without your brick-and-mortar store taking its share, this should provide a much larger disparity in retail price than your average publication.

These benefits are not passed on to the student.

It’s frightening how much gatekeeping ability the publishers have over the access to information that higher-education institutions see as crucial. If left unchecked, this will grow to create a pattern of marginalizing intellectual pursuit.

The digital platform of all media forms and the business models created in reaction to the prevalence of peer-to-peer software bore the notion that the power of knowledge and content was supposed to be vested in the people.

The alternatives that publishers have provided us — when it comes to purchasing their textbooks, especially digitally — is based on a business model that assumes we should just be thankful to pay whatever price on whatever platform they have provided.

Opinion columnist Nicholas Bell is an MBA graduate student and can be reached at [email protected]

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