Purchasing used textbooks, long a favored cost-cutting strategy of budget-conscious college students, may soon become an expensive memory.
Industry trends are rendering used books quickly obsolete and new editions more expensive than ever before, and leaving students to absorb the mounting costs.
"The publishers' motives aren't always academic, they're financial," said Lewis Coburn, UB professor of mathematics. "Used books do publishers no good. Once the book is sold there is no more profit for the publishers. This gives them motivation for putting out new books."
Average turnover time for a textbook edition is now two to three years, up from five to seven years less than a decade ago, according to Bill Adam Czyk, textbook manager at the University Bookstore. The higher turnover translates into less used book availability and higher prices to students.
New editions are frequently released to update information, correct mistakes discovered after publication, and provide professors and students with the timeliest material available, especially important to rapidly developing areas such as computer science and communication technology.
"I prefer to buy used, but the computer field is constantly changing so I have to keep buying new books," said Will Wong, a senior computer engineering major. "It's hard to get used books because they're already outdated."
Book prices, in turn, are rising as well, launched by demands spanning the entire length of the production chain.
"There's a lot of misconceptions as to why a book costs $100," said Josh Hughes, a representative for Wiley Publishers, who specialize in technical, scientific and medical publications.
"Everyone thinks that it is the publisher making a ton of money, or they think it's the bookstore making a ton of money, or they think it's the author making a ton of money. It's really each of us making a little bit of money."
Production costs for creating new texts are substantial. Royalties alone can run upwards of $1,000,000 per book. Printing prices for special features such as the offset print used in engineering and science texts to make formulas and graphics and shipping costs are passed onto the student as well.
Growing competition within the industry has also quickened turnover time. When a department decides to use a new book, publishing companies offer cash incentives in hopes of being selected. Professors can demand direct payment from a publishing company, sometimes upwards of $10,000-12,000, in exchange for using the company's new edition in their course.
Publishing companies also try to make delivery of their texts' content more appealing with expensive extras such as packaging interactive study guides and computer software with the textbooks and by providing additional content on the Internet.
They then add several dollars to the book's retail price to recoup the sacrificed profit.
"We can't just change around a couple of chapters and say 'here's a new edition,'" said Hughes. "It is a struggle for us and other publishers to come up with something appealing enough to buy."
Still, not all professors support the validity of supposedly keeping textbooks up-to-date.
"Publishers reshuffle material, sometimes actually making errors rather than eliminating them," said Coburn. "After the third or fourth edition, there should be no reason to have errors."
Other professors understand the motivations behind printing new editions of the same textbook.
"One has to have some sympathy with the publishers because they have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in the production of an elaborate book and the author has spent years writing the book, only to have the book earn money for a couple of years," Clyde Herreid, professor of biology, stated in an e-mail.