As the prices of textbooks continue to skyrocket and the odds of winning the Powerball remain slim, University of California, Santa Barbara students, professors and the tech world are changing the way the textbook market operates, both as sellers and consumers.
Nearly a month into the quarter, as the last round of textbooks are still being bartered before the first wave of midterms, the sentiment among students and professors alike is much the same: Are these expensive textbooks really worth the cost?
Professors like Dr. Benjamin Zulueta, a professor in the Department of Asian American Studies, prefer to stray away from the use of textbooks entirely, a conscious effort to boycott both the price and quality of textbook content.
“When I used to teach survey courses [American History and World Civilizations], I felt that the texts did the job they intended to do,” Zulueta said. “However, I still feel that given time I could probably amass something better and richer in scholarly content, rather than the dense, nuanced narratives that most history textbooks present today.”
A growing number of professors across multiple departments are following suit, turning toward the university’s vast online research databases to handpick their own curated collections of readings. In this way, professors succeed in providing readings that they feel are more relevant to the course, and help to eliminate the added textbook cost for students.
Though this trend is effective in the realm of liberal arts courses, third year pharmacology major and CLAS chemistry tutor Darius Martins laments over the reality that textbooks are still a very necessary evil in the applied math and science fields.
“It would be almost impossible to succeed in any biology or chemistry class without the required textbook,” Martins said. “And I’ve talked to too many people who have opted out of taking a class because the price of the textbook is too high, which is ridiculous. Textbook companies are committing a serious disservice to the education system and to people who want to learn.”
Martins admits to spending anywhere from $200-$300 each on various chemistry, biology and genetics textbooks purchased from the campus bookstore, almost half of what he pays in monthly rent for a triple room in Santa Ynez.
In the interest of paying rent on time and staying out of debt, students like Martins are turning away from the campus bookstore and turning instead toward a growing myriad of online options, both legal and illegal, in an effort to avoid textbook company prices.
Though Amazon — with its Prime shipping, rental options and recently opened Isla Vista storefront — is still a popular option among buyers, Facebook pages like UCSB Free and For Sale, Gaucho Books through Associated Students and the SIRRC on campus book bank are attractive to many because they eliminate the hassle of shipping time and costs.
Start-up companies like StudyMode Texty, an up-and-coming non-profit site launched by several recent UC and CSU graduates, are also responding to the need for more user friendly textbook exchange platforms across campuses. Launched less than a month ago, and relying primarily on word-of-mouth marketing, the site amassed hundreds of postings within its first couple weeks, according to Ryan Heimpel, a recent graduate of San Diego State University and one of the site’s creators.
“To us it’s an indication that there’s a real need here,” Heimpel said, regarding the sudden boom in user traffic. “We mainly just want to build a great website that works to connect students directly, without big businesses or a middleman trying to profit from them.”
Laura Tovar, third year political science major and a student manager at the UCSB Bookstore, aims to clear the air surrounding textbook prices and who sets them.
“In the end, textbook companies set the prices,” Tovar said. “We recognize that online sources are offering competitive prices, and we’re doing our best to do the same. We contact our main provider, MBS and textbook companies directly to ensure that more used and rental options are available.”
Operating on as minimal of a profit margin as possible, the campus bookstore, according to Tovar, has been scaling back orders for years because of online competition, buying only a fraction of the books needed for any given class size. However, Tovar reminds us that the campus bookstore still has an integral place in the textbook market, offering what its online competitors can’t: the convenience factor.
“We know exactly what you need,” Tovar said, “and we can hand it to you immediately, without having to go through a bartering process or negotiate shipping fees.”
And in response to the unending complaint of, “Why am I being forced to buy the latest edition when I could buy the old one for far less?”: “We can always order old editions,” Tovar said. “It’s actually your professor who’s costing you all that money by requesting the new editions. Not [the bookstore].”
Martins, who in just two and a half years has put well over $1,000 into the sizable corporate wallets of the textbook companies, just laughs at the absurdity of it all.
“I’m kind of broke right now,” Martins said. “But I guess I don’t really have any other choice.”