With the winter term of classes only a week old, students at U of T, as across North America, are flocking to bookstores in search of required reading. As an inevitable result, students’ budgets are busting at the seams. On average, undergraduate students spend approximately $1,000 per year on textbooks. When all is said and done, the price of textbooks represents five to six per cent of the cost of education.

Textbooks are more expensive than novels, non-fiction, and other published material for a variety of reasons. Expensive binding and paper can drive up costs, as can detailed colour graphics and the so-called supplemental materials packaged alongside, which are often used to justify price hikes. Demand for textbooks is much lower than for mainstream books, further increasing their price as publishers must charge a high premium on the limited- run books in order to make their desired profit.

Third- and fourth-year textbooks are often much cheaper than for first year courses. This is in part due to the fact that first-year instructors are often not tenured faculty members. CD-ROMS, instructor packs and other supplementary materials are very handy tools for such instructors, but unfortunately it is students who pay for such materials.

U of T’s campus bookstore gets about 22 per cent of each book’s sale price as profit, compared to publishers’ 64 per cent.

Nevertheless, the cost of textbooks at campus bookstores has students seeking more affordable options. Many are using websites such as Ebay and Amazon.ca more than ever before. The benefits of shopping online vary on a case-by-case basis, however. Some textbooks are significantly less expensive, but others are priced exactly the same or higher than those on campus.

Students have also taken it upon themselves to provide each other with textbooks. Founded in 1998, the Toronto University Book Exchange provides students across the GTA a place to buy and sell textbooks. Its website, tusbe.com, is run by students, and has grown at a tremendous rate in the past few years, climbing from 10,000 book sale posts in 2002 to over 75,000 in 2007.

David Mazza, a fourth-year biology major, has used TUSBE for two years and said he loves it. “I can find all the books I need at a fraction of the price at the university bookstore,” he enthused.

High prices have even spawned an underground textbook market. Enterprising students of shaky ethics have found a profitable industry in selling illegally photocopied textbooks. Photocopied textbooks show up on TUSBE, too, sometimes as cheap as $25—still a large profit for their manufacturers.

In December, Canadian students, bookstores, and university administrators took part in the National Roundtable on Academic Materials. The first of its kind, the conference addressed concerns over the costs of textbooks, and found that students, who can be counted on to buy the textbooks, are only a minor factor in publishers’ calculations.

David Simmonds, VP university affairs for the University Students’ Council at UWO told the Gazette “One of the things that came out of the conference […] was that students have never been acknowledged in the textbook industry as the primary consumer of textbooks.”

With prices growing almost as fast as alternative options and piracy, it remains to be seen who will get the last word in the textbook industry.

Stay up to date. Sign up for our weekly newsletter, sent straight to your inbox:

* indicates required