Book Buying Among College Practices Under Scrutiny After a recent scandal where financial aid officers at universities accepted favors from private lenders, other university practices are under scrutiny — including book sales. Textbook sellers are continuously courting professors, prompting worries about the potential for abuse.
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Book Buying Among College Practices Under Scrutiny

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Book Buying Among College Practices Under Scrutiny

Book Buying Among College Practices Under Scrutiny

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

College students have long complained about the high costs of textbooks and the publishers' revisions that can make used books worthless. Well, now, a new trend in the $6 billion textbook industry is generating even more concern.

Charles Compton reports from member station WEKU in Richmond, Kentucky.

CHARLES COMPTON: Students are lining up at the Eastern Kentucky University bookstore to purchase their textbooks.

Unidentified Woman: We can't take the chart.

COMPTON: But these aren't regular texts, they're customized books designed for individual classes on campus. EKU student Billy Roberts(ph) is studying graphic design, and isn't happy about it.

Mr. BILLY ROBERTS (Student, Eastern Kentucky University): Oh yeah, I get pretty upset, especially the public speaking textbook here on campus. It's made especially for EKU so you can't go anywhere else and buy it except from our bookstore. And it seems like every semester it's a new volume. So you can't buy any used books. So everyone - there's a brand new $120 40-page book.

COMPTON: And it's not just happening at Eastern Kentucky University.

Bruce Hildebrand with the trade group, Association of American Publishers, says, nationwide, custom book sales increased 20 percent between 2004 and 2005.

Mr. BRUCE HILDEBRAND (Executive Director for Higher Education, Association of American Publishers): I have seen several communications books of late. One I saw over in Arkansas that has segments from nine different textbooks in it, plus some original work done by the department. So they were able to shape that course to exactly the specifications they felt were best for their students.

COMPTON: These continuously revised editions have dramatically reduced the market for cheaper used books at some universities.

EKU communications Professor Jayne Violette defense customized textbooks. Speaking at a cafe, she says she wants her students to keep the textbook even after graduation.

Dr. JAYNE VIOLETTE (Communication Studies, Eastern Kentucky University): Students have to trust us. They have to trust us when we say keep this textbook on your shelf. You're going to need it. I have no problem requiring students to keep those textbooks. No problem whatsoever.

COMPTON: But others do have a problem. The Nebraska-based Used Book Association represents the nation's bookstores. Spokeswoman Sue Redmond(ph) calls the practice, built-in obsolescence.

Ms. SUE REDMAN (Spokeswoman, Nebraska Used Textbook Association): We've seen textbooks where the cover now has the logo of the university attached to it, and it's simply for that campus. In those cases, a lot of times, the bookstore will not buy the textbook back.

COMPTON: Sometimes the revisions prove profitable to the universities and professors who assign custom textbooks. As they re-word it, a chapter or two is usually written by the professors who teach the class. In return, they receive royalties.

Eastern Kentucky University English major Brady Bagley(ph) says payments made by publishers to colleges bother him.

Mr. BRADY BAGLEY (English Major, Eastern Kentucky University): To me, a conflict in answers. I mean, who knows if we're getting our best education off that those books, just simply because they are making their money from them.

COMPTON: Institutions like The University of Texas System have long regulated royalty payments to professors. However, direct payments from publishers to colleges are a new trend. Sometimes the money spent exclusively on students, but campus-wide policies are rare. Even people who consider themselves fans of customized textbooks admit there's room for abuse.

For NPR News, I'm Charles Compton in Richmond, Kentucky.

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