Textbook re-importation

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(Host) Cheap prescription drugs from Canada? How about cheap biochemistry textbooks from England? Commentator Allen Gilbert takes a look at how students are saving money through the re-importation of textbooks.

(Gilbert) Upset about prescription drugs that cost a lot less abroad? Well, it turns out that college textbooks are also a lot cheaper if purchased abroad.

The New York Times reported last week that savvy students can often snap up pricey textbooks for half the price if they order from foreign distributors. The Times cited as an example an expensive biochemistry book used in college courses, Lehninger Principles of Biochemistry. It costs $146.15 on Amazon.com. Go to Amazon-U.K., Amazon’s British Web site, and the same book costs 40 pounds, or about $68. With shipping, the total price if purchased abroad is about half the U.S. price.

It’s not only individual students who are wise to the great disparities in prices. It’s also college bookstores. Some campus stores are ordering abroad, and then reselling the books at cost. But they’re angry. The National Association of College Stores has written to textbook publishers, asking for an end to what they see as price-gouging of U.S. students.

The only difference between a book sold abroad and one in the U.S. might be a label across the front that says something like “International Edition.” A cynic steeped in the fight over prescription drugs might ask, “Does that mean the books aren’t safe?”

The publishers defend the price differentials. A lawyer for the American Association of Publishers told the Times that book prices are “keyed to the local market.” It’s a long-standing practice, he said, and not at all unusual. Until recently, the practice was believed to be protected by copyright law. But in 1998 the U.S. Supreme Court said the reimportation of books at foreign, discounted prices was legal.

There is justice in this. We’ve seen American companies cut costs by shipping jobs abroad. Now consumers have discovered that they can get a bargain by ordering things abroad. The Web has made offshore ordering relatively simple. But textbook publishers are fighting back. Sometimes they’ll add a printed warning on the front of the book that says it’s “not for sale in North America.” And one online textbook re-importer, bookcentral.com, notes on its Web site that since the Times article appeared October 21, publishers have moved to cut off its overseas sources.

Bookcentral.com, by the way, was founded by two Williams College students. They discovered the pricing differentials three years ago when they were trying to find an economics textbook cheaper than the one in their campus bookstore.

This is not a good time for anyone connected with higher education to be accused of price gouging. Students and families paying college bills are quite sensitive this fall about price issues. The College Board recently reported that tuition this year jumped an average of 6% at private schools nationally, and 14.1% at public schools. Somebody, somewhere, must be thinking, if we can get textbooks abroad, can we be taught from abroad – at a much lower cost? Globalization, it seems, is redefining the world for producers and consumers alike.

This is Allen Gilbert.

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