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How an Accounting ebook Came to be Priced at $999

By Cait Etherington
September 03, 2018

Talk to any college-age student, and they will tell you that, next to sky-rocketing tuition fees, there is nothing more annoying that the rising cost of textbooks. If the cost of textbooks is a common complaint, it is no surprise. One 2015 study found that college textbooks have soared by 1041% over the past four decades. What constitutes an expensive textbook depends on who you ask, but this fall, at least some students encountered what appears to be an unprecedented case of price-gauging on the textbook market–an ebook by WileyPlus that is retailing for $999 (yes, that’s $999 and not $9.99).

UL-Lafayette Students Were in Disbelief

The $999 ebook in question is for ACCT 202 at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. Naturally, when students first saw the nearly $1000 price tag, they assumed it was a mistake. In fact, they were wrong. According to Inside Higher Education, the textbook, Financial and Managerial Accounting, 3rd Edition, was customized by Wiley for the Accounting 201 and 202 at UL-Lafayette and yes, the online version was priced at $999.

According to a statement issued by the university provost, faculty members in the accounting department wanted their students to purchase the printed textbook so they could easily work through exercises in class without the use of laptops or tablets. After the controversy over the ebook went viral, the university admitted that the high online price tag was simply designed to encourage students to buy the printed version of the book. Notably, the university has since adjusted the price of the online book to match the cost of the hard copy.

Why eBooks Often Cost More than Printed Books

In most cases, online text books are adopted to lower, not raise, the cost of textbooks. Several studies over the past decade, however, have suggested that online textbooks can end up costing more than printed books.

First, you can’t read an online book without a reader. While not as notable a problem in 2018, it is still important to bear in mind that ebooks are only accessible to the extent that one also has access to a computer, tablet, ebook reader, or mobile phone. Second, in some cases, ebooks are listed at a higher cost that printed books. The reasons given for this phenomenon vary, but the usually it relates to the different ways that printed and online books are priced and sold. While printed books are generally sold to retailers at about 50% of the list price and retailers can sell the books for whatever price they like, ebooks are sold under a different model. In most cases, publishers not retailers set the price, and retailers take about 30% of book sales. Due to these two different pricing models, in some cases, ebooks can cost much more than printed books, even hard covers, despite the fact that ebooks generally cost much less to produce and distribute.

Are ebooks Conducive to Learning?

The extraordinary price tag that ended up being slapped on Financial and Managerial Accounting, 3rd Edition at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette was apparently part of an effort to ensure students purchased the print not online edition. But do students actually learn more when they work with print copies not ebooks? At least some studies suggest this is the case.

In a 2016 study, Patricia Alexander and Lauren Singer asked 90 undergraduates to read several short texts on a computer and in print. While the students could describe the main point of the passages in both cases, when probed for additional details, students who read the online version struggled. In fact, Alexander and Singer conclude, “Despite the digital medium’s apparent ubiquitousness and noted favorability among digital natives, we cannot operate on the assumption that its prevalence or even stated preference alone results in equal or better comprehension than what has been demonstrated for print text. It would be irresponsible to simply assume that those who perceive themselves as digital natives are in fact well equipped to understand what was read in a digital environment.”

While raising the cost of ebooks may not be a viable answer (indeed, as the recent controversy at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette revealed, the gesture ignores the economic realities facing postsecondary students), there may still be reason to rethink the value of ebooks.