Prescription for consumers challenging academic textbook cartels


I didn't plan to get into an overview of U.S. academic textbook marketing politics, but a couple of readers took issue with my brief mention of this highly unusual consumer category. Since a lot of Boing Boing readers are students (and faculty, it turns out), I thought I'd give an overview so everyone can make more informed consumer choices.

Faculty behavior is a key factor that drives textbook pricing in academia. Though many academics will claim they are above being swayed by marketers, their consumer behavior is influenced heavily by manufacturers and distributors. I'll use a prescription analogy, summarizing the excellent 2006 overview by Dr. James V. Koch, commissioned by Congress. In this analogy, faculty = physicians, and textbook publishers = drug companies trying to influence them. I also include a link to the rebuttals of Koch's work by the Association of American Publishers and others, as well as some great info for students from Public Interest Research Group and some open-source textbook alternatives. After this, I'll get back to less wonky posts, promise!

The academic textbook consumer category

1. General information
a. This market is generally unregulated.
b. Few organized markets exist where one party (faculty) chooses the product and another party (student) pays. Another example is prescriptions, which have also risen in price more quickly than other consumer products for many of the same reasons.
c. In 2006, 17.66 million U.S. students spent $4.9 billion on textbooks ($1.9 of that was used books).

2. Faculty behavior
a. One study found 42% of faculty did not know the cost of their textbooks.
b. That study also found only 43% of faculty chose a book based on affordability.
c. Faculty get free book samples, just like doctors with prescription drugs. This freebie has a significant effect on faculty consumer behavior, such as brand loyalty, logrolling, etc.
d. In many markets, it is considered a conflict of interest to require someone to buy something when you or your colleagues get a direct benefit. Not as much in academia.
e. Faculty members who devise their own course materials usually charge less, but the materials have little or no resale value compared to textbooks. That loss has to be baked into student budgets.

3. Publisher and bookseller behavior
a. Five conglomerates control 80% of textbook production.
b. They sell their product to distributors/retailers, who in turn sell them to bookstores (on and off campus, including internet).
c. Four wholesalers dominate textbook distribution, especially used books.
d. These four wholesalers operate about 1/3 of college bookstores. About 1/2 are university owned and operated, and the remaining 15% are independents.
e. If a new book costs $100, wholesalers typically buy it back for $15 to $25 and resell it for $50.
f. It can be cheaper to re-import textbooks from non-US markets, just like prescription drugs. The response to this by publishers has been to force booksellers into contracts that prohibit re-importation.
g. Publishers and distributors can work together as a cartel to remove used books from the market, in order to generate more high-margin new book sales.
h. Textbooks have a low back catalog value, meaning you need to recoup your costs quickly because the books get obsolete quickly, like a 3rd-party manual for using a computer program.
i. Publishers routinely bundle electronic media with textbooks, which is often cited as a major reason for recent increases.

4. Institutional behavior
a. Nearly all institutions garner profits from owning and operating their own bookstores, or contracting the operation of their stores to outside firms.
b. College bookstores sell about half as many lower-margin used books as web-based bookstores do.
c. Increasing government financial aid to meet increasing book costs further increases textbook costs, because it creates a cycle of incentives for manufacturers and distributors to increase costs. It's one of the problems with fixing US healthcare, to use the prescription analogy again.
d. Textbook rental systems are one option that can save money, but they require significant up-front expenditures.
e. Non-profit bookstores are making headway, but this potentially reduces a short-term revenue stream for some institutions.
f. E-books are rapidly emerging as a viable option for reducing costs, but DRM makes reselling a big question mark from the consumer POV. If you buy a hardcopy used textbook for $100 and sell it back for $50, that's the same final cost as a non-transferable $50 e-book with DRM.

5. Student behavior
a. Students basically function as a captive consumer audience, like the Joads having to buy from the company store in Grapes of Wrath. Only those with the means or ingenuity to obtain textbooks from alternative sources do so.
b. 80% of students buy the faculty-prescribed books.
c. Internet textbook purchases (which account for 67% percent of used book sales) have greatly contributed to price elasticity and take sales away from bricks-and-mortar bookstores, causing them to recoup those losses by passing them on to the consumer in other forms.

6. Koch's suggested remedies
a. Teach the same editions longer
b. Unbundle supplementary materials
c. End prohibitions on reselling and re-importation
d. Publish textbook lists online early
e. Link to other booksellers for comparative shopping
f. Cut out the middleman
g. Establish nonprofit bookstores
h. Establish text rental systems
i. Encourage used textbook use
j. Patronize the Creative Commons

This last option is where things will head once consumers finally get fed up with this cartel and its antiquated business model. One of the main reasons I am a big Wikipedia chick is because systems like this textbook oligopoly are killing our culture. Check out our sister project Wikibooks or these other excellent open-source alternatives:


Flat World Knowledge

Open Source Text

Open Textbook

The best consumer-POV site on the topic is the "Affordable Textbooks" page from U.S. PIRG (Public Interest Research Group):


Congressional Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance: College Textbook Cost Study Plan Proposal

Summary of the hearing (see Session II)

Reply from Association of American Publishers, Inc.

Reply from National Association of College Stores

You have over $5 billion in purchasing power! Fight for your consumer rights!


  1. Don’t points 5a and 5c directly contradict one another? According to Koch (in the linker report), used book sales make up 35-40% of the market in dollar value. I can’t find the market share in terms of number of books, but given the lower price of used books, it’s probably safe to conclude that the majority of textbooks are purchased used. And the majority of these books are purchased online, not at a captive “company store”.

    In my department, we’ve stopped dealing with the school bookstore altogether; we just tell the students to go to Amazon or one of the used textbook sites. A number of enterprising students even get low-cost editions from Asian sites.

    1. @noah#1: They contradict each other in that students usually do one or the other: either a) they buy from the college bookstore out of convenience/ignorance of alternatives, or c) they buy elsewhere and increase the price elasticity.

  2. As an instructor, I am greatly annoyed that texts come out with new editions so often, making the price students can sell their use books drop, and forcing them into new books that have no used versions available. In some tech fields this might be justifiable, but in the humanities it’s just gouging.
    My Mass Communications text even has the gall to include a section explaining to students that it’s only their perceptions that books cost too much. Talk about self serving.
    I also find that traditional text books cost considerably more than consumer-oriented texts for computer graphics programs like Photoshop. I use such books whenever I can.
    Count me as one professor who does what he to keep student costs as low as possible.

    1. As a professor and textbook author, I’m a bit back and forth about the whole thing. But then again, my book only costs 20 bucks, and is a trade paperback. I always beg my students not to sell my book back, because I don’t get royalties off used sales. If my book cost 100 bucks instead of 20, I might feel differently, but then I’d get more money in royalties as well.

      I really appreciate this article.

  3. But if many/most students make their purchases elsewhere, it’s wholly inaccurate to describe them as a “captive consumer audience”, at least from the point of view of the bookstore. And the preponderance of used sales means that they aren’t captive to the publishers, either. If a student chooses to buy from the bookstore because it’s convenient, she’s not captive to the bookstore (as in a company store analogy); she’s making an informed consumer choice between two available alternatives.

    As for ignorance… I don’t think there are many 19-year-olds in America today who don’t know that they can buy books online. It’s pretty much been how bookselling has worked for their entire lives.

    1. @noah#3: I am summarizing Koch, who used the phrase “captive consumer audience” in the context of price sensitivity. One main issue is faculty behavior. Faculty who make packets often exclusively sell them bundled at the bookstore. Faculty do not always make their reading lists available in a timely manner, so the bookstore may be the first place students find the list. These behaviors in turn influence student behavior, dampening their price sensitivity. Of course they are aware of online book venues, but that doesn’t mean they are willing or able to take the extra steps and wait the extra time vs. grabbing it all while they’re getting their school t-shirt, etc. It’s the same way that poor people index higher for convenience store patronage. Avoiding complication and instant gratification are powerful motivational forces for many consumers.

    2. It seems that the students are not captives of the campus bookstores, so much as of the publishing and distribution quasi-oligopoy, as described in 3. These groups have powerful marketing influence on the faculty, the faculty assign the books, and the students are obliged to buy.

      In physics and mathematics, there are outstanding, inexpensive texts published in India and Europe (outside the control of the US publishing industry), but what professor has the time to search through all that material to find a good low-cost alternative? Instead, they tend to choose the good quality but expensive options that they are familiar with, and the students have to pay. In this way students are somewhat captive, though I don’t know if this was Andrea’s intended meaning in 5a.

  4. well my experience has been most of my collage books where written by my professors and its a way for them to make more money by requiring u buy there books for there class

    in this day an age of computers what is the point of publishing books like this just so the publishers can make money

    i tell u why proffers thing being published is the ultimate in there field and thats where they count there cu

  5. You forget one major point in terms of textbook selection by faculty: sometimes selection is made by committee. When this is the case, conflicts of interest are more easily addressed. In fact, there is only one course in our department which uses a textbook written by a faculty member, and it happens to be adopted nationwide for developmental writing, so it’s not just our institution force-feeding a faculty text to students.

    I teach English at a community college, and we select texts based on committees, especially for our core general education courses like College Composition and Introduction to Literature. We do consider price as a factor. We have a large course offering–we run nearly 100 sections of Composition I every term—and keeping track of individual textbook use of faculty would be a nightmare for all involved.

    For the past two years I’ve been teaching Honors Composition, I’ve managed to keep the costs of books to under $75 for six books by using trade paperbacks. The default textbook for non-Honors classes is $65. You can see the list of books I’m using this year here:

  6. At my school if you are getting financial aid, it is available at the school bookstore so that you can buy books like a store credit. If you want to be able to spend that money elsewhere you have to wait several weeks to get a paper check. So would that make for a semi-captive audience? If you want to get your books using your aid bucks and you want them before your classes start I think you only have one option at my school.

    I usually get my books used online and I usually ask the teachers if it would be possible to use the previous edition. As an example my trig book is in edition 9 and I’m using 8 because little other than the color scheme has changed. The older editions seem to cost about one tenth of the price.

  7. systems like this textbook oligopoly are killing our culture

    Finally, my Mental Floss “Hyperbole is the best thing ever!” t-shirt comes to use on BoingBoing.

    I don’t have any major complaints with the recommendations of Koch’s report. Regarding free samples, though, when trying to figure out a good text for a class, especially when the class covers a non-standard set of material, there’s just so much that can be gleaned without actually seeing a copy of the text. I’d be happy to return samples I don’t end up using, if to save bookshelf space if nothing else.

    1. @Paul Dreyer#5: Returning textbook samples: “Parenthetically, it should be noted that many faculty sell the examination copies of the textbooks they receive, but do not intend to use. If the copy of a textbook the faculty member has received for examination is in demand, then he/she will be paid 30 to 40 percent of the price of what the book would sell for new. The independent operators who purchase these examination copies then resell the book at its full price.”

  8. When I was in College less than 20% of the teachers actually ever used or referenced the textbooks we were required to have for the class.

  9. If you’ve never read Feynman on textbooks, its a real treat.

    Judging Books by Their Covers
    (skip the first part about advising the army)

    Pirated summary:
    In 1964 the eminent physicist Richard Feynman served on the State of California’s Curriculum Commission and saw how the Commission chose math textbooks for use in California’s public schools. In his acerbic memoir of that experience, titled “Judging Books by Their Covers,” Feynman analyzed the Commission’s idiotic method of evaluating books, and he described some of the tactics employed by schoolbook salesmen who wanted the Commission to adopt their shoddy products.

  10. You are absolutely right. This is why I think providing written materials should be part of the job description as a university instructor.

  11. Point 1b “Few organized markets exist where one party (faculty) chooses the product and another party (student) pays” is a great reason for also regulating the admission test market. Admission committees dictate which tests applicants have to take (SAT, ACT, GRE, GMAT, LSAT, MCAT, etc.), but students have to pay for the administration of those tests. If a student wants to do well and is not a natural test taker, he or she also has to pay lots of money for prep classes, materials, and tutoring. As with the test book market, a few organizations (e.g. ETS, ACT), control the entire market, collecting hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues each year. Perversely, many of these organizations have not-for-profit status and do not pay tax on their massive profits.

  12. I did my entire degree buying two textbooks. I just used that other great source of books: the library. Sit in there, write your own notes on the material and photocopy any particulally useful pages. I figured I can’t fit thousands of pages of information in my head, so summarising 90% of it in notes is effective for comprehension and remembering it.

    The only books I bought were those I was genuinely interested in and wanted to keep. My degree was architecture, YMMV.

  13. I had an instructor who required a text he wrote, revised annually, and made available only at one local print shop near the university I attended.

    In my end-of-term evaluation, I wrote that I considered a proprietary, non-resellable text to be a form of extortion.

    1. @MN_CAMERA:

      I wonder how much professors who do this earn in extra royalties. It can’t be that much compared to the misery and ill-will it generates in his students.

      What subject by the way? Business studies/economics? D:

  14. Many Math classes take their homework assignments directly from the textbook. Every edition released by the publisher has literally no new information (I can’t imagine very many discoveries in trigonometry make their way into textbooks each year), but all new homework assignments. So, that’s another way to force obsolescence.

  15. May I recommend international student versions of textbooks (for US students). International versions are identical in content but are paperback with different photos on the front. The publishers themselves tell you this. Instead of being 200 dollars they normally run about eighty. The problem is that it is technically illegal to sell these in the United States. Luckily several UK stores stock books that I need and ship them for free. I managed to spend 280 bucks this semester instead of 800 if I had bought them from good ole RPI.

  16. I’m continuing to use my second choice textbook for the electronic music course I teach because the baby-eating criminals at Prentice Hall insist on charging almost $120 for the small-format paperback text I like the most, while the book I use is about $30 from Oxford University Press. I teach at a public university and can’t see making students pay 4 times as much.

    Regarding the campus bookstore: I’ve been given to understand that some students shop there because that’s where they can spend their scholarship/aid money. I’m sure that’s not the case for all cases of aid, but for some they really are a captive audience.

  17. Interesting post.
    I just finished buying the books for the first half of the spring term about half an hour ago, and that was after comparison shopping for almost an hour between online retailers.

    Here in Europe we mostly get softcover books costing only a small part of what is charged in USA, many of my books have a “not for sale in USA” in them.
    As I understand it this happens because the cost of university in USA is so outrageous, and really only for upper-middle class or above, so adding a few hundred dollars cost in books is not considered that big a deal. The publishers have a higher margin on hardcovers.
    In europe most unis are cheap, in Sweden they’re all free. Book cost is one of the biggest visible costs we have. My total book cost per semester has been around $100. This is partly through planning on the teachers part, and partly because these books cost around half of what they’re sold in the USA.

  18. I marketed textbooks for a few years at Houghton Mifflin, and the only thing I’d emphasize in addition to the stuff above is that a faculty member’s point of contact with the textbook industry is always through a sales representative.

    A sales rep makes his or her salary and bonus by getting faculty to choose the most expensive package possible, and they do this by showing how a package helps the faculty member, not the student. Houghton Mifflin and other companies not only create the textbook but also the teacher guides, quizzes, tests, suggested syllabi–everything, especially for adjuncts, to be able to teach a college-level course. When I would work campus with a sales rep, 10% of the conversation with a faculty member was about what the book contained and what it cost–the other 90% was a variation on our saying, “Dr. Smith, this is how I can save you time and make your life easier.”

  19. Textbook rental is becoming an increasingly available option, both through college bookstores and online commercial firms. While we’ve had occasional satisfaction from Chegg, who claim to be the #1 textbook rental source, our last experience left us very unhappy and we will not use the firm again.

    While the catalogue entry for the textbook we chose listed the accompanying CD for lab exercises, and the invoice did as well, it arrived without the CD. Evidently there is a caveat elsewhere on the website saying additional materials may not be included, or may not work. Their customer service people did not care, and as the information on the CD was urgently needed, we had to buy it as an e-book from the publisher for an extra $50.

    I don’t know whether other online textbook rental sources play the same game. As with any online transaction, check for consumer complaints before doing business with an online firm.

  20. I teach at a fairly expensive private university and I think a lot of my students have their parents’ credit cards. They’re told they can buy books, and who knows what else, so they’ve got very little incentive to be price shoppers.

    Also, it is very difficult to get a straight answer on what can and cannot be used on Blackboard reserves. When I was a graduate student at a much larger public university the assumption was that articles the university pay for are fair game to share with students as long as it is behind a password protected wall. Also one chapter from a book and one article from a journal were considered fair academic use. Now that I’m at a smaller university the librarians are much more cautious about giving advice on academic use and I just use the advice I received from my old university and cross my fingers hoping that some disgruntled student doesn’t decide to make a stink about it. By using articles and chapters I think I probably save the students well over $100 per class.

  21. I think you should also look at the fact that some of these alternatives are for profit enterprises that seek only to sell a less expensive product. flatworld, for example, is an interesting model, but it is different than wikibooks.
    You should also look at models that allow individual instructors to ‘create their own’ materials that best reflect their individual approaches. is a great source for math materials for example. IN foreign language education, the ‘content based method’ is a way to teach that does not rely on any text, but relies on authentic content as a means to teach the language. Not only do you learn the language, but the culture as well. CAPL provides visual media for the elementary levels with free, authentic, and high quality images from around the world.
    Perhaps you could look into other models for the ‘do it yourself’ instructor who teaches with no text at all.

    1. @capl#26: My apologies! I totally meant to mention CAPL-type programs! The hazards of dashing off blog posts…

  22. Parenthetically, it should be noted that many faculty sell the examination copies of the textbooks they receive, but do not intend to use. […] The independent operators who purchase these examination copies then resell the book at its full price.

    Absolutely. I worked at an independently-owned textbook store for many years, and those sample textbooks were enormously profitable for my employer, much more so than books purchased through official channels — wholesale prices were only 20-30% off list prices, while sample copies could often be gotten for 50% off list. And while many professors brought their own boxes of books in, the publishers’ practice of distributing free samples additionally supported an informal network of freelance textbook brokers who personally visited the homes or offices of teachers who were unable/unwilling to bring the books to the store themselves. These brokers — odd, often habitually drunken characters who’d somehow stumbled into the knowledge of this improbable financial opportunity — would pay the teachers 50-75% of what a store would’ve, and would then bring the books into the store themselves for the big payout. A win-win-win situation! It’s been a decade since I was in the biz, but I assume versions of that scenario are still playing out in university towns across the country.

  23. Many public universities have policies such as the following (from the University of Iowa):
    Royalties from Course Materials

    Faculty members should not profit from recommending or requiring the purchase of course materials by their students. Faculty members should either refund the money to the students or make other arrangements to avoid profiting from their students’ use of the materials (e.g., transferring the funds to the UI Foundation).

    Also, they cannot accept gifts valued at greater than $3.
    Professors are not out to squeeze money from students: they don’t usually profit financially from using their own books.

  24. Students basically function as a captive consumer audience, like the Joads having to buy from the company store in Grapes of Wrath. Only those with the means or ingenuity to obtain textbooks from alternative sources do so.

    Not really. Students could begin to make textbook prices a higher priority when choosing a college. They could communicate to the colleges that this is important to them. Consumer groups could lobby faculty members to choose less expensive textbooks. Prices would come down if students started to attend colleges that offered lower priced textbooks.

  25. Faculty member here at a large research university.

    For what it’s worth: I’m lucky in that most major pieces in my field are in the public domain. Most of my stuff goes up on Blackboard, where the students can print in cheap and find it from any computer (and where I can observe their reading habits). Students in my courses have never had to spend more than $30 on texts for my class.

    That said, I don’t think this captures the dynamics of textbook selection at well, at least from the faculty side. We don’t care about the free books. Most of us get book budgets, and few of us use textbooks in our research. Those aren’t the problem.

    The reason we use the books publishers send us is that, at least at research universities, we don’t have a lot of time or energy to spend on textbook selection, because we don’t have a lot of time or energy to spend on teaching. Faculty at R1s are there to do research. We’re not there to teach – no matter how much we enjoy it. We take the books publishers send us because it’s easier, NOT because we get one more edition of Plato’s Republic (or what have you).

    (Of course, this is not intended as an apologia for the American system of public education. It has serious problems, of which this is one symptom.)

    I want to save time. If you want your professor to adopt different, more open textbooks, show them that doing so will save them time (no changing editions means lectures and syllabi stay more constant, easier access, &c.).

  26. Until I obtained my degree, I was an on-again/off-again student. Over the six years or so I spent in college, I saw this ugly new textbook-gouging tactic come into play: publishers bundle a CD with “study aids” like quizzes inside a textbook. The disc has an activation code, good for one activation only. Profs NEVER make us use these. Still, even if you don’t open the disc envelope or activate it, you can’t sell back the book because the plastic wrap from the package was removed. WTF? It’s a textbook, not a medieval virgin. And oh, how I adore buying textbooks online, except for when the professor doesn’t make the list available until the week classes start. For shame, if you show up without your book on the first day! And there’s always an assignment due next class, usually two days later, while you’re still waiting for your book to come in the mail.
    F it. I just hit Barnes & Noble and learn what I want to on my own now. Costs WAYYYY less, and I never get assigned to a lame group project.

  27. As much as education costs, it pays for itself many times over…it cost me about $20k for my masters program and I pretty much got an extra $15k a year because of this (without considering too much else because I really haven’t had time to do much consulting on the side lately…decided to push the education further and it is limiting my current potential).

    So….$20k vs. $15k a year…it pays for itself in a little over a year and a few if I continue to live at my current lifestyle and pay the loan off.

    Education is really not that expensive in the US compared to what you get out of it.

    In the last 5 years, the most expensive book I picked up was a $300 chemistry book that is for a two semester course. It came with web resources that have the best interactive teaching materials that I’ve ever seen for a course like this. If I sell the book, I can’t sell the web resources, but this can be bought for about $40 a semester. All in all, $150 is not that much for a course that is going to give me what I want.

    At the same time, I know a lot of my courses didn’t even touch a lot of the materials we were given…luckily, I’m not a dumbass that burns his papers and sells his books the minute finals are over. I’ve gone back to these untouched books and realized I could have had a MUCH better grade if I would have read them. I gotta keep telling myself YOU ARE IN COLLEGE, THE INSTRUCTOR DOESN’T NEED TO WIPE YOUR ASS AND TELL YOU WHAT TO DO EVERY MINUTE OF THE DAY. It is funny, I flunked out of college the first (and maybe second) time I did it…these days, I have a full time job, quite a few other commitments, and I still got an A because I read the books that were not assigned in class (but were on the syllabus). Wasn’t that hard either…

    Crazy how people that don’t value education also don’t see the value in text books…almost everyone that complains about the price are also the ones screaming about resale value. I might give a book away to a friend, but I have never, nor do I think I will ever sell a book (ok…I sold some when I was 18 and an idiot…but that was a lifetime ago and thus I don’t consider myself a hypocrite!!!)

  28. What a bunch of myths.

    The vast majority of books written by faculty members make those faculty members less than minimum wage. The vast majority of books written by faculty members are not textbooks. It is possible to make lots of money by writing one of the very small number of highly successful texts for big introductory classes. The competition for that niche is intense.

    Publishers are the ones who push for frequent revisions of textbooks, because (as reps have told me) within 3 years sales of a text drop to effectively zero because of the used book market. Most bookstores won’t sell used books other than the latest edition.

    A good textbook provides something for the student that is difficult to get anywhere else — a different voice to complement that of the teacher in the course. A good textbook used well (and they are not always so used) provides an even more valuable resource: a learning experience that changes the course from just listening to listening and doing.

    And the idea of the faculty, rubbing their hands together and chortling over the supply of free textbook samples from the evil publishers reps is … well, I’m chortling.

    1. To be fair, I hadn’t thought of reselling the review copies until she mentioned it. Particularly because of the “Examination Copy: Not For Resale” stamped on the front cover of most of them.

      1. @Paul Dreyer#35: That’s stamped on there because your more enterprising colleagues resell freebies, and a stern warning still doesn’t stop everyone. See comment #28. Not everyone on faculty is as righteous as the anecdotal evidence from you and ecologist#34 would suggest.

        1. So, are you trying to say that the fact that faculty sell off the examination copies of books they’ve decided not to use makes them more likely to use those books they’ve decided not to use?

          1. @Anonymous#48: No, I’m saying they’re more likely to use the rep or publisher who provided it. Any Marketing 101 textbook can provide details on the phenomenon (if you can afford it).

          2. I’m glad the guestbloggers can be as snarky as the posters.

            Every publishing company has provided me review copies upon request while I’ve been figuring out textbooks for my course. So, yeah, there’s an awfully high correlation between companies that provide review copies and books I use for my course. For that matter, I have trouble imagining a publisher, no matter how small, denying such a request. I’m not entirely clear how educators are supposed to make informed textbook decisions or how publishers are supposed to market their books without review copies.

            Review books, CDs, DVDs, etc. are par for the course in publishing, academic or not. They are not inherently evil.

  29. You forgot to mention the nice little side deal that faculty get by selling back the books they get from the publishers that they don’t use.

  30. I stopped requiring a text for my college courses many semesters ago. I thought a text was archaic with so much online material available.

    What I’ve found is that students steadfastly refuse to use the internet in lieu of the book for research. Odd, but true. They simply stop in their tracks when they have a question on process. The answer is just a google away but, time after time, the students admit that they don’t look.

    My children often exhibit this same behavior. They surf all day long but do think to go to the net for the answer of specific questions.

  31. One of the best examples of the disconnect between professors and the books they assign was my 101 psych class… The professor had us buy a “coverless” version of the book that was three hole punched, since this was supposedly slightly cheaper than the hard cover version. Only problem was you *can’t sell back the coverless copy*! Therefore, the coverless version actually costs more than the hard cover in the end. I think there’s a major detachment between academia and the reality of being a student.

  32. I agree that there is a bit of a scam going on in textbook marketing. I question your assumption that faculty are generally complicit in an evil conspiracy.

    Most faculty I’ve talked to -do- consider book costs, as I do, too. Contrary to post #22, most of my students are middle/working/lower class, or poor, which is typical for public colleges and universities in the U.S. (but I agree that costs should be -much- lower).

    Publishers put out new editions every three or four years so they’re not competing with the used book market for their own books. I asked our bookstore to order an earlier edition but apparently they’re no long available at that point. When I use a textbook (I usually use trade books), I now tell students to get any major text published within the last five years or so. The drawback with that is that they have to figure out for themselves what parts of the book apply to the material we’re covering.

    My impression is that our bookstore makes little if any money off textbooks. I know that on many, they lose money because of the costs of shipping unsold books back to the publisher. Books are sold in the campus bookstore for the students’ convenience. Many (most?) do get them elsewhere, including from the library.

    A free copy of yet another textbook is not a major perk for faculty. Some of them are still shrink-wrapped on my shelf. Some guy comes around at the end of the term offering to buy books; he doesn’t get any business in my corridor at least. As many (most?) of my colleagues do, I give my surplus books to students, or to the local “books for prisoners” program. (By the way, many are marked by the publisher “faculty copy, not for resale.”)

    Faculty I’ve known who use books that they wrote have told me they only make a few hundred a year from them. I’ve only written chapters, for which I was paid nothing, or $100, or got to order a few free books from the publisher.

    If I prepare a collection of reprints, chapters, etc., in advance to distribute to the students, I am required by copyright law to sell it in the bookstore rather than handing it out for free. If it’s an article or chapter that I’ve planned in advance to use, written it into the syllabus, etc., Title 17 states that it’s not “fair use” and that copyright fees should be paid (like most faculty, I stretch that one).

    Some people seem to find it hard to imagine, but the great majority of faculty do what they do because they find their subject fascinating and important, and they believe in education.

    1. @Anonymous#40: I am not suggesting complicity or collusion by faculty. I am stating that marketing tactics affect faculty behavior and giving examples. Many faculty are either blissfully unaware, or they’re unwilling to acknowledge, that they are engaging in behavior that is problematic from a consumer activist point of view.

      1. From a market standpoint I’ve always wondered why faculty don’t figure out a way to capture more of the textbook profit. If bookstores and publishers are gaining financially from fleecing students it seems only reasonable for faculty to ask for a greater share of the pie since they are a very important agent in the process. If it’s ethical for publishers to put out new editions every year why isn’t it ethical for me, when considering two textbooks of similar prices and qualities, to ask the two publishers what is in it for me? Such an action would obviously be frowned upon and perhaps an offense that would get me fired but I would guess this has more to do with the publishers not wanting to share than morals of any sort.

      2. another post from #40 (it gave me an error message, so i’ll try splitting this into two). Here’s part 1:

        To say they’re “unwilling to acknowledge” implies that they’re complicit. Alternatively, because there are many other demands on their time and energy, they pick their battles. As for “blissfully unaware”, I can assure you that the majority of faculty are more intelligent, more aware, and more ethical than you seem to think.

        You take a poke at a couple of posts here for their “anecdotal evidence.” You have no evidence at all, beyond a couple of “studies have shown” statements, which usually mean “I think I read it somewhere but I can’t remember where or when” — hardly a reliable source. You’re entirely going off of what you surmise.

        That’s one of the problems with the blogosphere. Anybody with an opinion and access to a computer can “publish” anything they want. I’m willing to believe that your intentions are good, but you’re criticizing a group of people whom you know little or nothing about, and with whom you have not consulted for this article. But what bothers me most is the reduction of education to a consumer commodity, and the promotion of the idea that students should be, above all, thrifty shoppers.

        That sort of thinking is an insidious poison that has contaminated our educational system. Under this model, universities have a commodity, degrees, that the students strive to attain for a good price, i.e., the lowest investment of time and energy and the minimal demonstration of learning necessary to obtain the degree. Examinations, writing assignments, etc., become mere tokens in this process. One of my greatest challenges in teaching is to get students to realize it isn’t a matter of putting out the minimum necessary to score the points, it’s about their own learning and, secondarily but necessarily, showing me that they’re learning. Unfortunately, our society at large doesn’t understand the difference between education and job training.

        1. @Anonymous#54/55: A brief reply to your multipart comment: I don’t think denial is necessarily complicity. Email me if you’d like to have an etymological debate. As far as sourcing, I clearly stated that the entire post is a summary of Koch’s 2006 congressional report and clearly linked the citation at the top and bottom of the post. Here it is again:

          If you have problems with the facts cited, please take that up with Dr. Koch. I am a consumer activist, and I do see academia as a consumer issue. Education, as you note, is not the same thing as academia, which is merely one way someone can obtain an education. My point is that in the realm of textbooks, many faculty do NOT “live in the same world as everyone else,” since 42% don’t know the costs of their assigned books (again, citations in Koch), and others think that course packets are a cheaper alternative, when in fact sometimes they are not. Academic degrees are a commodity and an industry, and attempts to untether academia’s lofty aims from its economic realities leads to factoids like 42% of professors not knowing the costs of their books. Academics often take any criticism of an aspect of their institution as an indictment of their career choice or of them personally. Professors are not above criticism, and I don’t think my criticism is unfounded. This post is limited to criticizing U.S. academic textbook marketing politics from a consumer activist point of view. My goal is to get everyone thinking about what they can do about this problem, given all that purchasing power. The myriad problems of academia you think I should be fixing instead will have to wait for another time.

          1. “Academics often take any criticism of an aspect of their institution as an indictment of their career choice or of them personally.”

            Wow. Where did you go to school?

          2. @OoOoOo#64: I did my graduate work at University of Chicago and lecture all over the country. When I write about or discuss controversies in academia, someone often retorts indignantly, “Well, *we* don’t do those things,” or they say I’m anti-intellectual or engaging in journalistic malpractice or other irrelevant nonsense.

          3. number 40/54/55 here again –

            Yes, sorry, you did cite that report. But your initial comments seem to me to assume a lot about what motivates professors, and I think you’re wrong. “Academic degrees are a commodity and an industry” for those who choose to approach it that way, and that approach is precisely what leads to some of the problems you’re talking about.

            I’m not talking about “untether[ing] academia’s lofty aims from its economic realities”. I’m talking about not abandoning those aims just because economics matter. They are not mutually exclusive.

            As for word games, no, I don’t want to play. I think we both understood each other, and I get no ego strokes from scoring points here.

            I’m simply trying to offer a professor’s perspective on what we really think about these matters. I hope that students can understand that we’re not (all) part of a big corporate machine that’s out to fleece them blind, and that education is more than a prolonged and elaborate hazing ritual. We’re not the enemy and, regarding real education, we’re often more on their side than they are themselves.

      3. #40 again here. Here’s part 2:

        Real education includes the acquisition of factual knowledge, and the development of skills of reading, criticizing, analyzing, synthesizing, and presenting, whether through writing, equations, artwork, etc. But that’s not enough. The fundamental aim of all real education is to transform the students’ concept of themselves, from being consumers of knowledge to being participants in the creation of new understanding.

        A preemptive comment: please spare me from supercilious lectures on “what the real world is like.” The “ivory tower” is a myth — faculty live in the same world as everyone else, subject to the same demands and limitations as everyone. We’re aware of the evils of the system, both necessary and unnecessary.

        If you really want to make a contribution, how about some agitating around the fact that our support for education is both woefully lacking, and declining? Tuition is too high and is increasing too fast and, outside of recent demonstrations in the University of California system, not even students seem to care.

        Another major problem is virtually ignored: the massive growth in the use of adjuncts for teaching over the last 25 years. It’s a shrewd maneuver for the education-as-commodity thrifty-shopper model: adjuncts are paid far less and rarely get benefits. Many are putting in fifty-hour weeks making $20-something thousand per year, teaching a few credits at each of several institutions, sitting in traffic with the students’ papers in the trunk of the car when they could be reading students’ work, preparing for class, etc. It’s a ploy that shows little respect for education, and even less for adjunct faculty as real human beings with real lives.

        But that’s the natural consequence of viewing education as just a commodity.

  33. When I was a student I studied abroad at a public university in one of the English speaking West African countries. There the professors commandeered all of the recently published texts and the library didn’t have much published since independence and even that was often times misplaced on the shelves. Since Profs knew students wouldn’t, or perhaps couldn’t, buy even the moderately priced international paperback versions of text books there were no assigned texts in most classes. If a topic was brought up in class students were simply expected to do their best outside of class to educate themselves on this topic because it was fair game for the final exam. This model would be cheaper for the students and less work for the professor but would require students to show more motivation and intellectual interest than many of my students have demonstrated.

  34. I am both a PHD student and an instructor.
    As a PHD student, buying textbooks makes sense to me, because I don’t intent on selling them anyway. Whenever I need a text for a short period, I just use the library or look for a replacement online.

    As an instructor, I find it hard to ask students, who have already committed themselves to enormous debt just for their tuition, to buy books at $100 a book. And for what? a 3 months quarter or maybe two quarters at best? I encourage my students to buy used-books and look for books online, as the university bookstore is usually more expensive than the alternative. I encourage the use of older editions (after all, Newton Laws haven’t changed since Newton). I also attach links to online references, if they exist.

    However, I would like to add another point of view to this discussion. I studied for my B.S. and M.S. at the Technion, in Israel, which is considered to be of good academic reputation. In all my studies there I never had to use a textbook. That’s right – I did not buy even a single textbook. How? My professors taught in such a way that all the material was either self-contained in the lectures, or they made the material available at the cost of printing it. Nowadays, when class notes are posted online this cost is reduced to zero. Also, assignments were given without the use of textbooks.
    I think that if US professors used a similar teaching method, students could elect whether they want to buy the book or rely on the lecture notes alone, and as a result the students would become less of a “captive consumer audience”. Just having this alternative will help reduce the costs of textbooks.

  35. Students are a captive audience in the sense that they are ‘required’ to buy the books as the post suggests in the same way that patients are ‘required’ to buy prescribed drugs. More of a strong sugestion that a requirement but still captive audience is a reasonable claim to make. Further more faculty are strongly encouraged to keep text books ‘up-to-date’ meaning that students may not be able to purchase used copies. When an undergraduate I had a one year turn around on textbooks meaning that the second hand market was non existent. Now as a staff member setting texts I create my own reader sets from journal articles and book chapters – much more reading and prep time on my behalf but it cuts out the textbook market and means students can look up readings in the library if they don’t want to purchase the reader. The other problem with text books is the ideology factor – really I think it is better for students to go and read for themselves. In most cases there are important texts that they should read and they don’t really need a textbook to explain it for them.

  36. The only joke of Jay Leno’s that I can really recall was him talking about being in a college bookstore and noticing the idiocy of there being a new Latin text book every year, perhaps neccesitated by the need for the Latin of “McNugget”.

    1. That’s because you have never looked closely at a Latin book. The texts to ne read are changed to make them mire relevant to current students; the Julius Caesar on warfare texts that 1920s students read are gradually replaced by texts about social life in the ancient world.

      1. to anon at #49
        Replacing them EVERY YEAR (as his admittedly likely untrue example utilized for comic effect) is different then expecting 1920 era texts to be currently suitable.

  37. The new scam the text book companies are pushing off on us is to set up online materials that require a password contained in the books. Once the password in the book is used it becomes deactivated, making it impossible for another student to use the textbook and therefore unqualified for resale. These websites also function as the medium through which students obtain and turn in homework assignments. Several of my professors have used books with these bogus passwords in them, which prevents me from simple checking the materials out at the library, and from recouping any of my losses through resale.

  38. In most cases, I don’t understand people calling a teacher who prescribes their own book self serving.

    Look: if you bothered to write an entire book, wouldn’t you be highly likely to think it is the best book on a subject, or at least the one most apt for the angle you are trying to teach?

    I would think it was weird if a professor wrote a book and *didn’t* think it was worth teaching from.

    I realize there might be cases where a single professor is being self serving, but in most cases it makes an awful lot of sense for them to teach from what they wrote. After all, they (presumably) wrote it for a reason…

    1. “Look: if you bothered to write an entire book, wouldn’t you be highly likely to think it is the best book on a subject, or at least the one most apt for the angle you are trying to teach?”

      In my experience as a student, one of the most useful things a textbook can provide is a viewpoint or way of explaining a concept DIFFERENT from that presented in lecture. Most professors teach their class and write their lecture notes in much the same way they wrote their books. This makes the book itself redundant when used by the professor that wrote it.

  39. “You forgot to mention the nice little side deal that faculty get by selling back the books they get from the publishers that they don’t use.”

    That never even occurred to me. I leave my extra evaluation copies on a table outside my office, free for the taking. And that’s exactly what I’ll continue to do.

  40. You should check out the University of Alaska Fairbank’s system, it’s far more fair then SUNY or the U of Oregon. Profs make a point of reusing large text books as long as they are current – namely Physics, Chem, O Chem, Biology, Economics, etc for most classes. For most classes there is no need to change textbooks year to year and the campus bookstore purchases good textbooks at 75% of new price most of the time (or the price paid when purchased) and resells them at nearly that price.

    Since UAF has to import all new books, and one year we lost a load at sea – the barge toppled that container – it’s most economical to minimize textbook changes and re-use/resell extensively. A typical spring I’d sell unneeded textbooks and pretty much have enough for the drive to Haines and the ferry ride home. In other words, UAF already addressed this issue and I believe did so in an economical and just manner.

  41. 22 some odd yrs ago, during my freshman year, I worked in a print shop for an engineering firm, and regularly stayed late to get ‘work’ finished on a huge kodak duplicator! ARRrrrr! Textbook in one end, paper in the middle, and finished books out the other end. I think I was the only student to turn a profit my 1st year…

  42. I bought one book while at university, the rest of the time I used the library or the WWW, or borrowed from one of the few people who actually did buy all the recommended books.

    It’s available in international paperback edition for £38 ($61) (roughly what I paid), or US hardback edition for $137.

  43. I spent 595$ on textbooks last semester alone. That’s four courses. I’ve got another four this semester. Times four years. Selling the textbook back to the book shop is an option that many people take, but they usually only give you 20-30% of the original value, regardless of its quality. Then they sell it back to students at 80-90% of the original price. It is common for students to resell books on their own, but it’s rather difficult organization-wise. Plus, for me anyways, there’s a certain sense of guilt in asking for 60$ for a book that you don’t even want anyways, even when it cost you 150$ to start out with. There is a student union run bookstore that offers better resell prices on used textbooks in competition, but it’s not a seriously significant difference when you’re talking about a 200$ textbook.

    A lot of my profs do their best to make sure you can use an older edition of the textbook, nearly all will mention it in the first lecture or in the course outline the differences between the newest and the older. Unfortunately, many go in for these Courseware books, which are cheaply-bound photocopies of stuff they need to pay royalties on. If you can imagine a 2cm thick piece of black and white A4 which you cannot resell or even RETURN to the book store unused and then are charged up to 60$ for. Ridiculous. But you have to have it, because the prof is going to be referring to exactly that section of that edition of that text. I do wish my profs would go the illegal/cc-licensed/gutenburg project way.

    My statistics prof last year explained that often the only reason why textbooks are so expensive and new editions come out so often is because they don’t get any money from used books, which you have pointed out makes up a lot of sales. They reshuffle some chapters and write a few little updates every four years and then slap a new cover on it.

    I have in fact never taken a course where the prof’s name was on the textbook, despite the fact that I’ve had some fairly eminent professors who have written books (according to Google Scholar) on their fields of interest. Perhaps its more common in the USA, versus Canada, where universities on a whole are slightly less corporation-like.

  44. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that students have taken matters into their own hands and scanned most major textbooks and posted them on torrent sites. I’m not condoning it, but when you choose to gouge your captive market, it’s only a matter of time until your market turns on you.

  45. I’m a graduate student and I teach my own classes.

    I copy all the articles and essays etc. that I want students to read and turn them into PDFs and post them on bSpace or Blackboard where students can either choose to read online or print out the material.

    Before Blackboard and bSpace, (and even now) all TAs, GSIs, Instructors and Profs submit all the reading materials for the class to the library to be available on 2 hour reserve. Students can take the books to Krishna Copy or somewhere and make .03 cent per page copies of the book.

    Sometimes we just make “readers” that include all the course readings in double-sided xerox form, bound, and which cost whatever the xeroxing and binding cost (usually around 40 dollars). One of these is on reserve too, and can be read in the library.

    If you need to actually BUY a high-priced biology textbook, say, go buy one of those 20 dollar food-saver plastic shrink wrap systems “as seen on TV” – buy the book, open it, xerox it or take pictures of each of the pages with your iPhone or digital camera – and shrink wrap it back up. Or maybe you have a friend who works in a used record store with a shrink wrap machine. People who are paid minimum wage at a university bookstore aren’t trained in the forensic analysis of plastic wrap. Bring it back in time to get the full refund.

    Or make a new friend in class and say “Hey, I’ll give you 20 bucks if you let me take pictures of your textbook.

    Professors make very little money on textbooks. I have a friend who, along with 2 other authors, has written the only textbook for exobiology currently in use. His publisher sells it to bookstores for 40 dollars, the bookstores sell it for 80 dollars – for each book sold he gets $2.82.

    I don’t know a single professor who sells back desk copies. Usually they are given away in boxes in the hall.

    There are all sorts of peer-to-peer sites on the web now where you can download a pirated, scanned and PDF’d copy of the latest textbooks.

    I haven’t actually seen a good professor use a textbook for years, except maybe in a basic “Intro to” class.

    I don’t personally know of a single school bookstore that is owned by the school. Usually a company is leasing that space from the University. In rare cases it is a student-run co-op, but to say the University makes money from selling textbooks is news to me.

    There are plenty of ways to avoid giving your money to the book publishers.

  46. I wanted to share a couple of thoughts, speaking as a librarian with professional experience in both academic and public library settings.

    I got my start in Academic Reserves at a top-tier private research university. Academic Reserves are the library departments that hold hard copies of books and articles that are being used in the current semester’s courses, and they circulate for very short periods (typically a 3 hour loan – just long enough to read or photocopy, then bring it back for the next kid in line). But Reserve copies don’t just appear on the shelves automatically – the instructors have to take a moment to learn how the process works in the library, and how far the institution is willing to push the limits of Fair Use for articles and electronic reserves – and then let the department know each semester what books and articles they will be teaching. Some instructors are willing to take the time to use the Academic Reserves departments of their libraries; but many are happy to defer the expense to their students.

    I worked briefly in a community college library, and it was, in a word, impossible to get instructors (most of whom were part-time adjunct instructors with full time day jobs in their professions) to even let us know what books they would assign for their courses, so we could have a couple for check out.

    I’ve been in public libraries for about 5 years now, and I find it very telling that, even for a giant municipal library like the one that I’m at now, with a multimillion dollar materials budget, academic textbooks are statutorily defined as falling beyond the scope of our collection. Although a small percentage of our public (that is, students) would love it if we had all of their books, the library board understands that we would go broke trying to keep up with the academic textbook racket, and doesn’t even try. Judging from my experience looking up some titles on WorldCat, neither public NOR academic libraries spend a lot of money keeping current editions of this stuff.

    1. thatbob, you’re spot on as to why libraries simply can’t keep up with textbooks, and most choose not to. Our public library has a test prep section where we have books for people who are taking civil service exams, like firefighter, police, etc., as well as a few popular books that get requested, like the COMPASS test. Those sections get completely cleaned out in a matter of days when the recruitments are announced, but the tests are over within a month of the announcements, and other nearby libraries also stock those same test books. Now imagine trying to keep up with hundreds of students wanting to borrow textbooks for months at a time, and trying to swap out those texts every time a new edition is released, or the book is replaced. You would rip your hair out.

      Regarding reselling textbooks, there is an interesting ongoing thread about a major textbook reseller on amazon. The most frequently mentioned name is NBS. They seemingly purchase used texts from amazon independent sellers, then find something wrong with the book (rightly or wrongly) and tell the seller they can’t use it. You must pay them to return the text within a certain period of time, and if you don’t respond quickly enough, they declare your book abandoned and keep it. While there may be some sellers that send unusable books, the proportion seems high, and a great way to turn a tidy profit for the reseller.

  47. I’m surprised by the negative comments about teacher-written 3-hole punch books–to me they seem like a good answer to the textbook cost problem. When some colleagues and I co-wrote a lab manual for a joint course we dropped the student price from $65 to $15. No way was anyone going to resell the old lab book for $50. And the binder’s worth $3, students can reuse that. Depending on copy costs, our department makes around $1 a book (roughly $80 a semester), but that goes into a fund for teaching materials, so it gets plowed back into student education anyway.

  48. The problem of rampant pricing and oligopolic-ish tendencies in market X has a simple solution: rampant piracy of the products in market X. It has worked well for music and movies. Why would textbooks be any different? 2010 is set to be the year ebook readers broke big. Buckle up!

  49. If you really want to make a contribution, how about some agitating around the fact that our support for education is both woefully lacking, and declining? Tuition is too high and is increasing too fast and, outside of recent demonstrations in the University of California system, not even students seem to care.

    Drifting slightly off to the side of the topic, I’ve never understood the idea of charging a student for taking a degree or similar course.

    It seems to me that there are two basic outcomes of doing a degree, depending (simplification coming up, don’t get all huffy on details) on the subjects
    a) technical degrees and business/legal tend to result in the student going on to make a larger than average income and thereby paying more than average taxes and contributing more than averagely to the economy
    b) art and social-work degrees tend to result in the student making rather less money. One can argue that they make a bigger contribution to culture but let us not do that right now.

    If you do the more-money thing then you pay more taxes. You pay more to your country for the rent on your spot on the planet. You contribute to the cost of educating future generations of students. If you do the less-money thing then how the hell would you pay back a student loan anyway?

    Education is a social good that pays off for everyone in the medium and long term. If that seems like socialism in your view of the world then I’m sorry for you – perhaps if you think of education as the first crucial tier in a defence policy it might make you more comfortable.

    1. Tim (#69) – good points. I think you make a persuasive case. I’d vote for it.

      I would only add that for many of us, degrees in basic sciences (including graduate degrees) don’t necessarily result in a big increase in income unless the area of work is engineering, medicine, or agribusiness.

  50. For the last three semesters at my community college, books have cost me more than tuition. Part of what I’ve bought becomes lost with programs like MyMathLab. All my trigonometry homework that was assigned online has expired. I just found that out recently when I tried to review some sections that were not covered in class for my upcoming physics course. Now, in calculus, my professor isn’t using MyMathLab. We get to use the same book for three semesters, but the book only has about 20 problems per section. To remedy that I didn’t have enough problems, my professor gave me 3 of those promotional texts. Thank you for bringing attention to this issue. I heart wonky!

  51. You seem to think Professors etc, are outside of the loop of prices, while roughly 1/2 may not know the exact price, they have an understanding of the general prices. This is because they suffer in a similar system. They have to buy many low profit, little published, books for their work. These are usually as expensive if not more expensive than text books, and are just as much required.

    Additionally, you overlook that the really expensive text books are not across the board a necessity. This is especially true after introductory level courses.

    More and more professors also make a point to students to buy used and to check ebay, often allowing generous leeway for shipping times. While they don’t choose books based on price, they usually do their best to tell students the best way to get the books they need.

  52. It is ludicrous to suggest that the free text books that faculty get are an unwarranted influence. For one thing, all publishers give them out, so there is no reason to choose one over the other. Secondly, what would we do with the free texts? Build an addition to our homes by stacking them up?

    I request texts to see if they are minimally qualified and then I order the cheapest one. Any deficiencies can be remedied by additional readings or in lecture. In reality I find little difference between the texts: there is practically a chapter to chapter correspondance between the texts I reviewed for classes this semester. Last year, I got stuck assigning a $105 text because I started late (at a Community College, so the tuition for the course was $60). And this was one of those that was revised every year: pretty much the same, but with different homework problems – and more chance for errors to creep in (Balance sheets that didn’t, wrong animal for Chinese New Year…)

    This semester my texts all cost about $55 each. I figure that is about equivalent or better than the cost of books when I was in school. They all come from the major publishers, so you can’t say they aren’t trying to reduce costs.

  53. Just a few observations from a professor:

    First, the price of textbooks is too high, especially when they are purchased through the campus bookstore. Many of my students order their textbooks from online booksellers rather than using the campus bookstore; but, even then, the prices can still be quite high. I like to assign lots of reading, especially in my upper-level courses, but I always have to be cautious about assigning too many texts because I know that the cost will be prohibitive for many students. And there have been several times when I have wanted to assign a particular text but have chosen not to because I felt it was just too expensive. I usually end up assigning lots of readings that are available online as .pdfs that can be downloaded for free. But I’d definitely assign more textbooks if the prices were more reasonable.

    I’ve noticed recently that some textbook publishers are marketing their textbooks as “affordable” — so maybe they’re starting to get the message. And keep in mind that publishers market their books to instructors and institutions, not to students; so apparently their new marketing strategy is a response to the fact that many instructors and institutions do care about the cost of textbooks.

    I’m one of those ubergeeks who has never (intentionally) gotten rid of a book in my life. My home library fills one entire room in my house, and has spilled over into most of the other rooms as well. Perhaps I’m just a pathological book hoarder; but I don’t think I’m all that different from other professors. The sort of people who become professors are folks like me who think that textbooks are for keeping, not for reselling; so we tend not to factor resale value into account when making our textbook choices.

    I’ll let you in on a little secret: One of the main reasons why professors change texts so often is simple boredom. If you teach the same course over and over again, year after year, it gets kinda boring. The only way to keep yourself from going crazy is to change things up every now and then. Using a new textbook is a great way to keep the course fresh for the professor.

    Where I teach, the department chooses a standard text for intro-level courses; but the professors choose their own texts for their other courses. I think that’s a fairly common practice. When I’m deciding which texts to assign for my courses, I base my decision on how well those texts present the material that I feel needs to be covered. It is very rare for a single text to cover all of the material that I feel ought to be covered; so I’ll usually assign at least two textbooks (sometimes more for upper-level courses), supplemented by many online readings. My decision about which texts to use is based almost entirely on the quality of the available texts (though, as I said, I do try to factor affordability into account). Yes, I am influenced by the publishers who send me advertising and examination copies. Advertising makes me aware of new texts in my field, and examination copies allow me to evaluate a text to see how well I like it. But my final decision is based on the quality of the text itself. If I’m sent an examination copy of a new textbook that I like better than the one I’m currently using, I’ll switch to it. (Recall what I said earlier about boredom.) But I’ve never felt pressured by a publisher to adopt a new text; and I certainly would not adopt a new text unless I felt that it was superior to the one I was using. In fact, at times I have insisted on using really old texts (published decades ago) because I felt that they were superior to the ones published more recently.

    And it makes perfect sense to me why professors would assign texts that they have written. Every time I try to find texts for one of the courses I’m teaching I get frustrated, because none of the texts on the market covers exactly what I feel needs to be covered, or handles the material exactly the way I would. So I often wish I had the time to write my own textbook for the course, tailored specifically to how I plan to teach the course. I would even be willing to provide a .pdf version of the text to my students for free. Professors who assign their own texts are not motivated by greed (the royalties they would get from assigning the text to their own students would be paltry). Rather, they are motivated by a desire to have a suitable text for use in their course.

  54. In the mid-late 90’s, I managed the textbook department at a university bookstore in Virginia. Here are a few observations:

    1. We only marked up textbooks 10% from the price that we paid for them (this was standard among most university bookstores). For example, if a textbook cost us $80 from the publisher, we sold it to students for $88. That meant our profit was only $8 for that textbook.

    2. The only textbooks we purchased were those that were ordered by the professors. At no time did we go through a list of textbooks and choose more expensive versions, nor did we have any influence over which textbooks the professors chose. In order to estimate how many new versus used versions of textbooks to order, we used past sales, experience, and availability of used books. Buying a huge number of used books was a risky gamble — if we ordered too many, we often could not return them or would have to sell them back to the wholesale textbook companies at a vastly reduced price. Students did not universally want used textbooks, especially IF those textbooks were part of a package.

    3. We could not return to the publisher an unsold textbook package (textbook/workbook/supplementary materials) IF the package had been opened. Depending on when the student returned it, we *might* have been able to discount the package a little bit and resell it. But if the student tried to return the book after all the other students had bought their textbooks for that semester — AND we accepted the return — the bookstore would have to write off the entire cost of the package ($80 in the above example), or sell it back to a wholesale company IF there was demand for that textbook. Large stickers on the textbook packages indicated that it could not be returned if opened (these stickers were put there by the publisher, but we also placed a sticker on each package stating the same thing). Nevertheless, it was little comfort to a student who had decided to drop a class after having already opened the package.

    4. During the buyback period, we used a laptop from a wholesale textbook company (and not our own bookstore computers) to buy back students’ textbooks. We would enter the ISBN of a textbook into the laptop and see if it was in demand by any of the other university bookstores that wholesale company dealt with. This means that, if a university bookstore anywhere had placed an order for that particular used textbook, we (the bookstore) could buy it back at a price set by the wholesale company. This buyback price fluctuated over the week of buyback due to demand (sort of like the stock market). If it was in high demand and not many students were selling that textbook back for whatever reason, the buyback price could be relatively high (say, $60 in the above example). But, if there was little demand, that price could only be $10 (or nothing, if a new edition was coming out and no professor had requested that particular edition *anywhere*). The money we received from the students went to the wholesale book company and not to the bookstore. In some cases, if a professor had the foresight to place their order early, we could buy back textbooks directly for resell in the bookstore — in this case, we always offered more money than the wholesale book company because it was cheaper for us to do so.

    5. The “cash cow” for our bookstore was not textbooks but branded merchandise. Where the markup on textbooks was only 10%, the markup for official university sweatshirts and other clothing was sometimes 200% (i.e., if a sweatshirt cost the bookstore $20 from the manufacturer, it could be marked up to $60).

    6. After all overhead was paid, any profit was turned back over to the university for general scholarship use.

  55. BookMatchers Inc launched successfully in August matching over 1,000 books at the Claremont Colleges in southern California. The company’s websites are absolutely free and create a self sustaining community on each campus. The company recently launched their sister website CollegeMatchers. The website is open to students at every middle school, high school, and college campus worldwide. I’m a student and recommend checking it out.

    Book Exchange (

    Marketplace (

  56. I taught a course on microprocessor design once as an external instructor for University of Colorado.

    You can imagine the look on the students faces when I told them that the only “textbook” for the course was the 68K databook from Motorola. Oh, and by the way, Moto sent me a box of 30 of them because they’d really like you to buy their stuff when you graduate from this place.


  57. For those interested, an offsite rejoinder by Carl Pyrdum:

    Whenever a professor mentions “the truth,” I reach for my gun, but beyond that, it’s a great summary of many decision processes from an overworked faculty POV.

    As I said above, I don’t believe faculty are in collusion, but I do believe their decisions are affected by market forces they often do not acknowledge.

    Thanks to all for the lively discussion about an important topic! Thanks especially to the professors and bookstore staffers who provided insight, and to the students (present and past) who suggested several great workarounds.

  58. The odd thing is academic textbooks are cheaper in Europe than in the USA (about half the price).

    Now it is obvious why they are much cheaper in India or Kenya – when a mechanic earns $1/day he cannot afford expensive textbooks for his further education course.

    But although we get paid less in the UK than the USA, it is not half as much. This suggests that market forces are not working the same in the USA and Europe.

  59. The article mentions the standard buyback policy for new books– pay students 10-25% and resell used at 50%. At my old campus bookstore the real gouge was in used books. Buyback on used books was on the order of 5% at the highest, and the resale would be at the full used price (ie $60 book would buy back at $1 and then sell next semester for $60)

    That actually died down to some extent as shrinkwrapped new copies became the norm. Torn shrinkwrap made for an non-returnable book, and the further indignity was when there weren’t even supplementary materials to justify the shrinkwrap. What a scam

  60. As a grad student, I have a unique position of being on both sides of this issue. I get to decided what books to use and am forced to purchase books for my classes.

    I personally try to avoid assigning text books to my students. They are terribly overpriced and a good selection of non-fiction books and journal articles can take their place for an 8th of the price. But in order to assign this type of material instead of a textbook it takes a great deal of time and effort on the teacher’s side, and at any research 1 school there is very little time for grad students/faculty to spend on preparing for class and teaching.

    For grad students we worry about our own classes, trying to secure a research assistantships, and trying to do our own research (and some even work part time jobs on top of that). The faculty members are worried about getting research grants or getting publications in order to get tenure. Time dedicated to teaching and preparing classes usually comes last and the textbook is the easy way out.

    The textbooks have all the information the student is supposed to know and is very easy to test/teach from. We know no one wants to buy these textbooks and we know the prices are unfair but they are an easy way out and a time saver for the teacher.

    Also, to compare a drug rep to a textbook rep is a bit of a stretch. The drug reps take doctors out to sporting events, buy the office lunch once a week, etc., while I just have a pushy, underpaid, stressed-out rep throw a couple books at me each semester.

  61. I still want to know if academics are a market economy why profs consistently act irrationally to forgo income opportunities. If students and the public view a university as a business it’s high time profs start taking a bigger cut. At the university I teach at two full paying students take care of my salary and I teach advise about 100 a semester.

    1. Maybe some of them have some idea of value that doesn’t include grabbing every cent they can. Perhaps they actually like their jobs and having a pleasurable way to make a living is reward in itself. Not everyone is obsessed with money

  62. I don’t mind spending money on good textbooks. I hate wasting money on lousy ones. The worst textbook I have ever seen is used at a public university in Connecticut. It is a biology textbook that was written by the head of the department. Grammatically, it’s a horror show. The man simply cannot write. The science is not up to speed and there’s a jaw-droppingly sloppy nod given to intelligent design in the chapter on evolution.

    This bundle of rubbish costs the student $155.00 and the bookstore will not buy back the used copies. Classy, eh?

  63. this was probably already stated, at least in passing, but one way that the school bookstores manage to keep students captive is when teachers require the books early in the semester and the students can’t wait for them to ship.

    personally, i was tired of getting robbed by my school bookstore and so i took matters into my own hands. instead of them stealing from me, i decided to steal from them. last semester i simply shoplifted all my texts from the bookstore. this was no easy feat as security is tight, but it was well worth the effort. now, i do not recommend this for amateurs, but, if you have the skill and the courage, it is a worthwhile endeavor.

  64. The school my daughter attends pretty much forces students to purchase from the school bookstore. Their trick is that they do not publish ISBN numbers with the coursebook requirements. They rarely even add the edition number since the bookstore is only going to stock the version the course requires anyway. Of course, the student could still order from an online store even without the ISBN, rolling the dice as to whether they get the right book. Most students, though, would probably rather make sure they have the correct book, and opt for the school store.

  65. My daughter also opted for the online version of a textbook last semester. She wasn’t impressed with the experience and far preferred using the physical book (which she borrowed from another student.)

  66. As a former textbook seller, I just wanted to give my two cents. One thing that is incorrect in this discussion is the simplification of margins of new books vs used books. Booksellers actually generally prefer to deal in used books because a) there is a greater demand for them over new books and b) the margin is often greater (a used book gets double its cost to the bookseller vs a new book which get’s marked up by around 30%).

    There are also several items that are completely missing including how publishers are actively developing and introducing new tools for students and teachers beyond the traditional static words on a page. If you look at the cost of producing books these days, you will see that a great part of that money is going towards online homework systems and supplements and other tools for teachers. There are a lot of “value add” features beyond just the book/ebook content.

    Another element that hasn’t been discussed is how instructors regularly sell their complimentary copies to used book dealers. Book buyers can regularly be seen on campuses visiting offices and offering cash for books off of professor’s shelves. I imagine that most of this income is unreported and is likely against the ethical guidelines of many campuses. It also adds to the costs of producing textbooks which the students ultimately pay for when they buy their books.

    Having said all this, I agree that the system is flawed. I believe that instructors generally decide to use particular books because it makes their life easier (with familiar material, new homework problems or testbanks, order of presentation, etc.) and not always because the material is the best for students either financially or academically. It will take institutional changes and mandates to really motivate faculty out of their bad habits.

  67. I used to work as a sales rep for one of the biggest textbook publishers, and in my opinion the blame for the high cost of textbooks should be shared. Professors can always find a cheaper option (all publishers offer custom editing, which means you can eliminate parts of the text you don’t use, or even get the text printed in loose-leaf format, allowing students to arrange it in their Trapper-Keeper however they wish) but professors often put off these sorts of decisions. 90% of the time when I called on a professor, they first said they hadn’t seen the text I was talking about, and then when I pointed it out on their shelf, they said “Oh yeah I haven’t looked at this yet.”

    Students also have multiple options for purchasing but don’t take as much advantage as they should, but in large part this is because all their options aren’t always made clear.

    Lastly, publishers certainly engage in dirty tricks to keep prices high and to keep students buying new texts, not old. Those same custom editions that could keep costs low are usually used to make insignificant changes that force students to buy a new edition. Bundling isn’t as big a deal as Ms. James says it is — most bookstores know bundles don’t sell well and so either break them up or order the component parts from the publishers.

  68. Being a student, I can’t really understand the people who actually buy the recommended books. Most professors put their lecture notes online, and if theres anything missing it can be usually found on wikipedia or in the library.
    I think I may have spent about 100€ total on books, during five semesters, and a large part of this was for printing out lecture notes because i hate reading on screen.

  69. True, some faculty don’t consider costs. Most of the ones I know do, however, and textbook choices often are made by compromising between cost and quality. But if you look at the rate of inflation, I’m honestly not sure that the prices of textbooks are any more than they were when I was in college in the 1980s. Then, I spent about $100 for a textbook and reader for my one-semester Western Civ course. My students spend about $120 for a textbook that is good for both halves of my World Civ course (so they can sell it back or to other students or use it for both halves of the course). A reader might be another $40 used.

    There are no really good World Civ textbooks out there. I can order all the samples I like, and one may seem better than the others, but end up being not nearly as useful to the students as I thought it would be. So … do I stop using that book, which means my students can’t sell it back to the bookstore? Pedagogically, that’s the good decision. But because I think about things like student budgets, I keep using the same text for at least a couple of academic years, or until there is a new edition out, because then I’d have to change anyway.

    But again, should I be making my decisions based on cost, or on what is best for helping the students learn what they need to learn to get through my course?

    And yes, I get free textbooks. Big whoop. As Carl Pyrdum points out, how else am I going to evaluate them? If I request them and don’t use them, they go in the departmental library or back to the publisher. If they are the random samples for courses I don’t teach and never will? I might sell them on, I might put them in the library, or I might donate them to a textbook drive. If I sell them on, I might pick up enough for a lunch — not nearly enough to balance the ill-will I bear my textbook reps for sending me crap I don’t want.

    As for assigning books we write? Most of the places I’ve worked require that faculty waive royalties when they assign their own books. Some don’t, and I’m iffy on it. Given that in my field sometimes a person teaching a class may very well be one of only a few experts in the field, I’m not sure it makes pedagogical sense to use something else, though. Me? I’d probably not do it because I give my own viewpoint and research in my classes, so it’s better that the students get other interpretations.

    But basically, I’m just not sure that this post, or the study that it cites, takes into account the circumstances under which faculty operate, and neither gives us near enough credit for doing our jobs well.

  70. Nice summary of the situation. As someone who was adjunct faculty for several years I find myself in agreement with your points. I was fortunate to teach at places where the students tended to be relatively well off so textbook costs didn’t hit them as hard as it did elsewhere, but they still noticed. And I was remarkably blind about the whole thing.

    Re-blogged you here:

  71. I’ve been a student at some pretty big universities in the uk, and I’m genuinely curious – why can’t you go to a library? Even if they have been taken out surely there are course texts are in the reference section? I’ve probably spent less than 300 usd on books over the course of three degrees – don’t ask – and I could have just used library copies for most of them…dee

  72. I am a used book seller and get “cease and desist” letters all the time from academic book publishers who don’t want me selling their books. I buy lots of usually new or next-to-new books from colleges that accidentally buy the wrong text or who change texts after ordering, and the publishers really, really don’t like me selling the books for less than they charge on Amazon etc. – my lawyer says ignore the letters, so I’ve done so for the past 4 years, and hopefully I’m not doing anything illegal!

  73. A couple of corrections on part 3 of the original post…
    3 b. – Most publishers sell new textbooks directly to the campus bookstore. These are sold either as “short discount” or “net priced”. For short discount books, the store typically pays 80% of the selling price; for net priced books, the store pays 75% of the selling price. The store also pays freight in and freight out for returns. Not exactly a high margin business.

    Regarding buyback policies, the campus bookstore generally buys back textbooks being reused ON THAT CAMPUS DURING THE NEXT SEMESTER for 50% of the current new selling price and resells them to students at 75% of the original selling price. This is a margin of 33% – much better than the low margin on new texts purchased directly from the publishers. There are also no freight costs. There is, however, risk associated with this – any used copies the store has bought from students are not returnable so if the edition is revised, any existing inventory the store possesses is effectively worthless. This is why it is sometimes advantageous for students to sell their Fall semester books back to the store at the end of the Spring semester, when the store has some idea which books will be used during the following Fall.

  74. Anonymous #96 asked “I’ve been a student at some pretty big universities in the uk, and I’m genuinely curious – why can’t you go to a library”?

    Many of my students do. But with 20-25 students per class, there aren’t enough copies of a given book in our library. A few more can get it through interlibrary loan. Many students prefer to own their books, for various reasons, including being able to mark-up and annotate them.

  75. I had great luck with Chegg. I saved $400 on textbooks as an incoming freshman! The books were in great shape, shipped fast and included the CDs. I advise people to stop buying textbooks from the bookstores and rent them instead! Save an extra 5% with promo code CC101071. Use the same code and get an extra $5.00 when selling your old used textbooks.

  76. Schools starting their own rental systems require not only a lot of start up costs, but also maintenance costs for continuing to support their rentals. There are several schools nationwide trying to run their own rental programs, but the down side is many only offer a small percentage of books for rent.
    Students interested in renting textbooks should check out, where you save around 75% off of the retail (bookstore) price. We have a large inventory of titles, and all books are U.S. editions, so there’s no risk of getting a book that doesn’t match the professor’s. Acceptable amounts of highlighting & writing is also allowed (usually not allowed in campus rental programs). Two day and next day shipping are available if you need your books right away and return shipping for when books are due is always free. If you end up wanting to keep your rental, you have the option to buy it, with your rental price going towards the purchase price.

    ~Laura @

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