Seriously? On the high prices of textbooks.

I was talking to a colleague of mine yesterday, and he was surprised to find that a number of the students in his mechanics course didn’t have the course textbook, because the bookstore was selling it for upwards of two hundred bucks.  On amazon, the book sells for a somewhat reduced (but still princely) $197.87.

I want you to bear in mind that this is only a five hundred page book with no color photos, and one that’s sufficiently popular to sell thousands of copies a year.  There should be some economy of scale.

Most importantly, though, this sort of outrageous pricing is rule rather than the exception.

I’ve commented before (here and here) about how expensive college has become (as has virtually every newspaper and magazine in the world) and how baffling it is, even from the inside.  Textbooks are, in many respects, even worse.  It is incredibly common for students to have 3 or 4 books a term with sticker prices above $100.  Bear in mind that most university bookstores have incredibly miserly sellback policies, meaning that students get neither the benefit of keeping the book afterward nor more than about 30% of the purchase price of the book.

So who’s to blame? I have a few ideas:

  1. The professors, including me.  A poll (to any professors who might be reading this): how much do the textbooks you use in your courses cost the students?  With few exceptions, I’ll be you don’t know.   Do you use the “clickers” that are frequently bundled with textbooks these days?  Do you use the test banks and online resources? These things cost the students money, but since we never shop on price, there is virtually no price competition between books.
    There’s also the fact that faculty tend to be extremely sticky (some might say lazy).  We do not like to switch our lecture notes.  There is a reason that the 3 most popular freshman physics texts have virtually identical content on a chapter by chapter basis.  The upshot is that we end up choosing textbooks based on the tiniest differences.
  2. The bookstores and resellers.  The markups at college bookstores are huge.  Since many students are required to get their books ASAP (and the syllabus is only distributed in the first week of classes — blame the faculty, again) they are a captive audience.  The prices may still be high on amazon, but it’s so much worse when the students buy them on campus.
  3. The publishers.  This goes without saying, since they’re a business, and they’re going to charge as much as they can.   There is a very pervasive idea that faculty and students are demanding resource after resource: online test and homework modules, graphical demos, digital copies of the book in addition to the paper version, clickers, web resources, and the like.  These things, to be fair, cost money.  But each one also carries with it a huge markup, and in reality, most professors don’t use a fraction of the resources available.
  4. Students.  If a textbook has been around for too long, it’s just too damn easy for students to google the solution to every problem.  So despite the fact that the material has been around for more than a hundred years, introductory physics books feel the need to make new editions every year or so.  Of course, once again, this problem can be laid at the feet of the professors assigning those problems.  Write some of your own!

The bigger question is, “What can we do about it?”  I have a few ideas:

  • Start teaching from older books.  Suppose you taught out of a mechanics text two generations out of date.  Your students could pick them up for $20 or so, and because they wouldn’t get much for selling them back, they might actually start a library.
  • Use e-texts.  Personally, I don’t like this option, as I still read the old-fashioned way.  That said, it should be fairly obvious to the textbook publishers that if they don’t adapt, they’re going to be left behind.
  • Refuse desk copies.  Suppose that departments needed to pay for a copy of the book in order to use it.  You can bet that they’d be a lot more price sensitive.  Or, even better…
  • Have students pay a “book fee” as part of their tuition which is then dispersed to the departments.  If books were bought in bulk and then distributed to the students, there would be enormous leverage to lower the prices.

But I’d also appreciate any thoughts you have on this.  It’s been bugging the crap out of me.


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9 Responses to Seriously? On the high prices of textbooks.

  1. Liz Trubey says:

    Couple of thoughts, Dave, bearing in mind that I teach literature classes. In my class, students can stagger when they buy books because we read several novels one at a time — maybe they have to buy the first at the bookstore, but they can order more of them on amazon or through some cheaper outfit. Novels are more often available used at reasonable prices too. Probably not a relevant point for a science course, though. I use electronic reserve at the library to get my students access to secondary readings that are available online (they can also upload photocopies of book chapters, subject to copyright rules) — again, a money-saver.

    How relevant are older edition textbooks, I wonder? I thought the whole benefit to students of being at a research institution was that they were getting the most cutting-edge, advanced information? Maybe if you did use an older edition of a book, assuming it’s still in print, of course, you could supplement with excerpts from more recent volumes distributed electronically.

    In literary studies, the big culprit is, I think, the tenure-driven need to publish volumes about teeny tiny topics that most people will never want to read. Yes, novels are cheap, but check out how absurdly expensive a book of literary criticism is, the kind of book that might be assigned to an upper-level undergraduate or graduate course. We have to publish to get tenure, but there is no market for these books, so they are very expensive.

    • dave says:


      Thanks for the thoughts. There’s certainly a difference by discipline, but I wanted to address a particular point:
      “I thought the whole benefit to students of being at a research institution was that they were getting the most cutting-edge, advanced information?”

      That’s true, but only to a point. Classical Mechanics, for example, hasn’t changed since the 19th century, and yet this particular book puts out a new edition every 8 years or so. Introductory Physics books typically have a 2 or 3 year life cycle. Neither of these have major advances (or any, really) on those timescales. And more to the point, professors’ notes aren’t being updated to reflect changes that _do_ occur.

      For cosmology textbooks, absolutely. Five years can be an eternity.

  2. Mary says:

    Dave, I’ve always been concerned with how much textbooks cost my students (as well as tuition!). So I’ve always made sure to choose less expensive options for students, make copies available on library reserve and try and let students know ahead of the start of classes what the required books are, so they can find less expensive options online. That said, IL-Sen Dick Durbin sponsored legislation that addresses the high cost of textbooks in his “College Textbook Affordability Act” that I think was finally passed in July 2010, folded into the larger “Higher Education Opportunity Act”, it’s not a complete solution, but a start:

  3. Pat Luther says:

    I love the idea of a book fee being added to tuition. It could even change depending on what department a student is in.

    One of the nice benefits of including it with tuition is that financial aid could then cover it. When I went to college, I had a good financial aid package to cover tuition, plus all the fees that get rolled into it, but living expenses, including food, rent, and all my books, came out of what money I could get through my part-time job. That was over 20 years ago, but I’m sure other students are in the same situation today.

    A set fee, and textbooks distributed in class, will also save a lot of time and stress about finding the books, involving multiple trips to the bookstore as some are always late or sold out, and having to decide which ones will be “really” needed, and which can be done without.

  4. Tatjana Miletic says:

    I like what we do at Rowan University now for intro physics classes, students have to buy online code (for WileyPlus at the moment) which comes with e-book but then we tell them that they can buy any hardcopy textbook (if they want to) from the list we provide and those would be old editions for $20 or so. That reduces cost from $200 to about $100 but that is still high if you ask me.

  5. Casey says:

    On the other end of the scope, I had several art professors (4 or 5 different occasions) try to require us to buy books that were out of print. Some of them were expensive, all of them were hard or impossible to find, even online.

  6. Robert Hernandez says:

    Some enterprising companies have responded to the high cost of textbooks by providing students with alternative methods for acquiring textbooks. Chegg and BookRenter come to mind – both are ecommerce outfits that enable students to rent a textbook for a specific time period, which can be more cost effective than buying an new textbook.

    As a random example, Introduction to Quantum Mechanics (David Griffiths) can be rented for an entire semester for $56.99 (compared to the list price, according to Amazon, of $118.94).

    BookRenter also provides a white-label platform for college bookstores that helps them set up textbook rental services, so that they can offer the same level of service as BookRenter without the hassle of operating the rental service themselves.

    • dave says:

      But that’s still a terrible deal. The fact that they can beat the awful 30% buyback price from the bookstore (essentially sticking the students with 70% the cost of the book) by renting it for 50% doesn’t change the fact that a) even the rental price is higher than the book should be, and b) if we’re talking about books in a major, the students really should be buying them to build a library. I still use my undergraduate texts all the time.

  7. Luftmensch says:

    My thought:

    All texts used for education are protected under fair use. I think the school should just pay a small appeasement licensing fee (because even though the school’s legally allowed to do anything they want, the textbook publishers have better lawyers and can afford to throw baseless suits) and provide them online for students.

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