Dr. Joan Bushwell's Chimpanzee Refuge

The High Cost of College Textbooks

We’re a couple weeks into the semester and the ever-popular subject of the cost of textbooks has raised its head. Along with my students, I often wonder why they shell out so much for these works. I think there are several things at play here, but first a little background: I’ve been teaching at the college level for over 25 years and I’ve written a few textbooks myself, for two different publishers: West and Delmar/Thomson Learning (including the ever-exciting Op Amps and Linear Integrated Circuits mentioned on the sidebar, complete with color-coordinated matching laboratory manual). The thoughts that follow are my own and do not necessarily represent those of my publishers, my college, or college bookstore.

First off, I am speaking of books in the area of engineering, technology, and science. Texts often exceed $100. The introductory electric circuits text we use is pushing $120 as is our electronic devices text. My own Linear IC text is in that same ballpark. I still have my original circuits text from when I was a student and it cost me a whopping $10.85 (the sticker is still on it). Sure, inflation has taken its toll, but is that all there is? Strangely enough, I have a vivid memory of buying raisin bran at the grocery store near our apartment for about 97 cents at that time. (I realize that the cost of a box of raisin bran is not a proper unit for the measurement of inflation, but I think you can see what I’m getting at, namely relative prices from the student’s viewpoint.) Consider the following:

These are not popular books. As much as I enjoy the topic I will grant you that there aren’t a lot of people queuing up to read about linear integrated circuits. It’s not exactly summer beach reading, so I can understand that these titles do not have a nice economy of scale. That alone will push up their price. Thirty years ago, linear integrated circuit books were pretty much non-existent.

I have discovered that many students are under the false impression that the authors are making a killing on these titles. In fact, I have had many students inform me post-course that they thought half of their purchase price went directly to me. Far from it! Contracts vary depending on the subject, publisher, author and so forth, but a fairly typical contract would net the average author something like 10% of wholesale. Thus, if a college bookstore purchased a $100 book for $60, the author would see just $6 out of the $100 that the student forks over. (In fact, I discovered some time ago that my “take” on these ventures has me working for less than minimum wage so I’m not likely to write any more texts, but I should add that I never got into it thinking I’d get rich. It was more a matter of not liking the presentation available in the titles already available.)

Then there’s the used book trade. It used to be a time-honored tradition that you’d check all of the campus bulletin boards looking for people selling their texts from last semester before you headed off to the bookstore. Now I have used book reps looking to buy my old desk copies or unused evaluation copies, and they do likewise with the students. I rarely see flyers for students selling their books anymore. Used books have become a sizable business. In fact, some students have told me that they could only get used copies of certain titles at our bookstore. I have nothing against a student wishing to save a few bucks by buying used books but there are some not-so-nice side effects. To begin with, there are some books that I don’t think students should sell off. Titles dealing with the fundamentals (say, a calculus text, physics text, or electrical circuits text) should be the core of the student’s own reference library. But hey, I understand that if you’re strapped for cash, it’s sell the books or eat Ramen Noodles for a couple months. The problem with a large, institutionalized used book market is that it completely cuts out the publisher and the author. That is, when the bookstore purchases a title from a used book reseller and then sells it to a student, the bookstore and reseller both make a profit, but the publisher and author make nothing. In fact, they lose the profit that they would have made had the bookstore sold a new text. (And ultimately, I think the student seller gets the shaft because they typically receive far less from the reseller than the book is worth to another student.)

OK, so you’re thinking that I’m gripping because I’m losing a couple bucks, right? No. Here’s the problem: In order to mitigate the lost revenue, the publisher produces a new edition of the text. As most courses stipulate “the most recent edition”, this cuts off the flow of used books. Unfortunately, it only takes a few years for the used book market to build back up and revenue drops once again. The solution is to produce yet another edition, even if the content does not need revision. Thus, the life of an edition may be only a few years when it could’ve been a half dozen or more. The production costs are now spread over a shorter time and fewer units, and therefore the price has to rise in order to make any profit.

As an example, I point to the excellent electric circuit analysis text that we use. It is now in its 11th edition. I started teaching out of the sixth edition in the 1990s. Sorry, but the text didn’t have so many errors and the field hasn’t changed so much (sorry for the pun) that there had to be a half dozen editions over this period.

More on this in a bit.


  1. #1 TAW
    September 14, 2007

    To make matters worse, books for my next course on statistics will run approximately $210 for USED books! New? I shudder to think.

  2. #2 Eric Lund
    September 14, 2007

    In fact, some students have told me that they could only get used copies of certain titles at our bookstore.

    This is the opposite of my undergraduate experience some 20 years ago. In my day, any decent textbook–especially beyond the introductory level–was never available used.

    Even so, textbook cost inflation has been a longstanding problem, and while gratuitous new editions certainly contribute, they aren’t the only factor. As a junior, I bought Jackson’s Classical Electrodynamics (2nd edition, published 1975 and not updated again until the late 1990s) new for an allegedly junior/senior level course in electricity and magnetism. The price tag of $54.50 is still in my copy. Two years later when I started grad school, the E&M course I had to take also used Jackson. My classmates generally paid $70 for their copies. I have no idea what the price is for a new copy of the current (3rd) edition, and I’m not sure I want to know.

  3. #3 Adrian W
    September 14, 2007

    The problem’s compounded here in Canada, even though I can get 97 Lincoln pennies to my loonie nowadays. Computer Organization, 5th Edition, Hamacher et al., is $179.95 at my university bookstore, and $173.85 on Amazon.ca, but a mere $125.87 on Amazon.com.

    Thankfully the paperback’s “only” 90 bucks.

  4. #4 Saint Gasoline
    September 14, 2007

    Yep, if these textbooks weren’t reissuing new additions, I’d be out of a job.

    But I am REALLY surprised that as an author what you made amounts to so little! These authors have to put a lot of work in, so it seems strange they’d have so little to gain from it.

  5. #5 llewelly
    September 14, 2007

    The problem with a large, institutionalized used book market is that it completely cuts out the publisher and the author.

    Who are then freed of the tedious, tiresome labor of regurgitating trivially altered editions of the same textbooks each year, and can thus work on something new.

  6. #6 JimFiore
    September 15, 2007

    Who are then freed of the tedious, tiresome labor of regurgitating trivially altered editions of the same textbooks each year, and can thus work on something new.

    It’s the used market that forces them to create trivially altered editions, and thus prevents them from working on other items.

  7. #7 sailor
    September 15, 2007

    Jim Fiore is right when he talks about the pittance he made. I have been on both sides of this thing as publisher and author. It seems to me superficially the price for textbooks IS outrageous. True, the publisher is lucky if he gets 50% of what you pay, especially if there are wholesalers as well as retailers involved. But even $60 a book (half $120) is a huge sum. It is true the market is limited, but that has advantages that you generally know how many you are likely to sell, and distribution is pretty direct to a few places – you don’t have to supply every bookshop. I don’t think the authors make much, but I suspect the publishers do very nicely.
    The cost of the book depends on a couple of things – the number of copies and how much color. If there is no color then even small print runs (1-2 thousand) are not that expensive. I strongly suspect that much of the high price is owing to a non-competitive market among a few publishers. If you have a book that is an “approved” textbook, it is a license to inflate your profits. If a publisher could really show me he could not produce a book for less, then I would say it was time to innovate. One way you could do this would be to sell targeted advertising in the book – since we know exactly the audience we have this should be simple and profitable and even interesting to the users. The other way would be to bypass the whole book publishing process and have the books available on the web. The way this would work would be that every class using the book as a standard text would have to charge each student a relatively small sum as a user. Several things have to be paid for: the organization of the web page and collection of the funds, the author, the illustrator and the layout artist. Still I think the author might come out ahead.

  8. #8 Rebecca
    September 15, 2007

    Idea: Why not buy the used books back from the students yourself? Offer them more than the book store is offering. Then sell the used books to the new batch of students for a couple bucks less than the book store is selling them for. The students get a better deal, you make a couple bucks on it, and everyone goes home happier. Uh…except the managers of the book store — but tough luck for them.

  9. #9 Anne-Marie
    September 15, 2007

    On the rare occasion when a class doesn’t require a different edition from the previous time it was taught (a lot of classes that are only taught once a year require the updated version each year, but if it’s a class offered every semester sometimes you can get lucky), my strategy is to find out what the bookstore is buying the books for, then offer five bucks more to someone who wants to sell. They make more money, and I save an average of about $35.

    In most cases, though, you can’t do that due to different editions, and I just try to find out what the required texts are far enough in advance to order them online, which is invariably cheaper than the bookstore, I’m a junior and I have never bought a textbook on campus, except for lab manuals printed by the university that are unavailable from an outside source.

  10. #10 Nate Kocher
    September 15, 2007

    Every new semester means a new $120 Physics book…

  11. #11 JimFiore
    September 16, 2007

    Rebecca and Anne-Marie have given me an idea. While I can’t purchase books from students and resell them (after all, I have to work with the folks at the bookstore and it’s not something I want to keep track of anyway), I think I can act as facilitator. It occurs to me that many freshmen don’t know any sophomores, for example. I’m thinking I could arrange for something non-formal at the end of the semester. Student A has books student B wants, and it would be easy enough to determine what the bookstore buy-back is (actually, our bookstore doesn’t buy the books, the reseller does). Add $5 and we’re set (or half the difference between the buy-back and the bookstore’s used price). They could sell whatever books they want.

    I’ll have to look into this.

  12. #12 Drugmonkey
    September 16, 2007

    Rebecca, Ann-Marie and Jim:

    How do you think the professional book-resellers got started?

    Point being that it is a local and temporary solution. As soon as a reselling tradition that circumvents the current semi-pro version gets started on a campus, well, someone is going to start making money from it, start bogarting all the used texts and then you have to start all over again. Not that it might not be worth it for Jim to do with his own classes. But to regain the sustainable used-book exchanging sans middle-persons on an ongoing basis…

  13. #13 Neil Schipper
    September 16, 2007

    I’ve often wondered why profs don’t get together and simply agree to commit to an edition for X number of years. They could then communicate this to the book publisher: “We have decided we will continue to use the 3rd edition for the next 5 years.”

    There is some effort involved, but I don’t think it should overly tax you folks who understand digital communications and network theory…

    National and international organizations exist that gather profs together to hammer out consensus on things like technical standards, curricula, etc. Reviewing and agreeing on the lifetime of a textbook edition seems like pretty small potatoes in comparison.

  14. #14 leficent
    September 17, 2007

    Two words: International Editions.

    One of my texts this semester cost 190USD at the campus bookstore, and 185USD on amazon.

    I got the Canadian version for 65USD online, and they did not even charge extra for the bright red ‘Not for sale in the United States’ warnings all over the cover.

    While the international editions occasionally are printed on different paper, or sometimes have grey-scale diagrams, they are accurate to the same edition sold in the US.

    I spend perhaps half of what I would spend on my texts buying the US versions.

  15. #15 Brian
    September 17, 2007

    American Dream. The American Way. It’s the economy stupid! All part of the excess of americana. Gotta love a country that’ll put out newer editions just to put out newer editions. Have make a buck spend a buck save an old book pretty much useless for life or exchange for some ramon noodles. There’s a life lesson put into the text. Debt to start off your young college years debt to stay into your 30’s & 40’s. Good job Jim.

  16. #16 Neil Schipper
    September 17, 2007

    I was hoping to hear from others (post #13). My inner cynic tells me that colleges and publishers are generally in cahoots in trying to separate students from their money. I can’t imagine any other reason why it isn’t the norm that a good calculus or physics or History of W. Civ. text wouldn’t have a 10 or 20 year run. Even if a well written text deals with something like neuroscience, use of supplementary handouts should enable a 5 year run.

    So I really see no compelling reason to hold to anything other than a conspiracy theory. The only other candidate theory — gross incompetence — doesn’t quite satisfy me here.

  17. #17 JimFiore
    September 17, 2007

    I’m not so sure about the colleges, Neil. I work at a public college in NY state (part of the SUNY system) and the colleges don’t make money on books per se. Rather, the bookstores are run by a third party under contract.

    Regarding the idea of profs getting together to tell a publisher that they want X edition for Y years, I don’t think any publisher would bow to that. I can’t see them printing and stocking an older edition along with a newer one (as some people will want the newer one). Heck, several years ago I asked one of the publisher’s reps if it was possible to order the third edition of our electronic devices text as I REALLY disliked the fourth edition. His answer was “No effing way” though phrased in more polite terms. It turned out that I was not alone in my dislike of 4E and they put together an improved 5E (though still not as good as 3E) in just a couple years.

  18. #18 Neil Schipper
    September 17, 2007

    Jim, I’m certainly not going to start impugning any malicious intent on your part, but I just can’t get my head around the kind of market we’re talking about being unable to call the shots — if there was appropriate consideration on the part of profs for the student’s predicament.

    Intro Phys & Cal & Chem books changing as often as wireless network comms standards and major versions of Windows — Come on! Do Feynman’s lectures or the Selfish Gene get revved than often — even just the cover art?

    Sorry, I’m really committed to my paranoia on this one.

  19. #19 kahootz
    September 17, 2007

    I can actually accept paying 250.00 for a textbook. However, when the professor only requires we read 2 chapters of the book, then I have an issue. It was a class in which the professor had the students summarize and present the chapters. One group did chapters 1-2. Another group presented chapters 3-4. Etc.

    I paid $250.00 to read 2 chapters.

  20. #20 JimFiore
    September 18, 2007

    Neil, my experience with fellow profs is that most don’t consider the cost of books. They see what’s out there, choose what works for them and that’s that. On the other hand, I’ve NEVER had a publisher’s rep say to me “AND, our title is less expensive than the competition!” which is the sort of thing you hear in almost every other market with the exception of luxury goods. I know a few profs who are concerned about the high cost of books and who would probably not do anything as crazy as requiring a $250 book for just two chapters! I also had a CS/math prof while in grad school who made a point of specifying thin little inexpensive paperback books, maybe two for a class, in order to keep the cost down. That idea sort of stuck with me.

    I know that some companies (such as the afore-mentioned Thomson Learning) will create a custom text by combining various sections and chapters from within their catalog. I don’t know how their formula for costs, but for someone who requires several texts but only uses a few chapters of each it might be a lower cost option.

  21. #21 Jerry
    September 18, 2007

    In order to mitigate the lost revenue, the publisher produces a new edition of the text. As most courses stipulate “the most recent edition”, this cuts off the flow of used books.

    There is absolutely no reason to demand the newest edition of the text in every course. By doing this, professors are exacerbating the problem.

  22. #22 JimFiore
    September 18, 2007

    Jerry, I would say that that stipulation is part laziness and part an effort to keep your sanity. The problem with allowing students to use any edition is that it gets confusing for all parties. That is, assignments don’t line up. Reading pages are different, problem 15 in 4E might be problem 12 in 3E and may not even exist in 2E, etc. I usually tell my students that they can use prior editions but they must be aware of gotchas like these. I only prohibit old editions if there has been a major overhaul of the text.

    Even if every professor said “use any edition”, pretty soon the used book market would be flooded. There would be no new books sold. If a publisher knew that they could only count on a three or maybe four year run before the new book market dried up, what do you think that would do to the cost of new titles and do you think publishers would be eager to go after niche markets?

    When I wrote my first book, my publisher supplied me with detailed sales data. It was amazing the way sales climbed for a few years, peaked, and then went straight into the dumper as the used books started to circulate. I realize that some might think that this was because a superior text appeared but consider the following: A few years ago I took an informal poll of my students to see how many had purchased my Op Amp text (left sidebar) used versus new. Virtually everyone bought it used. Now, as I’m the only person who teaches this course at our college, I know all the students who have taken it over the life of this text. Some students had used books with the prior owner’s name written in them, and they were names I had never heard before. These books came from a large reseller, not other students at our college. If my students sell them, the books return to this big pool of used books and the cycle continues until the books are physically worn out or outdated.

    I don’t see an easy solution to this, although something modeled after the open software concept might work if enough people had an interest (but again, how do you get it all started? Are we trying to herd cats?)

  23. #23 nico
    September 18, 2007

    I bought used ( one edition behind the class but still current) and international editions.

    I just could NOT afford the 125 dollars for about 5 books. I don’t know if the price of texts is just insanely inflated or what, but they might sell more if the price wasn’t absolutely horrific.

    Worse if your class requires multiple texts.

  24. #24 green
    January 1, 2009

    I would suggest using GreenTextbooks.org
    Save Money, Save The Planet
    GreenTextbooks.org specializes in the recycling of textbooks, DVDs, CDs. Buying used textbooks not only saves you money, but cuts down on greenhouse gases caused by the manufacturing of new textbooks.
    With GreenTextbooks.org you’re not only saving trees, you are saving some green.

  25. #25 rBST
    January 1, 2009

    As a fofmer editor of college textbooks (in the Computer Science field), publishers take a hit in profits due to the used textbook trade, which evolved from the wells of college bookstores. Though college bookstores do not make a big profit from new textbooks, the profit margin from selling used textbooks is more significant. As such, students slurp up the used books ebfore shelling out the list price of brand new texts. Obviously, the publishers get hit the hardest.

    Making books, in general, has plainly become more expensive. The digital age of swapping copy from here to there has made the production of textbooks more expensive, not less…for a whole bunch of other reasons, some of which escape me at the moment (it’s New Year’s Day after all).

    It’s a very competitive market. And thanks to passionate professors who devote their lives to their subject matter, publishers have the good luck of never having the author well run dry. In other words, Keep On Truckin’, Jim.

New comments have been disabled.