Monday, September 19, 2005



I’m in the wrong business.

Some students have been complaining about the price of textbooks for certain classes. Curious, I went to the bookstore and roamed the stacks, seeing just what they’re paying.


The students are right. The costs are absurd.

Intro to [a popular foreign language] -- $200. (That’s roughly $250 Canadian, I think.) That ain’t right. At $200 per course, a student taking a full load would spend $1,000/semester just on books. When these students work 30 hours a week outside of class (for about $7 an hour), that’s real money. It’s almost as high as the tuition for the course.

As a community college, we sweat blood to keep our tuition as low as possible, so low-income students will still have access to higher education. Apparently, publishers have no such reservations; any money we leave on the table, they happily hoover.

They’re getting craftier about it, too. Where once a given edition of a textbook might last for four years, now it lasts for two. (That way, they can short-circuit the market in used textbooks, which is their main competition.) Change the pagination, add a bell here and a whistle there, and suddenly students who would otherwise have saved money buying used are forced to buy new (or to go without). (Another trick is the ‘free’ add-on. This textbook comes with a free workbook! The point of the add-on is to disqualify used books. Too many faculty fall for this.)

If they sign up early enough, crafty students know to book-shop on the web and avoid the on-campus markup. It helps, but even without the local markup, these things cost too much. The shame of it is compounded by the general lameness of most textbooks. Complaining about the unreadability of textbooks is a longstanding faculty and student pastime, and for good reason. Most of them, well, suck.

When I was in college, I recall my friends in the sciences complaining about textbook prices (and rightly so), but at least those could be explained by the number and detail of illustrations. Now, the virus has spread, and no discipline is safe. Textbooks with no need for fancy or detailed illustrations, in plain-vanilla intro courses to mainstream disciplines, routinely go for three figures.

Parents complain, naturally, but they complain at us, instead of the publishers. So we cut costs wherever possible, carrying a higher percentage of adjuncts on the faculty and only putting the course schedule on the web (instead of printing it), and publishers blithely hike prices by double digits annually. The students and parents don’t see the economic benefit of our frugality (or brutality, if you prefer), since ‘total cost’ is the relevant number to them. If more of that total goes to publishers and less to us, it makes no difference to the billpayer.

An editorial in the Times recently suggested that colleges simply bundle the textbook cost in with tuition, and provide the textbooks to the students free of charge, like high schools do. I can’t even begin to describe the ways that idea would fail. Departments would come under pressure to choose the cheapest books, regardless of quality. Book prices go up much faster than institutional budgets do (or will, or could), so we’d wind up eating more of the difference ourselves (read: more adjuncts, bigger classes). A kid who failed a class once and retook it would be forced to pay for the book a second time, which would benefit nobody but the publishers. The market for used books would crater, because students effectively would be forced to pay full price for books; now, at least the savvier ones have the option of buying used and saving money, or trading with friends, or book-shopping online, or using the library. Bundling books with tuition would render those options irrelevant. Finally, and most damningly, have you looked at a high school textbook lately? College texts have their shortcomings, to be sure, but at least they don’t have to get approved by central committees. Start bundling the texts for the huge intro classes, and the central committees will become relevant.

I don’t know the solution to this. I’ve encouraged my department chairs to keep cost in mind when they select textbooks, but in many areas, there are only a few acceptable choices and they’re all costly. E-books seem to have natural limits, and those pesky copyright laws make the old damn-the-torpedoes-photocopy-everything approach untenable. The library isn’t going to purchase and keep anywhere near enough copies to be a solution. Custom publishing our own textbooks offers at least the possibility of getting around royalties (and insisting on paperbacks), but it can create issues with course transfer. We live and die by transfer, so we really can’t play games with that.

Any ideas out there?

For what it's worth, this is one of the reasons why I'm developing my own book/not book. The other reasons have to do with teaching in a computer lab and wanting something that goes beyond print on paper. I wrote about it at Community College English this week--
One suggestion comes from a student. Make sure the students know way in advance what textbooks will be used for their courses so that they can purchase them online. That might mean having the bookstore list them online or the faculty on their course website or something. It might require some proactivity on the part of the school--emailing students in the class or snail mailing book lists. It would also mean, of course, that faculty shouldn't put off ordering books until the last minute. I bet most faculty are unaware of how much books cost and of the cumulative effect that cost has on their students.
I apologize profusely every year for the cost of my textbook. It's just over 100 pages, and it costs $75!

You're right, though--a lot of changes are just tweaking, so if you're a caring faculty member, it's worth going through and determining that that's the case. I let students use the 4th ed of the book if they want, and that's pretty cheaply obtained on amazon used books these days.
The Chronicle had a great article about 6 or 7 years ago and connected the used book market to increasing the costs of new books. When you look at what the bookstores pay for used books and then what they charge for them, it all makes sense. Now, I have no problem when students sell them to one another (except the ones they need to keep!) or when a business student group runs a bookstore.

A more complex part of the problem is that Follett's and Barnes and Noble control most of the university bookstores. I use our online ordering system and they seem to lose them. This year there was a general snafu in which books for numerous courses weren't ordered. More frustrating is that the bookstore will say it takes weeks to get in books that can, in fact, be overnighted if necessary. It's sad that professors have to plan for students not to have books the first few WEEKS (not days) of class.

Even though I like your idea of emailing and/or posting book info for students before the semester starts, students are still well conditioned to rely on the bookstore. I did do these same type of postings and students 3 weeks into the semester were still attempting 'the bookstore doesn't have them' routine . . . .

BTW, the bookstore was charging $30 OVER retail for a philosophy book.

I also agree with your academic freedoom point - our bookstore is continually trying to force professors who teach different sections of the same course to use the same book.

What I promise students is that if they have to buy a book, they will indeed be using it as well as doing graded assignments directly related to it.
Gah! The textbook issue is a stressful one. A few weeks ago, I talked to a professor who said that the textbook plus relevant supplement materials (he teaches a music history course) total ***$350.*** There are two sections of the course, with 40 students each, giving the bookstore a whopping $28,000 worth of business ON TWO SECTIONS OF ONE COURSE ALONE!

And the really sad part was that the CD that came with the book didn't even have accurate music. The instructor told me that the songs were played with instruments that didn't even exist in the time period.

I agree with Laura about how many faculty are probably unaware of how much books cost. I mean, some are good and say, "the bookstore was out of this book, buy it on Amazon," but I've actually heard some professors tell their students to buy their books at the bookstore so they don't get in trouble for ordering too many copies.
I noticed this the other day, too.

What exactly are the underlying socioeconomic reasons that faculty are not financially rewarded for publishing cheap reusable courseware?

I'm thinking that for the faculty the rewards are social, and for the publishers economic. It would be interesting and useful to play them against one another.
Oh, and this or something like it may be useful.
I agree that making the titles of the texts used in classes available to students as early as possible is important. I've done a number of things to save money on books as a student including
- checking them out from the library for the semester,
- having someone else at a different college check them out from their library for me for the semester (sometimes this helps with availability),
- reading the text on reserve in the library (this one doesn't work that well)
- borrowing texts from other students
- Using xerox's of texts, sometime a number of students would collaborate to xerox a text.
- buying used textbooks from the bookstore, from individuals, or online.

The best idea I've heard yet are bookswaps. Several times a year, students get together and trade or sell books. If you do swaps right, they don't have to be person to person. You put your books in a big pile and they are worth some amount, then you can take that amount of books out of the pile. If you don't have books to trade in, then you can pay the people who have the texts you want for those books. This is great because it avoids the markup of buying used books in the bookstore, where student A sells the book to the bookstore for cost x and student B buys the text for cost x+y. With the swap student A can earn x+y/2 and student B can save $y/2.
Gah!!! We're under strict orders to keep book orders under $100, but that's very, very hard to do in just about every field. I allow them to buy used online, but that only really works in the lit classes, where old editions are readily available. Mostly, I just apologize like mad and remind them of how much science texts cost. :-)
This seems to have been lost somehow.

One of the problems at the places I've been is that the faculty don't know much about textbook prices, and publishers (and book reps) have no incentive to inform us. So we don't do all we can to combat rapidly-rising textbook prices.

I've found a publisher whose tag line is "Quality textbooks at prices your students can afford"--Best Value Textbooks ( Right now, they have a very limites list of books, which fortunately for me includes intro econ. I'm considering their books for the spring.
It's so bad that even Congress has mounted an investigation. Yikes.

Poking around the internet for clues, my favorite answer came from a grumpy psych professor: the used book network is cutting into profits! (By which he means his royalties.) He might have wondered if, perhaps, the ludicrously high prices of books might perhaps drive the used book market, but that wouldn't benefit him, y'see.

Another FAQ I found about expensive books said "it's not about price, it's about value." Heh. Heh heh heh heh...BWAH-HA-HA-HA-HAAAA!! Oh man, that's comedy.

It makes sense that textbooks are pricey. Companies produce lots of small print runs. an expensive proposition. Printing costs themselves have skyrocketed in the last decade (for what reason, I don't know).

But it smells like a cartel, don't it? They charge a zillion dollars per book because they can. After all--what's a student going to do? Go without?

This is when I envy the English students, particularly those working from pre-20th century texts. You can find those free all over the internet or printed on paper for cheap.

Jeebus, I thought textbooks were expensive when I was a student in the early nineties. (Because they were.) This is nuts!
I love the point about faculty publishing cheap, reusable courseware; it's similar to the idea of custom publishing books. If we could get the colleges to which our students transfer to grant the validity of those, we would.

Bookswaps are great, but hard to sustain without a profit motive (and a profit motive pretty much defeats the purpose). Advance notice of booklists strikes me as a GREAT idea, since it's an easy way to introduce some competition; I'll try to find out if there's a way to do that locally. (The conflict there, though, is that the bookstore is a profit center for the college. Cutting into that profit center hurts the college. Verily, mixed motives.)

The argument about small print runs may be valid for specialized upper-level courses, but I don't think it holds for, say, the Intro to Psych courses. Our campus alone runs thousands of students through those every semester. Yet they're still outrageously expensive.

Seems like there should be some sort of techno-fix for this; a napster for e-books, perhaps? Does do textbooks?
In short, the reason textbooks are expensive in the US is that the people who order the books get them for free.

Outlaw desk copies and you will see the price of textbooks fall as the cost falls on the faculty and departments.

For more along this line
Great post and discussion. I am normally good about watching out for cost, but I goofed and ordered a 28$ text for one of my classes (there are 3 other books ordered for the course). I noticed the students have concocted a scheme to photocopy it. I don't blame them.

My plan for the spring is to use as much public domain material and possible. I'm in the humanities and I work on pre-20th century stuff. It's not so hard to create legal packets with the bulk of the reading.
The books I had to buy this year:

History of Art: $120
Physics by Serway Jewett (used) $80
Physic Lab Book $77
Biology by Taylor (had to buy new edition) $150
Biology Lab $50
Calculus by Stewart (used, bought from friend) $80
Macroeconomics by Mankiw(used) $90

Total:: $647 btw my tuition $1500 a a semester
I'm middle class kid so this price tag is just irritating for my parents. I have friends who work their way to school and book prices are a big ichallenge.

I agree that professors ought to tell students what books to buy in advance. It should be online. I noticed a lot of used books online sell for a quarter of the used books price in stores.

PS: How do high schools manage to give students free textbooks to use?
The high school textbook system is even more entrenched and more cartellish than that of college textbooks. Essentially prices appear lower because of decades-old exclusive government contracts, sometimes with the school district, most of the with the entire state system.

See, in the primary education system, instructors don't get to choose their texts....
For K-12, the buyer, the school system, is also the chooser, so that keeps the prices low. Quality is another issue.
Where I am, in SE Asia, we contact booksellers directly and they order in bulk and bring them in during the 1st/2nd week of semester. Part of the deal for giving them this business is that they provide the books at a discount (i.e. less than the RRP); it's hard to believe that universities/colleges allow on-campus bookstores to sell at ABOVE the RRP. There should be a way to make fair practice a condition for having that lucrative captive market?
I wonder how differently this affects different disciplines. For instance, I doubt just how much the material covered in the basic calculus sequence changes, so there shouldn't be much need for newer editions of a textbook in that realm. For something like political science, given that the social structure of the worlds peoples changes (and doesn't) on an ongoing basis means that some of the details will need updating more quickly. That means that maybe, as ianqui mentioned, the most recent edition or two may work so long as the student can take it upon herself to pony up whatever extra effort is required to overcome any functional differences, e.g. though L'Hopital's Rule is L'Hopital's Rule, the specific exercises used to develop the concept may have changed between editions, so it would be up to the student to find the correct problem set. I find that a minimal expenditure of effort for the gain.

What about providing a few copies of the texts in a centralized departmental area, where students can come and use them? They'd need to be considered more like library reference materials than truly check-out-able books, but that, again, is minimal. There may also be some competition for usage, but this may have a secondary effect: community. One of the things I missed while attending especially my physics and math courses was the flexibility in my schedule to sit down with classmates to work on problems together. If one of the goals of higher education is not only to provide training in the literature, but also to motivate students to become fully vested adults, then this sort of communal resource might be a part of that solution as well.
It's not possible for every course, but in my courses for non-majors, I've moved to using trade-paperbacks and "popular" treatments of the subject. I can have the students buy three $25 books from B&N or Amazon, and still come off cheaper than I would with a proper "textbook".
Come on now, why would an introductory language class *need* a new textbook? Language instruction changes very slowly. Why not pick the best from the last decade's editions and use only used textbooks?

And your complaints about a system where the college buys the books seem poorly thought out. The *point* of such a system is to put the college in the crunch zone. And the college is better able to handle it--pressure publishers, reuse books, or pick inexpensive titles.rtm
Come on now, why would an introductory language class *need* a new textbook? Language instruction changes very slowly. Why not pick the best from the last decade's editions and use only used textbooks?

And your complaints about a system where the college buys the books seem poorly thought out. The *point* of such a system is to put the college in the crunch zone. And the college is better able to handle it--pressure publishers, reuse books, or pick inexpensive titles.
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Lots of good points here.

You do not need the latest edition of a text for most classes.

Used books, on line texts, non text books that cover the same material for a tenth the cost; any of these ideas should be available.

At a 4 year college you may be required to have several text books per class, all written by professors at that college.

There are other options.

I had some challenges buying my textbooks from online discount websites, like or

It was hard to know what books you're using. I attempted to go to the Univ bookstore first, but they simply CLOSED the book section. In other words, you couldn't go in and check out what books you need. If you want to check out a book, a sale assistant would have to 'assist' you. I went to the Univ bookstore's website then. They only posted minimal information, like partial book title, only an author's last name and WITHOUT any ISBN.

It made buying books from discount websites totally guessworks.

An alternative is to purchase the books from the univ bookstores, then order them again online from discount bookstores, then return the books to the univ stores. Unfortunately, the univ stores simply make this process impossible. A MAJORITY of those books come with 'free' materials. They aren't qualified for returning if opened. So much for buying them first to see if you actually need the 'free' stuff.

I ordered all my textbooks online, and then went to the univ bookstores to buy the 'supplementary' stuff. It turned out my instructors didn't even use it.

I think the faculty should do something about it, seriously.
I like your post and I'm going to link to this blog entry at my website,

I recently started it and it's basically a democratic, interactive site that attempts to help students save by showing them all the alternatives to the normal places to buy your textbooks.

Plus it mantains a database of all the best places to buy and sell textbooks on the web in addition and students can vote on which sites that have had the best experiences with, leave reviews, etc. Let me know what you think of it.

I also follow all the current news on textbooks and encourage students to post their tips, tricks and opinions on how to save in the site's forum.

There are some more resources on the site, but you can just check it out and let me know what you think and how you think I could improve it.
When I was in Beijing last year, I saw (apparently) authorized Chinese editions of American computer textbooks selling for $10, when the book in Canada would have sold for $80.

Given that the books in Canadian bookshops are mostly printed in China anyway, and knowing what royalties the authors get, I have a hard time believing that the publishers are raking it in...
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