Monday, August 02, 2010


Textbook Alternatives

My psychic powers tell me that in the next few weeks, as the back-to-school rush hits, we’ll be inundated with complaints about textbook costs. This is about as risky a prediction as guessing that the sun will rise in the East.

Textbook costs are remarkably high and climbing quickly; in the context of a community college, they frequently equal or exceed the actual tuition for the class. Textbook publishers have been remarkably brazen about tamping down competition from the used-book market, whether relying on online codes, frequently updated editions, or ‘bundling’ of textbooks with ‘free’ extras that don’t come with used editions. The idea has been to push students into buying new editions, since that’s where the publisher’s profit is. (Bookstores themselves, I’m told, often make more profit on used books, which creates some interesting internal tensions.)

Financial aid often covers textbook costs, but that’s less transparent than it seems. Financial aid usually consists, at least in part, of loans that must be paid back. In some cases, financial aid includes vouchers for textbooks, but the vouchers are only good at the college bookstore. (As far as I know, the new law requiring disclosure of ISBN numbers for textbooks doesn’t address that, though I could be wrong on that.) And then there’s the uncomfortable fact that many colleges get a cut of textbook revenues, whether directly (when the bookstore is owned by the college) or indirectly (when a bookstore leases space and preferred access). In the latter case, the more profitable the bookstore, the more rent it’s willing to pay, so the incentives wind up pretty similar.

I’ve been hearing predictions of catastrophic, technology-driven change in the textbook market for years now, but haven’t seen it yet on the ground. Among the game-changers, I’m told, are the ipad, the kindle, free/open websites, and textbook rental programs.

Based on my own experience with the kindle, I’m skeptical there, at least so far. Yes, they’re cheaper than they once were, but they’re hard to use for quick thumbing-through. Note-taking is inelegant at best, and you can’t share (or sell back) downloaded copies when you’re done with them. The same seems to apply with the ipad, which is also (in my limited observation) kinda heavy for a reader.

Free/open websites are platform-independent, which is nice, and the price is right. But they require screen and internet access, they often require printing, and if they vanish, they vanish.

Textbook rentals sound promising to me, though I’m not entirely sure how highlighting or marginal note-taking works with that model. In my student days, I sometimes made some less-than-civil comments in the margins as a way of making even the driest text “interactive.” If you have to treat the book like your aunt’s sofa with the plastic still on it, I suspect that many students will take the path of least immediate resistance and simply not bother with it at all.

The new Higher Ed Authorization Act requires making public the titles and ISBN’s of assigned textbooks as early as practicable, with the goal of introducing some competition -- or at least the prospect of competition -- into the textbook market as a way to control costs. (The idea is that an enterprising student could crib the list and get the same books on Amazon for less.) In some limited contexts, that may help, but I’d be surprised if it made much of a dent overall. Too many professors wait until the last minute to pick books anyway, too many students wait until the last minute (or later) to buy them, and too many financial aid packages include nontransferable book vouchers. But at least it’s something.

Since my campus has been relatively slow to move on this, I’m eager to hear from those of my wise and worldly readers who’ve seen some or all of these tried. If you’ve taught (or studied) on a campus that used open source, or kindle, or rental solutions, how well did they work? What didn’t work? What do you wish you had known first? I’m hoping to find some practical way to help students avoid getting shocked on cost without sacrificing usefulness.

I don't see a perfect solution out there. In the short run I assign economics textbooks from which offers free online access, some modest student tools, and fairly low cost printing and downloading options. Students with uncertain Internet access can pay about $25 for a set of PDF chapters, or can order a B/W printed copy for something like $40.

In the long run, our pedagogic model needs to move away from texts and more towards primary sources.
I remember hearing of one electrical engineering prof who got sick of high textbook prices and took action.

He had written a circuits textbook decades ago. It was long out of print, so the rights had reverted to him, but he still had the original microfilm used in the production process. He used that book rather than a more recent text. The examples were a generation out of date, of course, but the math still worked, which was the point. And it was cheap: after copy-shop printing and a modest royalty to himself, the cost came to something like $15.

I expect you might be able, as an institution, to arrange something similar for subjects with stable content, such as calculus. Locate an old but usable textbook that does not have a current edition, and negotiate with the author to be allowed to reprint it. You should be able to get it for half a pittance.
Welcome back from the woods! Glad you didn't run into any Momma Grizzlies like happened out in Montana. We await a Story.

Our college has tried some or all of the above, but it is a bit too early for me to have a clear view on anything other than the vouchers.

The vouchers are required because of criminals that would, say, accept the voucher in exchange for other items, such as beer or drugs or school swag - just as happened with Food Stamps. As with other things (limits on "extra" courses even if required for sophomores in a particular major), good students pay the price for crooked institutions.

I have no idea how many students cannot buy books from alternate sources, but my suggestion is that you ask your students or ask the private bookstores. I do know that making textbook info available early allows students to buy copies from a variety of non-Amazon sources that handle books sold at prices that suggest a questionable (overseas?) origin. I have that info available many months in advance on the web.

The best deal right now is for math books that nobody keeps, like algebra, where the on-line homework access (very expensive) is sold with an electronic copy of the book at a very modest extra cost. I see this widely used, and few students try to print the entire book using campus resources.

We also have recently added rentals through the college bookstore. The price seems high to me, but it is below the cost of buy-and-resell. However, I have not asked students about it, but have also not heard any rude comments from them about that program.

BTW, many places self-publish a lab manual and I am thinking of doing that because of the absurdly high cost of the commercial ones.
I teach philosophy; one of the textbooks I use is nothing BUT long out of copyright primary sources that are ALL available on Gutenberg. Okay, the textbook has a couple short articles still in copyright from 20th-century philosophers, but we don't often use them in that particular class, and it has a paragraph describing the life of each philosopher, which is no higher in quality than Wikipedia has (certainly not nearly as good as the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

I have been asking for three or four years now to be allowed to compile the texts from gutenberg, slap on short Wikipedia bios if they're that attached to the bios, and print the whole mess up at for $12. Offer students the option of a printed text from lulu, using the texts online, printing them themselves, etc.

The department keeps refusing because "nobody's ever done it that way before."

Well, DUH. But it's not like we're getting such great success with an $84 textbook that comes out with new editions every two years. (Two years! What changes about Socrates in two years????) and won't sell chemistry textbooks to the bookstore if the bookstore carries old editions of philosophy textbooks. We're a community college, students are on tight budgets, and it's just CRIMINAL to make them pay $84 for out-of-copyright texts.

The other two textbooks I use the most are less expensive and have a lot of textbook material -- explanations and narrative and so forth -- to supplement the primary texts, and they don't offend me nearly as much.
There is no ONE solution. I think the best that any school can/should do is give the students as many options as possible. While some students might prefer to rent, others would prefer to buy (with the intention of keeping) their textbooks. Some would prefer the hardcopy while others are okay with an electronic version. And my preference for these options would change depending upon which book and how often I would use it.

Also, it is one thing to find a book that the professor would like to add at the last minute; But, it is altogether different when such professors are always late with their textbook lists. It is a part of bad teaching for the professor to wait until the last minute to select a textbook. What have such teachers been doing in the past?

For graduate school I ordered almost all of my textbooks from Amazon (and quite a few from Amazon.UK) and nothing was more annoying than having to pay extra for quicker shipping simply because the list of books needed were not made available until the first day of class. One would then hope that the textbook was NOT on back-order (the reason for so many of my textbooks being ordered from Amazon.UK)
In many science/math courses, especially if the teacher makes his notes/powerpoint material available thru handouts or blackboard, you can get by with a down-level edition of the text purchased for a few dollars over the internet. I think the professor has a big responsibility to structure his/her courses to allow for this and to make the pertinent information available early, as a matter of social justice if nothing else.

Eyebrows McGee's comments are spot on for some philosophy courses and for a lot of lit courses; there's an immense ammount of public domain material out there (I base this on my conversations with my colleagues in those disciplines).

In some disciplines (like mine--economics), unfortunately, textbooks are still more-or-less a necessity, in order to convey a unified overview of the underlying theory. So we're sort of stuck.

There are some options which DD did not mention. One is to use older editions of the texts. In general, little of the theory has changed, and these books are fairly readily available from on-line used booksellers (one can, for example, buy a copy of one of the best-selling intro econ texts--by Greg Mankiw--and the study guide from a bookseller at Abe Books ( for $1 each, plus about $4 shipping for each).

There's also the UK system, in which the faculty member essentially says, "Here's a set of acceptable books; get whichever one suits you. You may have to make sure that what you read matches what we're doing in class, because not all books are organized in the same way...")

I've looked at Flat World ( and also at Best Value Textbooks (, both of which have some acceptable books in economics.

Frankly, the problem gets harder to solve in advanced courses. There are fewer textbook options (including almost none from the open source sites, at least in econ), and the books are even more expensive (and they typically don't come with a bunch of ancillary materials, either). For example, an intro macro text I have used sells (full price) for $125. The book I have tended to use for managerial economics sells for $175. If the ancillaries have some value, the "true" price differential is larger than that. (Another example--general chem books seem to run around $150; physical chem books are around $250.)
in my senior capstone class, our prof demanded that we buy a certain book. he provided a link where we could get this 75 page book for $160. half of the class bought it, until someone in the class found a site that offered the paperback version for $50. because he was too lazy, the prof had 20 students spend an extra $110 for binding. ulgh.

as a student, i always wondered the following:
- why don't professors band together, and tell a given publisher that they will all use that publisher's books if the publisher will reduce price by 20% (increasing volume)?
- why don't departments get grant money to buy textbooks, buy them in mass amounts at a discounted price, and then sell them to students at cost (creating enough inventory for many years of textbooks, to escape the 'new edition' problem)?

the price isn't the only problem. publishers make books for k-12 that are meant to last for 5-10 years of continuous use. but college level books have minimal quality. mine often fell apart after 1/2 of a semester's use.

i had some professors that made their own books with their own material and problems (mostly in math & engineering classes), and you could pick up the book at any of the local copy shops for $15 or so. those books were great. they were generally more informative & helpful than any $150 book.
Two points to reply to:

"Textbook rentals sound promising to me"
Overall, it may be, but it's been stupidly implemented where I am. I teach general chemistry. The textbook rental price for 1 semester is half the cost of a new book. Sounds great until you realize that general chemistry is a 2-semester sequence. So if you rent, you pay roughly the same amount and don't get to resell the book at the end (I'm not so delusional as to think that many of my students hang on to their texts).

"In some limited contexts, that may help, but I’d be surprised if it made much of a dent overall"
It sounds like there are reasons this may be different at a community college, but a lot of students have already been doing this without necessarily having the ISBN. It increases the competition among retailers, but that's not really where the problem lies. My university's bookstore actually sells the chem 101 book cheaper for only three dollars more than Amazon (155 vs. 152). Three dollars may be worth the convenience. The bigger problem is that there is a monopoly further up the chain. There is only one book for the class, and there is only one publisher of that book. I don't really see a way around it, but that's the core of the matter. That, and that the prof or department doesn't directly feel the cost.

Another significant factor, though, is the used book market. to get the same profits, textbook manufacturers set higher prices if they know the books will be resold (meaning lower sales in the future). They also put in all that bundling stuff and the far to frequent new editions in order to suppress the used book market.

One solution we're thinking of implementing locally is to get a textbook in a binder. The publisher prints only the pages you need, and you put it in a binder instead of it being bound, so it's somewhat cheaper. We haven't implemented it yet for 2 reasons: (1) we'd have to switch to the new edition next year, making the custom book un-resellable (2) the cost savings are really pretty minimal (still the same monopoly at the top - it doesn't pay to make a product that undercuts its main product by too much).
This fall I will be teaching intro calculus using a textbook that is one edition older than the current one. The editions are almost identical, and calculus hasn't changed since around 1900, so using a three-year-old textbook will work just fine for the students. It is available for as little as $5 used online. New it would cost around $125. I'm hoping most students have their act together and order the book online.

Using older editions is not The Solution to the problem. It may be impractical for large classes. My calculus class is 30-35; I teach at a very small school. But if enough people did this it might put some modest pressure on the publishers.

It seems to me that a longer term and more practical alternative is to bypass the for-profit publishers entirely. Perhaps professional societies could play a role here. E.g., maybe the Mathematics Society of America (MAA) could commission a few textbooks in key introductory fields. The MAA could provide good quality control and support to authors, and then publish the books at around a third of the price of regular texts. MAA wouldn't play games with new editions every few years, so there would be a large bunch of used books on the market, further helping students.

As others have pointed out, self-published and/or open-source textbooks is one way to go. I used such a book for a linear algebra class. It worked well and saved the students around $100 each. But it is hard for individuals to fight the textbook giants. Well organized professional societies are better positioned for this.
Last year I compared the new edition of my textbook to the previous edition and saw they were almost identical. Then I told my students that they could use either edition, and the older edition was much, much cheaper...
My university system's Board of Rich VIPs has recently adopted a policy to encourage professors to consider textbook costs and try to reduce them for students. That's the entirety of the policy, so I'm skeptical of its usefulness but at least the Board of Rich VIPs is aware of the problem.
I can see how text rentals would be promising, but it's not an answer for people who like to keep their books. I kept a lot of mine, and my husband (currently going for a BA) keeps most of his.

One thing that concerns me with online texts/readers, is how will we teach students to study? I used to teach a study skills course, and many area colleges require such a course for freshmen. Highlighters, writing in the text, flipping through the book--these options are available, or at minimal, not as useful in other media. Giving students an option to print seems contradictory when many school begin pushing the "go green" and/or charge for printing. at 10-12 cents a page (sometimes more) for books for 4-5 classes, this hardly seems like the best answer.

One class I TA'd for years ago offer a cheap reader. The prof had complied the reading he wanted, found someone to print it and give it a generic cover. Total student cost, $30. That's not doable for everyone, but it worked there.

Personally, I don't think I'll ever NOT want the actual book, with the experiences and freedom that come with it.
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In my not-so-long-ago student life, I tried a variety of cost saving measures on textbooks. I did renting, bought online, traded with friends/classmates, and used book exchanges.

My opinions on these:
-Renting is nice. At my grad school, where it was on the quarter system, it worked really well because the service I used,, prorated rentals based on your school's term length. The books I got were of good quality, I don't tend to mark up books, and I don't mind getting a book that's a little marked up, so that was not a concern. The cost savings was quite significant and it was a convenient process overall.

-Buying online is my go-to process. There are dozens of websites that help you search both the purchasing and renting options when you have the ISBN- which is one reason I am so delighted with the new law on the disclosure. When I can, I love using Amazon's third-party purchasing to buy from small non-chain bookstores in other parts of the country.

-The University of Kansas book exchange was a really cool model- like a freecycle or something for textbooks; I don't know if it still exists, but I highly doubt it. It was officially a student organization on campus, registered with student services and everything. You posted to a forum what books (mainly for the low level gen-ed classes) you had, that you wanted to be rid of, and others wrote to you offering trades or a reasonable price for the book. It was simple, elegant, and gave the bookstore absolute hysterics. Best system for these intro class materials I've seen.

One thing I have not done since my freshman year of college (2002) was buy a book at the bookstore. Online purchasing saved me hundreds of dollars per term, and shipping was usually plenty fast to get the book to me in time for classes. If shipping was late, there's always a copy of the book on hold at the library, to tide you over. I tell all my friends and relatives who are students that the campus official bookstore is really a complete waste of money, if you can possibly get the book any other way.
To okie.floyd: I think eyebrows Mcgee answers your question: professors don't band together because doing something like that "hasn't been done" by this department, or at this school. Or worse, some of the faculty I work with just find it easier to not fight the system.
There's cost and work transferal here as well. At my college, the big selling point for textbooks is the test banks, whether LMS-ready or not. When I started, I was surprised at how many instructors simply taught from the textbook (Chapter 1 = Week 1, etc).

We've shifted faculty work such as developing curriculum and writing exams to the textbook publishing industry. If I were a blamin' kinda guy, I'd say it's because there are fewer full-time faculty, and part-timers are too busy driving to do it. And because faculty pay is low enough that the time spent writing curriculum is better spent doing things that make real money.

The faculty I work with are, for the most part, concerned about the costs to students. But they find themselves with few viable options.
I teach many developmental English courses at a a community college and one of the major challenges is to find options which engage students. Most developmental textbooks and anthologies are not, in my opinion, great.

We've had success in my English department working together to develop course readers sold through our campus bookstore and through a few publishers' websites. This has necessitated collaboration and trust among our faculty which is actually working out really well. Over the past four years we've had 8 full-time faculty members and 6 adjunct faculty members assign our home grown readers and/or participate in developing ideas for new developmental comp readers.

Faculty design common themes, give ouselves a general reading length minimum and maximum, and we all go off to find a few readings that work with each theme so no one has to do too much work. While virtually all textbook companies have the option to create your own reader (which really lowers the cost) it's still hard to find (enough) good selections so we're increasingly building our own anthologies working together for the benefit of our students. Our bookstore has been great about getting permissions for readings for us and guesstimating what it would cost to sell a reader through the bookstore before we do ALL the work. Most readers sold through the bookstore used by faculty in our department sell for under $25.00 making them a reasonable investment for students to make since they will use ALL or MOST of the readings (unlike a textbook or an anthology where students only use a few readings).

Another benefit of using readers published by our bookstore is that the bookstore classifies them as workbooks meaning students cannot sell the readers back at the end of the semester. Students know this and are much more willing to annotate and highlight their readers knowing that they can't sell them back. It's a sunk cost for them.

I self-publish a lab manual for our stats lab--we fit the topics/order to match our lectures, we can change the questions regularly, and it's cheap for the students. A little extra work for me, but a win-win for everyone else. If you can get a group of faculty to share the work of writing it in the first place, it isn't hard at all.

My university also uses a rental system for all entry-level class books. $50 total per student per semester that covers all their classes. Some faculty complain that they can only switch books every three years, but that seems like a minimal downside to saving the students hundreds of dollars a year. And who really writes meaningful notes in the margin of their Calc (or American Gov, or World History, or whatever) intro textbook?
"because he was too lazy, the prof had 20 students spend an extra $110 for binding. ulgh."

And because the students were too lazy, they didn't look to see if there were lower-priced options. Professors should include price in their decisions about which books to use, but I don't think it's their responsibility to comparison shop for the cheapest binding or retailer for a book.
Many adjuncts are caught in a bind with this issue; I would LOVE to use open source materials for my stats class, but my department tells me what book to use, which chapters must be covered (nearly all of them) and when to upgrade.

Since the big difference semester to semester seems to be the homework problems, however, I am going to try something new this semester. I will be creating PDFs of the homework problems so that I don't have to care what version of the book a student has.
I've noticed that nearly a majority of students in my physics department are now either using the cheaper asian market textbooks or are (illegally) downloading the contents for free online.
Some comments on previous posts:
(1) “It is a part of bad teaching for the professor to wait until the last minute to select a textbook.”
I, as well as many of my colleagues, revise our syllabi to take account of new or different materials. For example, I am spending the summer reading in some new areas, and hope to introduce some of this new material to my students this fall. Ergo, I won’t have a completed syllabus until the week before the semester begins. Whereas my administration might consider this “bad teaching” (because I didn’t order my fall textbooks last April, when our university bookstore wants us to), I consider it good teaching to try to be up-to-date. Btw, I have emailed students a list of books that I will use, including the books for the first month of the course.
(2) “ … - why don't departments get grant money to buy textbooks, buy them in mass amounts at a discounted price, and then sell them to students at cost (creating enough inventory for many years of textbooks, to escape the 'new edition' problem)?”
Who will administer this program? Our already over-extended admin assistants? Where will the books be stored? Not to mention the accounting issues – and the fact that I doubt our administration would allow us to do this, given their investment in our local Barnes and Noble.
Finally, I’m in the field of literary studies, so textbook costs are no longer a huge problem, because of Project Guttenberg, Dover, etc. In fact, I rarely order textbooks – I just email students with a list of texts before the semester starts, and tell them to pick up whatever format/version they prefer. I also recommend a few websites, where I have found cheap print copies.
I was on a couple of textbook committees and a separate textbook rental task force. Textbook rentals look good, if you already have a system in place. They are effective in keeping the price low for students on a semester by semester basis. When will implemented, they also provide great flexibility for the faculty. They do not have to be a one-size fits all solution.

That said there are several problems with textbook rentals. One, that DD mentioned is the problem of writing or highlighting books. Students will "loose money" if they trash the book (i'm look'in at you highlighter brigade, you don't need to highlight every paragraph on every page as you "read"). So if thats you, renting isn't going to work out money wise.

Second, there is a barrier to entry. At some point, someone has to plunk down a lot of capital to get the rental system set up and running. At state schools that means an additional appropriation from the legislature. Many systems require a regular subsidy so that they can keep up the accelerating costs of textbooks. So ultimately, there has to be a subsidy.

Third, and this really probably applies more to four year schools, even though book prices will be lower for the student body as a whole some students will subsidize other students. Literature and English classes that assign cheap mass market paperbacks will subsidize the more expensive lab science and language classes with the hardcover glossy textbooks. There are ways to mitigate this somewhat, but not if you are using a flat rate textbook fee. Is it fair to ask the English or drama major to subsidize the nursing students textbooks?

Rentals will not solve the fundamental problem: textbook publishers are a cartel that can extort rent on information. When information was scarce, they provided a reasonable and mostly affordable service. Its not clear if they are still providing that reasonable service. Its certainly not affordable.
I'd like to see more university-written or professor-written textbooks, at least for intro-level mathematics courses (possibly in other areas as well, but math is where I'm most comfortable making assertions about How To Do It Right). To encourage this, I'd suggest making working on the departmental textbook for your department count as part of research/publishing for tenure purposes.

That wouldn't help at a typical CC, where research isn't a big part of tenure, and probably wouldn't make a whole lot of sense at an R1 that really wants the typical research, but at a SLAC or teaching-oriented previously-normal-school state school it would make a lot of sense.

If a, say, 10-person math department put some of their current research efforts toward it, I'd imagine they could start with their first for-credit College Algebra class, get that book done in a few years, and them move on to pre-calculus and then calculus. In about 10 years, that school would have textbooks that precisely fit the curriculum the faculty wanted and didn't cost the students more than printing fees and a small royalty, which would be a much better deal than they get now. Plus, to tie this back to an earlier thread, the texts would fit the faculty philosophy on calculator use, whatever it may be.
I work as an Academic Advisor and am also personally working on my master's degree, so I have the opportunity to see this regularly from both the student's and the school's perspective. My institution tries to be as flexible as possibe in offering options for students purchasing their books. Students can use the university bookstore, buy online through discounters (e.g., Amazon), buy used from a variety of online retailers (e.g., eBay's, buy used directly from fellow students, and though I've yet to see any do so, rent the textbook from a textbook rental company (e.g., Skoobit and Chegg).

Though this is obviously a complex issue, I'd like to throw into the mix a much larger textbook issue - that of textbook quality. So far in my master's program, I've experienced both extremes of the spectrum - textbooks that are so good, I know I'll never part with them and textbooks that are so bad, I'm astounded any publisher had the guts to associate themselves with the book. With the former, I don't mind so much paying a bit for the book, but for the latter, I'm incensed that I had to waste my hard earned money on such a useless resource. While textbooks will likely always be expensive, no matter which way or in what form they are purchased, if students at least had confidence that they were buying quality resources, I think some of their frustration would be eased.
I see a lot of confusion about rentals among commenters. I have never seen or experienced a university doing its own system of textbook rentals- I don't know if anyone even does this. I find that textbook rentals are vastly more common as a national mail-order model, like Chegg or others. I can see practically no reason for an individual university to do this kind of thing, the national model is far more economical. If people are too lazy to rent online, then they'll pay the premium for the convenience of the bookstore, and if that's the case they have no grounds to complain about the purchase price of the book.
Here at a 4 year non flagship state university where I am a student, we have what we call a rental system. However - there are no costs to the students directly. We "rent" the books and have to pay absolutely nothing unless we do not return them. This means, of course, that we reuse the same textbooks for a class for many years in a row, but (as a student) I've never seen a problem with this. It's not as if the texts become out of date. The books are picked by the departments when purchased. English classes and others often have books that need to be purchased, but these are most often cheap novels and the like. Some classes we do have to buy ridiculously expensive texts for - mainly ones that have some kind of "online" component.

Overall, it's one of the greatest things about this school, and every student loves it. Some professors complain that the students need to keep the texts as resources - but of course we *could* keep the text if we wanted to pay for it. This rarely ever happens.

I'm not sure what the faculty thinks of the policy. Sometimes they complain about the text (as for most regular classes they don't get a choice - it was often picked by the department 10 years ago) -- but speaking as a student, the difficulties they might encounter from a text that they find subpar (but the department thought worthy) are far less important then the huge savings the student body is receiving. And our tuition is already one of the lowest in the state - for a university which is second, academically, only to flagship u.
My bookstore requires textbook lists for fall courses in May. They don't put this information up on their website until after August 1st. Guess I shouldn't have let my login access to the departmental website expire so I could have posted the list there.

My frustration is the number of students who try to wing it without textbooks. I'm sympathetic to the costs (and try to pick the cheapest editions or alternatives that will fill the bill) but I can't tell a student that not buying the textbook is a workable option!

This problem affects students especially when I try to reduce their costs by eliminating readers and supplementary texts, exploiting every element of the one or two required texts to the utmost.

I have made custom readers in the past. My problem is that the bookstore is very hostile to readers that they don't produce (and they produce readers of crappy photocopy quality) that it's more frustrating that helpful.
"I have never seen or experienced a university doing its own system of textbook rentals- I don't know if anyone even does this. "

Mine does. As I said, it doesn't work very well for our department. It may work better for others.

"I can see practically no reason for an individual university to do this kind of thing, the national model is far more economical."

I'm not sure this is true. For a large university, where the same book gets used semester after semester, rentals seem to me like they'd be a decent business plan. Less so for books that don't get used by large numbers of students each semester, of course.
In several courses, I write my own lecture notes and make them freely available on the course web page, instead of using a textbook. The primary motivation is that I don't like the textbooks out there, but this also has the advantage of saving students money.

I find that my lecture notes are less polished than a textbook, but that students tend to like them better, because they are very closely tailored to what we do in class. In comparison, the textbooks that are available try to cover all topics, and do it poorly, so they aren't well-matched to the course. (For the same reason, my lecture notes probably wouldn't be an ideal basis for some other instructor teaching a similar course, because there would be enough dissimilarity in approach to render my notes unuseful to the other instructor.)

Writing lecture notes is incredibly time-consuming, so it's not a very scalable solution -- but it has many benefits, if you can afford to do it.
Eyebrows McGee: Why don't you just go ahead with creating the binder that you have in mind and using it to teach your course? Why bother asking for permission? The rule I learned in academia was: it's easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission.

Sounds like a pretty dysfunctional department if they insist on micromanaging your teaching. And in a dysfunctional department, perhaps the best strategy is either to ignore their silly power games, or to get out while you can.
"You posted to a forum what books (mainly for the low level gen-ed classes) you had, that you wanted to be rid of, and others wrote to you offering trades or a reasonable price for the book."

I actually implemented such a thing in my last job, starting with an open source web app and tweaking to fit. When I looked, they're still using it, or something very similar.

It was a huge hit right out of the gate, and replaced a physical bulletin board system that had also been popular. One of those projects that I felt really good about completing, because it was useful!
Maybe no one has ever done it that way at your CC, but the equivalent has been done at our CC. A group of faculty got together and wrote the text for a large enrollment class that had no suitable text available anywhere. In another instance, they use an "assemble your own text" that is increasingly easy to do with on-line textbooks.

In addition, that sort of thing was done at my university in a previous century without any of the tools available today.

Contrary to what Anonymous writes at 12:27 pm (deep in the comments), it could be easier to do this at a CC than at a university. No one would get tenure for putting together a book that is essentially free and has little if any new content in it, but a CC could (should) credit this sort of pedagogical improvement and might even give release time to make it happen.
I have been using For All X, a free, open access textbook for my logic class at a community college. I have the local Kinko's make some spiral bound copies which can be sold for a small fee. Every student I have had so far has wanted a paper copy. No one likes reading on line.

The text is a little advanced for my students, so I am gradually making a more accessible version, which is the kind of thing you can do with a creative commons license.

If the members of individual disciplines can settle on a small range of free open access texts as pedagogically sound for that field, this model could take over college teaching.
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