Why Are College Textbooks so Expensive?

April 25, 2006

There was a small article in today’s Wall Street Journal about how Costly Textbooks Draw Scrutiny of Lawmakers ($). Yes, textbooks are expensive. But, there was one practice that always irritated me to no end:

1. I buy a $75 textbook for a class.

2. I take care of the textbook so that I can sell it back at the end of the semester.

3. The semester is over. I take the textbook back to the bookstore, wait in line for 30 minutes and then get told that they don’t need any more of this particular textbook but they will take it off my hands for $5. Scam! Big-time scam. They were banking on the fact that I wouldn’t want the textbook, buy it back from me for $5 and then turn around and sell it “used” for $45.

Keep in mind that this was back in the day before the internet really took off. So, the bookstores basically had an on-campus monopoly. I’m curious: what do college students do now? Are there any good textbook exchanges or cheap places to buy books? Let me know so I can share them with my readers.

23 responses to Why Are College Textbooks so Expensive?

  1. I tell you, this has aggravated me to no end. I spent $300 on textbooks for my Financial Accounting class – grad school – and got virtually no money back at the end of the quarter because they decided to switch to a new volume!

  2. I started buying and selling all of my old textbooks on half.com. Lots of students also use Amazon Marketplace.

  3. My friends and I sell our used textbooks on half.com or amazon.com marketplace. You can also list them on textbookx.com (note the unusual spelling). Although I’ve never tried it, I’ve heard others say that it’s a decent site.

    I bought my last textbook through amazon.com marketplace for $40 less than it was listed anywhere else online. And it was a brand new hardcover. My classmates bought the paperback version from the campus bookstore for more than the online price for the hardback version! Total scam.

  4. Why is it so hard to find the used book store on campus? Why do I have to have the LATEST version of the “Ideas of Object Oriented Programming”?

    Publish or perish is not just about professors publishing research papers, there is GOLD in them thar text books!


  5. I saw a breakdown once, many moons ago, of where the money goes. The authors get almost nothing. Basically, the logic goes, if I recall correctly, since there are so relatively few copies printed, these high-quality publications must sell for an exorbitant amount to make up for all the cost incurred in the writing, publishing, distributing, and retailing the book.

    JLP, since you recently wrote about how much you hate to complain without providing alternative solutions … the only thing that comes to mind is, maybe we can try to force the publishers/retailers to simplify the distribution process? If the book passes through fewer hands, maybe it will cost a bit less.

  6. I dont actually know how much money authors receive, however in law school, my experience was that many professors used the textbooks they wrote. New editions means old editions are obsolete, so it is a forced “upgrade” cycle.

  7. I always bought my books for cheap off Half.com or Amazon.com. Later, I would sell it back to the bookstore (that five bucks is not so bad if you only paid 8!) or would sell it on Half or Amazon.

    Then I got smart and started taking my books out of the library. Harder, but possible, and free!

  8. I’m by no means an expert in this area. However, I have talked with colleagues on occasion. So let me respond to a couple of the commenters.

    JLP was correct – the pricing scheme is due to the fact that textbook sales were a “local monopoly” in the pre-internet days. Bookstores could repurchase books in bulk and even trade them between themselves. With no outside options, the students had little sellijng power. Now, with the web (and sites like those mentioned), prices get driven down closer to their costs.

    Vladimir: I doubt that “we” could do much to pressure distributors. Remember ECON 101- prices are not driven by costs (whether of production or distribution), but by the interaction of supply and demand. As online alternatives become more well known, prices will of necessity drop to compete.

    MB: the typical royalty for textbooks is probably between from 12-25% (at least based on conversations I’ve had with colleagues. For most faculty (at least in law opr business), a textbook is not a real money maker. For a few (i.e. if you have the leading text in a required core course), it can run into the mid to high 6 figures.

  9. Toward the end of my college career I just stopped buying text books all together… you learn after a while that most classes didn’t really use them (tests were based of in-class lecture material) and if they were required (usually for assignments) I’d be sure to join a study group with others that did have them.

  10. I do what Brian does – I quit buying texts. There either unnecessary, on reserve at the library, or easy to borrow. Thie semester I saed over 400 dollars. BTW, I’m a Personal Finance Major – and I enjoy the blog.

  11. There was a class I took that had 3 “required” books and 15 “recommended” books; it came to a grand total of ~$600. Ouch. What we did was a “mini-library” — the three of us each bought one of the required books and two of the recommended books. The rest, if actually needed, we figured we could obtain through swapping or borrowing from the campus library. It worked out beautifully. Not only did we save money, but we learned more from studying together.

    The downside to relying on the library is that the books are always checked out. Some required texts were checked out even before the semester started!

  12. I’ve always loved the textbook story my father told me. This was, of course, YEARS ago and there was no Amazon, Internet, or anything.

    Like us, he hated getting messed over by the buy-a-used-book-for five-cents-and-sell-it-for-25.00 scheme, so he sauntered into the bookstore one day, opened up the cover of one of the sales versions of a textbook he owned, and slid a card in. The card said, “Want to buy this book for 15.00 less than you can get it here? Call . . . ”

    I’ve always thought that was a great story.

  13. I’ve had the pleasure of taking classes pre-amazon.com / pre-half.com and more recently.
    It’s amazing how different things are.
    I have to admit I usually save my texts for future reference, so I focussed on buying cheaper – usually used books.
    Even in the old days there were used bookstores off campus that offered good discounts. You did have to look around for them.
    I agree that the library copies were seldom available.
    Today I go to http://www.abebooks.com to find cheap used books. It’s a metasearch of the various used bookstores. For the class I’m currently taking it worked well. Amazon is also helpful, but I think it’s a bit more expensive than abebooks.com.

    Here’s an article I wrote in March on the cheapest ways to buy books:

    Have a wonderful Thursday,

  14. I will select some online bookstore for buy textbooks. E.g. Cocomartini.com

    Big discounts and all textbooks are Brand new. I save more then $300.

    Then, I no need to worry about how to sell back. Good!

  15. I have purchased books from many different sites but I use a textbook price comparison site like campusbooks.com to see which site I should use. It is free.

    To save myself time at the end of the semester I use the buyback tool on the site to see what the book is worth before I head to the buyback counter. That way when they offer me nothing I know I have other options.

  16. thanks Jessica, I buy 2 textbooks from Cocomartini.com online bookstore. Save me $200. Thank you very much.


  17. I use http://www.mybooksforcheap.com it’s free to sell and you exchange from others at your school. For buying books its nice because it searches a bunch of site with just one search.

  18. I have spent so much money during my first few semesters at college until I found Chegg.com they are awesome ! They rent college textbooks by semester at such a lower price at first it was hard to believe until I tried it! TRUST ME I WILL NEVER BUY A TEXTBOOK AGAIN ! One textbook that could have cost me $157 I got it at Chegg for just $37 !

    So stop wasting your money and start renting from Chegg.com. I’m on the bandwagon and I’ve saved enough to buy all my term papers! Not really, but I have saved some serious cash by Chegging my books. It’s so simple, just search for the books you need and place your order. Chegg will ship them to you fast and at the end of the term you ship them back for free. What’s really cool is that they plant a tree for every book that you rent.

    I have a promo code that will save you an additional 5% off your total order, useCC120927.

  19. Buying textbooks is a thing of the past thanks to Chegg.com. Rent your books for cheap and not only will you save hundreds, but you’ll get even more savings if you use this discount code CC122589. Rent your textbooks at Chegg.com.

  20. I always use Chegg to rent textbooks instead of buying from the bookstore. I wanted to share a promotional code that your readers can use to get a discount on renting with Chegg. Simply put in the code when ordering and hit the “apply” button. The code also gives you back an additional $5 when selling Chegg your used texts.

    Use code CC123047

    The code never expires so it can be used over and over! Feel free to share this with other starving students.

  21. gotta play devils advocate.

    look, it’s not up to the bookstore. it’s the publishers. i manage a bookstore for a major textbook retailer and it’s a lot more complicated than it seems. on average, we typically stand to make about $5-10 per new textbook sale and $15-25 on a used sale. we want to buy your books back, but we must account for our competitors. so the next time you hear a bookseller tell you we only have 20 books for a class that has 27 students in it, you know why. not to mention, what other product allows you to purchase it and return it for 50% of what you paid for it once you’ve used it and possibly written in it? here’s a little heads up, you can control what the stores sell. a lot of times professors ask for feedback on their books. see, bookstores only bring in books that the teachers select. if a teacher really likes a book and it receives good feedback, we are more apt to buy it back continuously. if your teacher seems to jump around in their text, there is always the option to create a customized text. these are typically substantially less expensive than what the publishers put out. there are less fees that must be paid out to contributors of the text. right now, there are about 20 different custom texts in my store that range from about $6-25, and they are bound and unbound. and one more tip, if you want to sell your books back, do it EARLY. those who wait until the end of their finals week or longer typically miss out on some serious cash.

  22. there are many used books sale in our area and i frequently visit them to buy some “

  23. $75? What planet are you on? Try $220 for a USED Microbiology book and now you have to buy n electronic response card for tests for another 50 bux used!! Professor won’t ever correct tests anymore.