Are Used Textbooks To Blame For The High Price Of Textbooks?

from the damn-that-marketability dept

It’s back to school season, and once again, students are getting gouged on textbooks. There are plenty of reasons for this. The biggest has been that you had inelastic demand. Students were required to buy the textbooks and, especially in a pre-internet age, there were usually only one or two sources where you could buy the books. That’s started to change thanks to the internet, but the NY Times has an odd opinion piece suggesting that the inelastic demand has nothing to do with high book prices, and that it’s all due to those damned used book sales. The idea presented by the accounting professor who wrote the article is that book publishers have to sell textbooks at an insanely high price in order to capture the profits from the additional sales afterwards. That may make sense from an accounting standpoint, but it doesn’t hold up under an economic analysis. You might be able to make the case that thanks to used book sales, students are more willing to pay the high price for a book knowing they can resell it at the end of the semester and recoup some of the costs. However, the idea that the book publisher is baking in all that extra profit to offset future resales ignores the fact that the market should squeeze out that extra margin — if there was a real free market. The professor’s suggestion that school’s simply buy site licenses to textbooks and have the schools pay a set fee per student is an interesting one that could make sense in some circumstances, but hardly seems likely to cure the problem of high prices. If anything, it gets rid of the competitive price pressures of the market, and simply opens up additional opportunities for publishers to gouge even more by charging higher rates while knowing there were no substitute products (used books) in the market.

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Comments on “Are Used Textbooks To Blame For The High Price Of Textbooks?”

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Steve R. (profile) says:

High Prices but no Quality Control

The textbooks I see today are full of proofreading errors. One would think that with all the new technology that we have at our disposal proofreading errors would be extinct. Since they are not, it would seem that books should be cheaper since there are evidently less editors reviewing the books and much of the production process is now “simplified” with word processing programs. I guess publishers must buy those expensive ink cartridges sold by HP and Lexmark.

Josh says:

Same old...

It’s always a hit to the wallet going for books. I know that I’ve actually not bought required books for courses because they were just too damn much. I was able to get by with stellar teaching and some good friends who did have the books. Some of these people bought books on eBay, including some with “Not for sale outside of Singapore, Bangladesh and Pakistan” warnings on them (I did my undergrad in Canada). I also has professors who used their notes as our text, some of which were as good as or better than books for sale at the campus bookstore. Maybe it’s the students and teachers that can help things out by being more innovative than the textbook publishers (who don’t seem keen on the whole innovation thing anyway).

Jesper says:

More than that

There are a number of factors involved in driving prices up, only some of which are captured in the post and the article mentioned.

1) Inelastic demand. Er. Well not really, more of a principle agent problem. It’s not that demand is inelastic, its that the decision maker (the professor) is’t the one paying all the fees (likely his/her copy was comped anyway). Students are stuck with a choice made on their behalf that could have taken price into account. Students should work more closely with their professors to make price an issue in selecting books.

2) Supplier incentives. It is true that used book circulation drives up the cost of books. The fixed costs of creating a book have to be re-couped somehow and if the number of books sold drop then other techniques have to be used. One, forced obsolesence is problematic because certain professors will simply use the old version and buy all of their stock from the used book pool. That forced publishers to raise prices until the price of producing the book covers the average cost of a book (which rises reciprically with the reduction in book count.

3) Few people are paying for their own educations. Another principle agent problem. Few students are paying directly for their own education now. If its Mom and Dad’s money, or a student loan, students are unlikely to properly account for the spending and are unlikely to protest too strongly at the incredible rise in book costs.

The system is ripe for disruptive change that should reduce costs for students, professors and publishers, but until then its best to focus on the actual reasons why prices are rising, instead of protraying one party in the system as a greedy monopolist.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: More than that

on 1): personally, since it’s education we’re talking about, the only criterion a professor should take into account is: what textbook covers the most of I want to teach and does this is the best educational manor…(granted, if 2 textbooks score equally well on that, then he can opt for the cheapest, however, it will rarely be that 2 textbooks would cover the same amount of what the professor wants and do this in an equally concise, clear, educational manor)

on 2): oh please…, those fixed costs for the production of a book in this day and age is low…and there’s very little marketing, PR, ads, etc…involved with textbooks. Prices need not be so high to make a profit. Prices are this high because they want the profits they would get from everyone always buying a brand new textbook…

it’s the same as if Ford, GM,… would raise the prices of cars because they’re missing out on $$ because people are selling used cars and so every purchase of a used car means a lost purchase of a new car, so they’re missing out on a potential profit so they have to raise the price of new cars to compensate

Steven Ashley (user link) says:

Why are we still buying hardbacks

How can we justify buying these expensive hardbacks, when every college student has a notebook computer, internet access and hard disk space is cheap.

Should not all of these be on PDF’s. Then practically all of the price of the book could go to the authors and publishers.

Not having to print, transport and store the books should about cut the cost in half.

And how much time have you spent looking for a pesky quote in a text book when you wished you could be able to do quick text search on a PDF.

Nick says:

Re: Why are we still buying hardbacks

Because when I buy the book, I don’t have to worry about someone disabling access to it. It might be a pain to go back and look for one obscure line in any text (assuming I didn’t highlight it and vaguely remember what chapter it was in), but better that than a PDF that gets shut off after the semester I need it.

And of course if textbooks go digital only, it’s likely they’ll be crippled with DRM. Just because they won’t have to charge for the actual printing of the book doesn’t automatically mean the content will be any cheaper to the rest of us. We’ll get less and pay about the same, making us look back fondly on the days of overpriced books that would just sit there on our shelves for whenever we needed them next.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Why are we still buying hardbacks

I don’t know about you guys, but a physical copy is much easier to highlight and add notes, comments, questions,…so although I am a major computer & digital age geek, all in favor of progress kind of guy, when it comes to textbooks, a physical, paper copy still seems easier for most frequently used purposes…

I would prefer to have a pdf or odt as well, because, as pointed out already, the digital version would be much easier to search…although, I must say, I can’t recall any textbook @ the university that, once I read it, I wasn’t able to find what I was looking for +/- equally fast as I would have with a digital copy

Alex says:

Print-On-Demand is the way to go

A university-wide site license for a textbook, in electronic format, possibly DRM time-bombed, coupled with print-on-demand for specific chapters strikes me as the way to go.

Students pay for the use of textbooks in their classes. If they want to, they can print the thing out at a location of their choosing.

Logan says:


Problem with PDF’s or digital copies is DRM. You can’t create unbreakable DRM, so we’ll always be able to crack software and redistribute it. We already know that colleges are breeding grounds for illegal copies… I’m sure the publisher’s are worried sales would drop to just a handful of copies per school.

The issue with the proofreading is directly related to the problem of high prices and the market. The only way to keep the sales up is to create new revisions one after another forcing students to buy new copies and trashing the old copies.

What MY issue was with books, is that you could spend $125 on a new book, or $90 on a used… but when you try to trade it back in after the quarter or semester, the bookstore would only offer you $15… Then the store would try and tell the students that they barely marked anything up and that they weren’t making much profit. B/S.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Make up for loss profit wtf?

I’ve heard that story before. Bookstores only taking back books in “acceptable” condition (whatever that means) for 10 or 20 percent of the new purchase price. However, I’ve also been told that most of that price different goes to the publisher, not the bookstore. Given that most campus bookstores are also quick to sell school shirts, mugs, candy, whatever else they can put their logo on, etc., I believe it.

Tim Oswald says:

Textbooks are Cheap

I haven’t done much analysis of this, but for my two cents, textbooks are cheap, not “insanely” overpriced.

I am taking classes right now. At the Intorduction to Micro and Macro economics (2 course), my instruction cost was $1400. My textbooks cost $230. I would say that the textbook contributed more than the instructor to my learning in the course. To be fair, my instructors chose to teach from the texts, because they are complete, well written, and cover the material.

Another argument is that the costs are high on their own. This may be true, but I have a bookshelf of management and organizational books on my shelves that cost $20 to $40 each, and have, on average 1.75 good ideas per book, usually given on the dustjacket. On the other hand, the textbook is usually a distilled set of principles or cases that explore an entire domain of a subject for about $100. If textbooks are overpriced, so are hardcover books – but we pay it.

I’m willing to buy textbooks, and I don’t sell them back. I want my school to evaluate the best available book, and recommend it to me. If I am an academic, the book should become a treasured go-to source, next to the thesaurus and dictionary. That’s what my Riverside Shakespeare is.

The only reason to sell a book is because you have no future use for the knowledge or the reference. If that’s the case, why did you spend up to $3000 for a course with no value? Textbook costs are the tail wagging the dog.

In summary, I think that arguing about text costs at the college level is like arguing about prescription costs without the cost of medical care. One is a component of the other AND a substitute. How many people pass calculus because they get the right book and the wrong teaching assistant than the other way around.

Eliot says:

Re: Textbooks are Cheap

In some cases you are right — I fortunately had (some) professors who chose texts wisely and used them because they were good distillations of a LOT of information (history and literary) and I keep them on my bookshelf to this day, referring back to them from time to time. I think the teacher determines how useful the textbook is going to be.

That said, that isn’t really what this is about. You’re right when you talk about some textbooks being good sources of information, but not all are and many times in bachelor of arts courses, you will encounter classes that you take to fulfill a requirement in which you can’t make use of the book in the future and which leaves a massive dent in your pocketbook. It’s not about an argument of education costs vs. book costs — book costs are freaking expensive, no matter how you slice it, and too often textbooks break a class. You seem to enjoy learning from a textbook, but you are the exception, not the rule.

matt says:

It's not so bad

True, books are expensive. But, when I was in school ’01-’05, I would sell my books back for a good % of the purchase price — as much as 2/3 of the purchase price. The refund was based on inventory, registrations for next term, new edition of the book etc. So if you were one of the first to re-sell and the same version was being used again next year, you would get a very high %. If you were a slacker and waited three weeks to re-sell your books, you got a low % since they already met or had come close to their used book ‘quota’ for the next year. Or if the edition was discontinued you got very little or zero.

The real pain for me was all the danged new editions. Would seem to happen all too often that I had to purchase new versus used since they were using the new edition, and when I would go to sell it, turns out they made yet another new edition for next year and I get zero for the one I just paid full price for. That’s great if it’s a science text with a lot of current science in it. But a lot of the time it just seemed like putting a new edition date on the same book and getting the schools on board w/ requiring the new version. Some professors would realize this and permit older versions (of course on a use-at-your-own-risk and our-page-numbers-will-never-match basis!). Some would require the new version.

All in all paying $120 for a new book detailing the joys of both single and multivariable calculus, genetics, or human history doesn’t seem like a lot, considering one video game costs $60, or one iPhone costs $600. Information is power and the price of high quality, high level information certainly should reflect that fact.

RandomThoughts (user link) says:

Being able to resell the book has nothing at all to do with the initial cost of the book and willingness to buy it. Students pretty much have to buy the book, they really don’t have a choice.

Now who in the world would want a pdf version of the book?

One question I have always had is that why are there new versions of math books every couple of years or so? Did they come up with something new in Calculus?

The business of college books has nothing at all to do the market pressures. Professors write books and make money off of the sale of those books. In the past, they would require their own students to purchase those books. Some Universities have banned that practice so now a guy at Harvard writes a book and tells his buddy at Yale to have his students buy his book. Then his buddy (who just happened to write a book) makes his students buy his buddies book.

Tephy says:

Re: Re:

This is always what I’ve wondered. Why do they need a new edition every year? It seems that all they do is rearrange the chapters, add a word or two, and possibly change a number in some of the questions. I know a lot of my profs just gave us photocopies of the updated questions for those cheap people who didn’t bother with the newest edition.

Chris Wilmer says:

Re: Re: Re:

“Who in the world would want a book in a PDF form?”

Spoken like a true never-done-it-before.

Using a textbook in PDF form is simply amazing. I attended a bioengineering exam study session in which two teaching assistants and half of the class were participating. I was the only person who brought a laptop, on which I had a PDF of thr 1000 page textbook. Depsite being the student, rather than the teacher, I ended up answering every question and correcting dozens of mistakes made by the teaching assistants simply because I could, in a split second, look up any subject in the book.

Also, it would be a mistake to compare the weight of a textbook against the weight of a laptop, if you were so inlcined, when considering portability. Imagine having ALL of your textbooks on your laptop, and ALL of your notes, and ALL of your homework, etc. Now what used to weigh half of a metric ton and occupy the volume of a car can be accessed on a slim, one kilogram computing device, and carried around on an SD card the size of a quarter.

Strictly speaking, however, the answer to your question is ‘me’.

Andrew D. Todd (user link) says:

Free Books

There is a Free (as in freedom) Book Movement taking off. It is especially good in mathematics, physics, and computer science, of course. Other subjects will follow.

Here are some sources:

Anonymous Coward says:

International books

If high book prices outrage you, then you will be doubly outraged to know that the publisher sells the same books overseas for dramatically less. The only difference is that the books are usually exclusively soft cover and are marked as ‘International edition’ with some scary (non-enforceable) legalese about not reselling in North America.

Anonymous Coward says:

I don’t buy the theory that used textbooks are to blame. After all, there are used book stores. Most public college bookstores are there to break even on books, not make a profit on them.

The publishers have shot themselves in the foot by charging enormous prices and forcing old editions out of print so they can sell a “new” edition that has a different cover and CD-ROM that never gets used.

I just checked my college calculus book (Stewart) and saw that it has a new edition this year. I took the classes using the fourth edition in 2002 and then went to the fifth edition later on. It is now on the sixth edition! The worst part was that there was really no difference in the content from edition four to edition five. The problems were identical (though some chapters were switched) and they added a few extras here and there. The newest edition of this book costs about $180 dollars brand new. At least this book lasts for a few classes, Unlike say, most engineering books which are used for one class and then dumped. Many books get new editions simply to fix all of the problems that were introduced in the last unneeded edition.

Profs at my school were not allowed to select out of print books for a class simply because there was no guarantee that each student could find it. They are literally forced to step up to a new edition when it comes out.

Although I sold nearly all of my books back after the class was over, I ended up buying almost every one after I graduated for reference. Lucky for me most of them had new editions out so I could take the “worthless” old editions off people’s hands for a fraction of the price I paid when I first took the class. Ha!

Lewis Baumstark says:

We're getting the message

Professors are starting to take notice. In Georgia, there is now official policy that profs should take cost into account when selecting books. No teeth in it, of course, but at least the awareness is out there.

I was fortunate in that the best book for my computer architecture class this semester also happened to be the cheapest (though, at $75, still more than it ought to be).

Also, there are other options for e-texts popping up. Our university has contracts with a couple of electronic libraries (e.g., O’Reilly’s SafariU) and those are available online, at no charge, to the students and faculty. Granted, we’re not talking about hard-theory textbooks, but they’re useful in some situations (for example, a special topics course I’m teaching this fall).

Sanguine Dream says:

Re: "Revisions"

Oops. Fingerslip.

What killed me when I was in college was the process of buying a book for a semester, go to the bookstore at the end of the semester only to be told that they are not buying said book back because a new edition was released, then looking at this “revised” edition and literally not being able to tell the difference. Computer Science and Math course books were notorious for this. After spending nearly $400 for one semester’s (and mind you that’s only like 4-6 books) books just to be told that you can’t sale any of them back just hurts.

Tim Oswald you are one lucky fellow is all I can say.

I recall plenty of semesters where I would get together with 2-3 other people and buy one book to share and we all got A’s in the class.

Mind you my own experience is from almost 5 years ago but I don’t imagine its gotten better.

Boris Jacobsen says:

Oxford - Bath

I started my Pure Mathematics degree at Oxford. I didn’t buy the text books because they were incredibly expensive and I expected the lecturers to be of high quality.

I decided I hated the university (full of pretentious rich assholes) or the lecturers (crap).

So I dropped out and went to Bath. I bought ALL the text books they suggested. But I didn’t need any of them because the lecturers were superb.

I’ve still got the text books if anyone needs them…..

grilled-cheese says:


I’ve noticed that so many textbooks are reprinted every year, basically so they can change the graphics and questions at the end of the chapter. In some subjects this is ok, some however can have the same information for decades before it needs to be changed (math textbooks anyone?). History books need a 1-2 year delay minimum before they can be even started (because Operation Enduring Freedom is already long over according to their projections).

So anyway, the solution is stop printing new books every year. Instead bundle the questions into a set of workbooks so they can be rotated each year. Then as new information is added, either put it online or publish supplementary texts. That way they will continue to make money on the supplamentory texts until sufficient money or time comes along to replace them all together.

Jasmine says:

Books are outrageously expensive

In one semester, 1999, at a junior college, I spent over $1000 on textbooks. The culprits were the Microsoft Press books. If I had known that just three years later, the entire industry that I’d prepared to enter would be drop kicked to India, I would have chosen a different course of study.

I was one of the few students who didn’t have kids, was single and could call home and ask for money. I have no idea how the more typical student managed, including one who took a three-hour daily bus ride to school with her toddler, because the community college in her own neighborhood was in the middle of a gang war zone. Those are the people who don’t deserve to be socked with thousand dollar textbook bills every semester, the ones like that woman, who could least afford it.

|333173|3|_||3 says:

At my Uni the Book Shop is run by the Union on a non profit basis(for textbooks, they sell stationary, newspapers, and nic-nacs at a profit to provide money for the Union), and secondhand sales are conducted privately, for between 1/2 and 2/3 of the price of the new book. Also, some of the lecturers give old edition page numbers, and none use the text-book questions for tutorial or assignment questions.

The International editions of US textbooks are used for some of my courses, and not all are paperback.

BTW: at Oxford, the lectures are meant to be supplementary to the tutes.

Count Darling says:

Used Textbooks

But, publishers are welcome to get into the used textbook business – but they choose not to. I’m in that business, and one other reason for high prices is that churn of editions of books. College texts now have a useful adoption life of 1-2 years. So pubs now must force more profit into fewer copies to cover the constant “re”-production costs. Little changes in most books edition to edition, but the pubs sell the profs on the latest and greatest, forcing the value of used books down as fast as possible.

Also, do you know that many textbooks are shipped to overseas at very low prices (below cost)? Yep, the US students are underwriting the cost of cheap textbooks elsewhere. So the pubs are really laughing all the way to the bank!!

Phil says:

Are Used Textbooks To Blame For The High Price Of

Textbook publishers are douchebags. If they took on used buy/sellback programs themselves, the individual education institutions wouldn’t have to. As such, textbook publishers mainly just gouge students by making minor changes to their books from year to year (if any at all) and jack up the price. Perhaps if they weren’t so greedy then students wouldn’t seek out used book sales as the 1st point of sale each semester. Then they can kill 2 birds with one stone by dropping prices on new textbooks as well as making money off used textbooks. But no, they insist on the gouging business model for themselves. Well, I have about as much sympathy for them as software companies who charge way too much for their software then complain about piracy, because the thinking behind it is exactly the same thing.

Adam says:

Are Used Textbooks To Blame For The High Price

My personal opinion is it is due to the monopoly of on-campus bookstores. I found I was paying a ton per semester on books (over $700) when buying at the on-campus books. Then when I started buying on-line I started saving a lot of money. In particular I started using a book price comparison website. These websites search for the lowest book price on-line. I ended up saving a ton using these websites. The one recommended is for finding discount books. Also, make sure if your buying your textbooks to upgrade to expedited shipping if you need them fast and make sure the seller is reputable.

carolyn says:

some ways to save on textbooks

its been close to three years since this post was made and the only thing different now is that textbooks are even more expensive. here’s some of the things i do to try to save money

1) borrow textbooks from the library (good for those that plan ahead)

2) share the cost of textbooks with another classmate

3) use a textbook search engine such as

4) buy textbooks from other students

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