by Mike Masnick

Filed Under:
disruption, price, textbooks

flat world knowledge

The Coming Disruption In The Textbook Market

from the innovators-dilemma dept

Textbook pricing is always a controversial subject among college students and professors -- many of whom feel that the prices of the books are artificially inflated. Textbook publishers faced their first "shock" when internet booksellers came along, and they suddenly had less of a monopoly on the supply of books. But even that didn't decrease the price all that much. Over the past few years, a number of textbook publishers have been freaking out over the "threat" of "piracy." But rather than recognizing that they needed to improve their product to compete, they basically just looked for ways to make people pay even more. So, it really shouldn't come as much of a surprise that the market is ripe for disruption.

We've already seen some innovative business models enter the space, such as Flat World Knowledge and its free online textbooks with tiered pricing for additional products -- and it looks like various state education agencies are actively interested in moving away from the old model of super expensive textbooks. Reader MikeZ points us to an article detailing how a bunch of states have been making it easier for teachers to look at switching to online educational materials rather than textbooks, recognizing both that textbooks are often too expensive and not nearly as useful as some other resources. States that had budget line items for textbooks only are quickly redefining things so that money can be spent on other educational resources.

This certainly doesn't mean the end of the traditional textbook, but if the existing publishers follow the footsteps of other industries in trying to resist this disruption rather than adapt to it, expect plenty of angry stories about the evils of internet "piracy," with little recognition that piracy isn't the problem at all.

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1. icon
    Eric (profile), Mar 10th, 2009 @ 11:00am

    Physics textbooks

    Physics textbooks were getting ridiculous - one tactic was to take a standard text which had been around for decades, add a new co-author (usually the original author was deceased) and add a few chapters, examples, etc. There was really no new content, but that made all the old books obsolete, then the prices could be jacked up.

    Also adding useless color drawings, photos, or redoing all the examples/homework problems was another tactic.

    Dr E.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    Dave, Mar 10th, 2009 @ 11:05am

    Textbook versions

    Exactly what Eric said. If universities didn't switch book revisions every other semester, then used book stores could offer better book buybacks, and things might get cheaper.

    Quite a few of the classes I had at college required brand new books, 50-100 bucks each. Total BS!

    If colleges had to pay for the books themselves, you can bet they would be a lot more resistant to updating. That's why a lot of high schools are still working with ratty old copies of books, because it's so expensive to upgrade.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. identicon
    Ima Fish, Mar 10th, 2009 @ 11:09am

    This is one reason I was glad my undergrad major was philosophy. I could get all the great works dirt cheap at used book stores. And even better, because they were public domain I could download them for free and quickly search through them.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    sycarion, Mar 10th, 2009 @ 11:13am

    Another Option

    I work in a school district that took another option for their spelling books. They realized that buying the rights for the books and printing them ourselves was cheaper.

    I hope Flat World Knowledge works. I wonder, though, how they will be able to make Literature textbooks. Project Gutenburg, anyone?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    Joe, Mar 10th, 2009 @ 11:18am

    text book thugs

    Technology really does have the capability to right wrongs and end injustice. Very happy to hear that the text book thugs are being reigned in. We got raped in law school and for what? A collection of court opinions for which the text book company lacked copyright ownership? Just insane.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    R. Miles, Mar 10th, 2009 @ 11:30am

    Ooh! Check it!

    Yes, some businesses which Techdirt casts in the limelight should start reading, AT NO COST, so they can adapt new business models.

    No cost is awesome. Now, let's see how many people get upset this is "free".

    After all, books aren't a scarce item in a digital format.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 10th, 2009 @ 11:33am

    Re: Textbook versions

    I've had more than one professor that was just as annoyed at the practice as the students. In one case, the then-current version of a calculus text was the 9th edition. The professor was using the 5th edition, and suggested that any edition we could find would suffice.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 10th, 2009 @ 11:36am

    Re: Another Option

    PG is certainly a good start. It'd leave some rather glaring gaps, though: nearly all science fiction, works by minorities, and translations of works written in other languages are still copyrighted.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 10th, 2009 @ 12:14pm

    Eric, physics is a bad example. For a college physics student, 40 percent of what a freshman learns in physics will be proven wrong and updated by the time that same student graduates. Math would be a much better example. Last time I checked, Pi hasn't changed much over the years.

    Want to know who will fight change in textbooks? Of course, the professors who write them.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. icon
    Geoffrey Kidd (profile), Mar 10th, 2009 @ 12:21pm

    Some of this is old news.

    Back in the 1950s there was a cartoon strip titled "Little Man on Campus" about the vagaries of college life. One of them stands out in my memory of a publisher talking to the villainous "Professor Snarf" about how he could "Change your text a little, produce a new edition and make it a required text in all your courses and we'll clean up" or words to that effect.

    Obviously not that much has changed in fifty years.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. identicon
    Valkor, Mar 10th, 2009 @ 12:23pm

    Re: Re: Textbook versions

    I had a professor who did one better. His favorite text for the linguistic history of the English language went out of print, so he took it to a local print shop and made copies. I think we had to pay about $25 for the binding process on that, and it's one of the few college textbooks I still have.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. identicon
    AlexC, Mar 10th, 2009 @ 12:30pm


    You're wrong. Most physics textbooks focus on kinematics, relativity, and the basic theories of light, sound, and electricity. These concepts are set in stone and don't change.

    You are thinking of sub-atomic physics. Yes, those theories do change often. However, physics textbooks skim over that. (unless you have a textbook devoted to sub-atomic physics)

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. icon
    chris (profile), Mar 10th, 2009 @ 12:34pm

    easy way to save on textbooks in college

    don't buy books til after the first week of classes. then you can go to class, get the syllabus, and see what, if any, role the textbook plays in the course.

    for a lot of courses, the lecture notes will suffice for the exams, unless you are a grad student or concerned with getting perfect grades.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. identicon
    BinaryRock, Mar 10th, 2009 @ 1:01pm

    Re: easy way to save on textbooks in college

    That's what I did. A lot of times, the instructor would also say we could "unofficially" use older versions of textbooks. That bit of info wouldn't appear on the syllabus or website though.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 10th, 2009 @ 1:22pm

    Re: Textbook versions

    50-100 bucks??

    You got off easy. I paid upwards of $500 per QUARTER for all the engineering texts I had to buy (3 - 4 books)

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16. icon
    Eric (profile), Mar 10th, 2009 @ 1:31pm


    Actually areas like Electricity & Magnetism, Classical Physics and Thermodynamics have not changed much for undergraduate physics students. Things move at the fringes but F=ma still works...

    Dr E

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 10th, 2009 @ 1:43pm

    True, but when is that last time that Euclid updated Geometry and Pythagoras' theorem?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18. identicon
    Ted, Mar 10th, 2009 @ 2:09pm

    Other Resources

    Flat World Knowledge and Project Gutenburg have already been mentioned.

    A few others: - Free textbooks supported by advertising

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19. identicon
    Superdude, Mar 10th, 2009 @ 2:18pm

    text books are pointless

    "I paid upwards of $500 per QUARTER for all the engineering texts I had to buy (3 - 4 books)"

    I am sorry my friend, but you got ripped off. I too have an engineering degree, and never bought the text books for anything but thermodynamics. I got that book used online for like $50, it was one edition behind and had different homework problems which were pointless because the professor always assigned her own problems. In every other subject I just took notes, looked stuff up on Wikipedia where slightly off generalizations would do, and spent my $ on beer and pizza.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20. icon
    jmzrbnsn (profile), Mar 10th, 2009 @ 2:21pm


    Ah Philosophy, the perfect choice for a career in Techdirt trolling....

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  21. identicon
    Jesse, Mar 10th, 2009 @ 2:40pm

    I don't understand how some online text books can cost so much. One was "selling" for $80 dollars. (selling...licensing...renting until they revoke privileges...) When the publishers claim so vehemently that they have only modest profit margins, how can a digital distribution cost 80$???

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  22. identicon
    Noah Buddy, Mar 10th, 2009 @ 2:59pm

    I was extremely lucky with one of my courses "The Philosophy of Technology". The professor was a huge fan of Lessig and Creative Commons. We did not pay for a single book, but somehow I had more to read in that class then any other.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  23. identicon
    ehrichweiss, Mar 10th, 2009 @ 3:25pm

    Textbook DRM

    It's gotten worse and I'm wondering why nobody has mentioned this.

    The new thing for textbooks is to make books that are tied into some web homework application that has a one-time-use tied in with some license number in the book. This makes reselling the books impossible since people need the license to use the web app. Why the damn universities don't do this themselves to stop this form of extortion I don't know but I've been very vocal about it since I watched my wife spend over $150 on some book only to not be able to get a single dollar out of it despite the fact that it was being used the very next semester.

    Anyone got any good textbook torrent sites or the like to share?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  24. icon
    Danny (profile), Mar 10th, 2009 @ 3:50pm

    open source textbooks

    Do any of you know if there are any "open source" textbook projects out there?

    I'd love to get involved (or start!) such a project.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  25. identicon
    Michael, Mar 10th, 2009 @ 5:44pm

    Re: Textbook DRM

    I know what you mean. I had that happen to me for a financial accounting class that I'm taking this semester. However, I got smart (sort of) and rather than purchase the text which would've costed $170 and come with the online software package which we're required to use for our homework, I just purchased the license and the eText. Had I known that the college I work for also has the same text, I would've just purchased the license, since the eText is completely restricted and altogether useless. I ended up paying $65 for everythingm whereas if I was lucky, I could've resold the book and only paid $50. That's if I was lucky.

    What's starting to get extremely annoying is the custom texts made for universities and other colleges. They cost just as much, but are now almost impossible to sell online. I'm not quite sure what these schools are thinking, perhaps they think they're doing students a favor by somehow reducing costs at some point, but I haven't seen any savings anywhere.

    It's pretty damn unfair that the cost of texts isn't just a part of our tuition rates for one, and two, the cost of books are so high and for what? Near useless material. I have a friend who purchased a linear algebra book and was so confused by it (mathematics major and not a dumb guy) that he had to resort to other texts and old teachers in order to understand it, of which the old teachers also said it was way too confusing.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  26. identicon
    Elie, Mar 10th, 2009 @ 6:39pm

    re: the textbook market

    I was in college only fifteen years ago. The WWW was only one year old at the time. I WISH there was something like Gutenberg back then. I'm so envious of the options students have today rather than the over-inflated prices for texts. The best we could do was "used" textbooks.

    I am all for a legitimate market making a legitimate profit, but I always felt college texts were monopolistic and had a guaranteed market, therefore the students had no choice back then but to pay whatever price they had to. This is actually a day of reckoning that is a long time coming.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  27. icon
    Steve R. (profile), Mar 10th, 2009 @ 7:05pm

    Computerized Publishing and the Cost Goes UP!?!?!

    What has amazed me, we now have computers which automates producing a textbook so the price should go down. After all you don't have to hire all those editors, artists, and typists, right? As everyone knows the price has amazingly gone up.

    What also amazes me, the quality has gone done. Specifically, lots of spelling errors. I guess spell check, another automation tool, simply does not work for textbooks.

    Textbook marketing is nothing more than the extortion of a captive market.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  28. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 10th, 2009 @ 8:36pm

    Re: Textbook versions

    I am a faculty member. It is often not the faculty member who changes versions every semester; it is the publishers who "churn" the versions to screw up the used textbook market. The changes in version are simply ridiculous. One textbook we were using changed every year. One year they went through and added one problem to the end of each chapter and called it a new edition.

    Now one of the questions I ask when adopting a textbook is how stable the book is. Of course, that can change. I have also found some very nice free on-line textbooks. This semester I am teaching 3 courses and 2 use free textbooks. In the third course I am letting students use any of the last three editions of the textbook. This is a real pain for me because it means all page references have to metion all three editions.

    Generally, faculty members hate changing editions. They like to get to know one book well. Handouts, lecture, and a host of other things get changed when the editions change.

    So don't blame the faculty. There probably are a few who are not sensitive to student needs, but there are very few who are not sensitive to their own convenience.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  29. identicon
    Michael B. Horn, Mar 11th, 2009 @ 12:52pm

    disruption in textbooks

    Great points in this blog post. There have been a number of articles about this recently -- one talking about the Indiana move and others. It's going to happen certainly, so publishers will have to rethink their business models ultimately if they want to stay competitive in this new world and ultimately launch new, innovative business models that are unconstrained by the old ones. There was another good post about this here as well:

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  30. identicon
    Almost Anonymous, Mar 11th, 2009 @ 1:05pm

    Re: Re: Textbook versions

    I'm also surprised no-one has mentioned the "International Editions" that you can buy from overseas. You can find them with the same text, page numbers, problems, usually around 1/3 of the price of the U.S. edition. You have to do a little homework (pun intended) to ensure that it is a match to its U.S. counterpart, but the price savings is well worth 30 or so minutes of your time.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  31. identicon
    Antonia, Jun 9th, 2009 @ 4:58am

    Re: Textbook versions

    I have to agree. Luckily there are more and more internet sources where one can download the same information. I came across when searching for a comprehensible but short book to revise and study for my exam. I could just download the book without registration or paying anything. The book contained some ads but that didn't bother me since some of them where actually interesting companies I might want to work for later.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  32. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Aug 21st, 2009 @ 10:55pm

    Digital Edition...

    Oh, absolutely.

    I was going to take Intro Spanish this Fall, but I decided to drop it. And why?

    The class (taken through a local community college) was going to cost $110 for a four hour course. Not too bad!

    The required texts? In excess of $300 if I bought new at the college's book store. $156 of that was for the DIGITAL edition of the text book, "conveniently" burned onto a DVD.

    Then there's the other racket that doesn't get nearly enough mention, and that is the exorbitant fees that the same companies then turn around and charge for the online portions of the course... The labs and such. That was another $60. Plus the workbook, etc. I'll be damned if I'll pay three times more than the course for the books!

    As it was, I already had my A&P books from the first part of that course, and I was able to find the international edition of the microbiology text, so I paid "only" $65 for it. The "American" edition...? New? $200. Used? $165.

    I will never buy a textbook from the stores if I have any means to do otherwise.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  33. identicon
    Jacob, Apr 22nd, 2010 @ 12:12pm


    I feel like they could put some sort of control system in place to reduce piracy. It is inevitable that textbooks will go digital.

    Currently we are wasting so many resources on producing textbooks. I'm sick of it!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  34. identicon
    Wayne, Jun 16th, 2010 @ 2:55pm

    I hope not that barnes and noble has got in the game maybe the price of new/used textbooks will go down. I'd rather buy my own and am free to mess it up if i want.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  35. identicon
    Rich, Jun 18th, 2010 @ 2:10pm

    So, basically, the authors of the books are not entitled to any profits? Buying and selling used texbooks is unethical.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  36. identicon
    rick rexor, Jun 25th, 2010 @ 9:53am

    I couldn’t stand how much I had to pay for books on top of tuition. To Buy College Textbooks at a fair price, I went to and got the prices that every student deserves. Not only did I get a fair price, but I got the most up-to- date edition for all of my classes.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  37. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 4th, 2012 @ 10:33pm


    Wow. No. Go look up "first-sale doctrine" and don't make stupid comments like that ever again.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  38. identicon
    Jim, Oct 5th, 2012 @ 7:20pm

    this is going to change the norm

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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