Business Models

by Mike Masnick

Filed Under:
ebooks, education, textbooks, universities

Colleges Experimenting With Bulk-Buying E-Textbooks... And Forcing Students To Pay Up

from the bye-bye-used-book-market dept

We've pointed out in the past how the college textbook market is ripe for disruption. You have a market where books are ridiculously overpriced by publishers, knowing that students are often compelled to purchase the product. As book prices have continued to rise, apparently some universities are experimenting with bulk buying licenses to ebook textbooks and simply charging the students a fee. The schools all say they're doing this to reduce textbook fees -- and I'm sure they mean well. But the very fact that many publishers seem to be jumping on this as well suggests that they know damn well, in the end, this will work out well for them. First, it forces all the students to "buy" the books at full price. It wipes out the secondary market (which many students make use of in selling their books back), and even the case of the student who just checks the book out of the library. Also, we've seen in places like Canada how a simple mandatory student fee can start out low, and then suddenly jump massively. It's good that some universities want to lower book fees, and making use of ebooks is a possible solution, but mandatory fees seem ripe for abuse.

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Nov 4th, 2010 @ 3:37pm

    This will work only if lots of universities do this, and if they make the individual departments pay for their courses' textbooks out of their discretionary budgets (that they could be using for other things like food, computers, office supplies, flying in guest speakers, etc.).

    If the universities don't pass the bill on to the people who are actually choosing the textbooks, the same market failure will continue and the publishers will continue to be able to exploit it.

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

  2. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Nov 4th, 2010 @ 3:45pm

    I haven't bought a text book in 2 years (AKA, all of my upper division courses).

    And no, I'm not pirating anything. They're just genuinely useless for passing the actual course (and I'll admit it, I'm far too lazy to read them through for the sake of knowledge). I bought several text books in my first few years, and never touched them (and resold half of them).

    I'm saving a good $400 every 4 months.

    Fortunately, I'm also graduating before my University gets any "bright" ideas.

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

  3. icon
    yourrealname (profile), Nov 4th, 2010 @ 3:48pm

    Text Books

    I think this will certainly encourage people to share these text books online with each other. I mean they're ebooks, can't everyone just copy them from each other once one person buys the book?

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

  4. identicon
    Jake, Nov 4th, 2010 @ 3:50pm

    Universities have a vested interest in making certain that their students have all the materials they need to achieve the best possible grade, which means it's to their advantage to keep textbook prices as low as possible. If they've got any sense, they'll pass as little of the expense onto the student body as possible.
    They've also got quite a bit of leverage over the publishers; having a particular book dropped from a university's syllabus because the publishers want too much money, when most people would regard the university as the ones doing the publisher (or the author) a favour by using it in the first place, would not make for good press.

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

  5. identicon
    MrWilson, Nov 4th, 2010 @ 4:31pm


    That's also going to depend on which subjects you're taking.

    Social science courses are practically impossible to pass without buying or at least borrowing/pirating/googling the texts. You can't cite sources in papers if you haven't read them, much less have quotes and page numbers readily available.

    Whereas if you take a lot of computer classes, those textbooks can often be entirely useless compared to your ability to google the topic. There's infinitely more instructional content about TCP/IP and programming languages online than there can be in any one textbook.

    The only other issue of concern is if the instructor uses course material provided by the publisher of the text, rather than coming up with their own material. So you may take tests based on the text, with questions phrased specifically the way they are phrased in the text.

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

  6. identicon
    MrWilson, Nov 4th, 2010 @ 4:38pm

    Re: Text Books

    This works if the institution doesn't force the students to buy the e-books. But you could easily see, with just such a copying scenario in mind, the university just charging the e-book cost in your tuition and fees.

    It's more upfront and at least you wouldn't have to worry about ordering the text online weeks before the term or scouring the campus bookstore shelves for the possibility of a used copy of the book that everyone else happened to have overlooked when grabbing the books.

    At least now with the Higher Education Opportunity Act, colleges are required to disclose which books will be required for each course at the time the student registers rather than waiting until the first day when the syllabus is distributed in class.

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

  7. icon
    jrector (profile), Nov 4th, 2010 @ 4:53pm

    Textbook DRM

    The downside is DRM on ebooks limiting your use of the textbooks years later. I'd love to brush up on Calculus. Unfortunately, I went to University of Phoenix and our textbook was an DRM secured ebook. Access to activate the ebook was lost after I finished school and was no longer paying for access to the rEsource.

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

  8. identicon
    Freak, Nov 4th, 2010 @ 5:21pm

    Ugh, terrible

    As if the existing textbook system isn't bad enough, what with kickbacks being legal and easy to hide from the university admin.

    One thing I've seen here, once, is when the university gave a grant to two or three of the profs in the math dept. so that they could take time time off research and write a few textbooks for the required math courses; those are still sold in the uni bookstore at price, (A little under $10 each; about 100 pages, softcover. Lots of reading suggestions because it doesn't contain stuff that wouldn't be taught in the course)

    Why can't we do that more often? Obviously that's not viable for a lot of courses, (math is fortunate in that it never changes at the undergraduate level), but if you could do it for most of them, that would still reduce the cost of textbooks by a factor of 8 . . .

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

  9. identicon
    Celt, Nov 4th, 2010 @ 5:32pm

    Re: Text Books

    The PDF ebooks are password protected. This probably won't be terribly difficult to get around, but if publishers want to get serious about it, then they will likely come up with a new method of protecting the content that proves more challenging for the average college student.

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

  10. identicon
    Jake, Nov 4th, 2010 @ 6:03pm

    Re: Textbook DRM

    It's not enormously hard (or illegal, much as certain organisations wish otherwise) to make a copy in the text format of your choice to preserve as a backup.
    On a somewhat related note, I wonder if the universities couldn't negotiate for a license to print X number of copies a year and hand them out to students in dead-tree format? It wouldn't be enormously expensive -they could be knocked out on an office laser printer and bound with those plastic spiral things whose proper name escapes me- and have most of the advantages of e-textbooks whilst still making it easy to hightlight and underline bits and scribble notes in the margin.

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

  11. icon
    Atkray (profile), Nov 4th, 2010 @ 6:05pm

    Re: Textbook DRM

    I'm finishing up an IT degree at Phoenix and all my texts have been the E-books. Initially I was concerned about access to them after I finish and even installed software to unlock them (it works great) but as I have gotten closer to completion I don't even bother to download them anymore. In IT most of the texts are a couple years old so they might as well be decades old. Additionally because my teachers all work in IT they tend to have us access more current things, articles in the E-Library, online resources etc... I pay $75 a class for them which when I compare it to what my son pays at the community college is a bargain. He tries to buy used but many of his classes require the latest version and it is only available new. I have also had to pay over $100 for concurrent enrollment textbooks for the kid in high-school. Initially I hated the idea of E-books now I would hate to have to get a paper version. I have to agree with A/C about not using them, I usually use whitepapers for references in my research papers the instructors seem to appreciate that you go outside the text and do "extra work" looking for relevant material.

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

  12. icon
    Eugene (profile), Nov 4th, 2010 @ 6:29pm


    Yeah, after my first year, I took to waiting till the second week before deciding whether I needed to buy the textbook. SO many professors weigh tests primarily on lecture material, rather than textbook material. But it all depended on the professor - every one was different.

    The idea that future students would have no choice in the matter - indeed, that it would automatically be taken out of their expenses - sounds like a nightmare to me.

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

  13. icon
    Karl (profile), Nov 4th, 2010 @ 6:31pm


    You know, this actually doesn't sound like a horrible idea to me.

    The price in the article was about $35/class. That saves hundreds of dollars per semester, even compared to used books. It's also chump change compared to the cost of tuition.

    I don't even see why you'd need DRM on the book. If a student is paying for an e-book anyway, why pirate it? And usually nobody buys these books unless they're taking the class - so even if it is pirated, the publishers won't "lose sales."

    On the other hand, university bookstores will be royally screwed.

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

  14. icon
    Eugene (profile), Nov 4th, 2010 @ 6:32pm

    Re: Re: Text Books

    The trouble with that is, it only takes ONE above average college student, and it's game over. MrWilson has it right - this sounds like a situation where they're thinking of auto-charging the cost to the students' tuition. Then it doesn't matter *what* they do with the textbooks.

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

  15. icon
    btrussell (profile), Nov 4th, 2010 @ 7:25pm

    Re: Maybe...

    "On the other hand, university bookstores will be royally screwed."

    It is their turn.

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

  16. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Nov 4th, 2010 @ 8:22pm

    Why buy e-book from publishers?

    In the age of paper textbook, t might just be too expensive for each university to have their own press company to print it, so they have to outsource the textbook to publishers.

    In the age of e-books, it seems that having the teaching professors preparing teaching materials should be quite affordable. I mean, they have to prepare notes for their classes anyway, right?

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

  17. identicon
    dryfire, Nov 4th, 2010 @ 8:45pm

    do the students get to "keep" the textbooks after the semester is over?

    The last time a class I was in had an ebook option the ebook was unavailable 1 month after the course ended and could only be viewed from the publisher's website after logging in and using their incredibly crappy ereader.

    Of course whether you wanted the ebook or not you had to pay $50 for the online homework so you were screwed either way.

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

  18. identicon
    NullOp, Nov 4th, 2010 @ 8:54pm


    Textbooks are priced at a rate that should be illegal. This being America, obscene profit is the best profit! I encourage those that can to avoid paying for these books! Or at least not paying full price.

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

  19. icon
    Ben (profile), Nov 4th, 2010 @ 9:37pm

    So how much do you charge for an infinite good?

    Wherever did our higher learning go?

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

  20. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Nov 5th, 2010 @ 5:45am

    Just another way to rip us off. Anyone for Government funded education yet?

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

  21. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Nov 5th, 2010 @ 7:08am

    This is the second sign of the coming apocalypse of the education market. The first was tuition rising far far above inflation.

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

  22. icon
    pringerX (profile), Nov 5th, 2010 @ 8:52am

    Course readers

    There is one method that I know many universities already use to supplement or replace textbooks. Course readers, which are generally 3-ring or spiral bound notes that students can buy for $20-30, are often better than the texts since they have been specifically tailored to the course. These are designed by the professors and printed by the university. Still a tad overpriced, but better than a $150 book.

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

  23. identicon
    mosaic user, Nov 5th, 2010 @ 9:08am

    textbook expense and bookstores

    From the variety of suggestions and ideas in this short discussion,it's obvious this is a complex situation,and the solution will be disruptive no matter how it is structured. There are Administrators who agonize over textbook costs,albeit for varied reasons. Eventually,electronic course materials will win out, but what is at stake is how the money now dedicated to textbooks,and that delivery system, will be redistributed. The bookstores do face losses, but only if they refuse to adapt by supplying other scarce goods beyond the texts. Understand that textbook costs are linked to the availability of fininacial aid. A large portion of FFA ends up with book publishers,delivered via the bookstores. It's a hidden federal subsidy.Charging the students an access fee for [BlackBoard]or a similar distribution method,is only one part of the equation. Purchasing class content to use on that distribution system is a second piece. At the college I was employed at we used several content suppliers,usually buying blocks of seats depending on class size. It worked well because that cost was built into tuition,which again was subsidized by FFA and grants. As you know there is a lot of material available from MIT,Stanford and others as well. The problem there is at this time, most colleges can't document open solutions material enough to satisfy accredidation committees. That will change with time. Bookstore "losses" from using online text materials have to be made up,but so far,the store managers I've had contact with, don't grasp the idea of substitution sales yet. FFA covers other goods,such as hospital scrubs,automotive tools,and welders gloves.but the store managers don't have experience in setting up extranet store fronts,and don't have the experience or physical space to stock varied inventories covered by FFA. BTW,at least in Washington state book kickbacks are not legal. Dosen't mean that textbook suppliers don't flood the recieving departments with hundreds of desk copies,but in Washington it is illegal to resell them. Finally,most colleges no longer make any money as publishers unless they are a geniune university press with sales outside the campus. It is far easier to pay a clerk at Kinko's/Fedex to produce material copies than to pay a fulltime employee with benefits AND track copyright clearances for each self published text.

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

  24. identicon
    Jason, Nov 5th, 2010 @ 10:00am

    "I'm gonna teach you a lesson you can't refuse."

    Sorry, that even sounds too heavy handed for the Godfather.

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

  25. identicon
    vastrightwing, Nov 5th, 2010 @ 10:46am

    3rd party billing

    This won't last long. This is just another example of 3rd party billing where the consumer has no choice. Will it be abused? YES! We see this over and over. Insurance, cable companies, telephone companies, and the list goes on and on. Colleges are not shy about ripping off students and colluding with business. Just look at student debit cards and the SPIF the colleges get from banks. This won't end well.

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

  26. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Nov 5th, 2010 @ 3:07pm

    Re: textbook expense and bookstores

    "which again was subsidized by FFA"

    Isn't FFA a loan to the student? If so, then the FFA isn't subsidizing anything - the student is paying for it albeit at a later date when they are saddled with an exceptionally high loan that is not forgiven in bankruptcy.

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

  27. identicon
    michele, Feb 3rd, 2016 @ 10:33am


    Actually I am a student going for my masters in a school which uses them. Whereas unlike the books they force the fee for the ebooks on you as part of a "technology fee" and you are forced to pay it regardless of if you can get the book from someone else.

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

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