Textbooks: Offering Priceless Knowledge, or Swindling Students?

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A while ago, I posted a discussion asking readers about their textbook habits: where they buy them, how they use them, whether they ever keep them.  Unsurprisingly, a lot of commenters said they want the best possible deal (who doesn’t?).  I was surprised, however, that the comments were generally polite–not because I think Pages Unbound doesn’t have thoughtful and courteous readers, but because I have seen conversations about textbooks in various other spaces and various other platforms become incredibly frustrated.  The start of every semester, students and parents inevitably panic about the cost of textbooks (Again, who doesn’t?  I certainly do.)  However, I think there are some widespread misunderstandings about the interactions of professors, college bookstores, and academic publishers that are preventing us, students and booksellers alike, from having a profitable conversation about the value of textbooks.

My own investment in this conversation is complicated.  I used to work in a college bookstore as a sales associate; I understood the workings of selling books but certainly wasn’t calling the shots.  I am currently a PhD student, which means I may someday assign textbooks to students to buy and may even have the opportunity to write myself.  I have applied for jobs working with academic publishers and though I’ve never held such a position, I’ve spoken with people who do.  I also currently, and have for the past several years, spend lots of money each semester purchasing textbooks for my own use.  I have seen the textbook process from multiple angles, but this experience has helped give me some answers to common questions about textbook use and pricing.

Why Are Textbooks Expensive?

There are multiple answers to this question.  Generally, the blame gets passed to the publishers and authors, whom many textbook buyers imagine are just greedy and subsequently rolling in wealth.  I assure you, they are not; try looking up the average salary of publishers and then remember many of these industry professionals live in large cities that have high costs of living.  So what is going on?

First, many textbooks are being sold in a niche market.  The latest book on thermodynamics is unlikely to have a huge print run and make it to the New York Times Bestsellers list.  As with any product, a small consumer base means higher prices.

Second, students are paying for authors’ expertise.  Textbooks are generally written by experts in their field.  The book itself takes a long time to write, but it also took the author(s) many years of personal study, research, and teaching experience to get to a point they could authoritatively write an academic book.

Third, “cheap” options actually contribute to high book prices.  When bookstores sell students used books or rent them books, the publisher and author make zero profit on those transactions; only the store wins.  Thus, publishers need to price new textbooks high enough that they actually receive compensation for their work.  The price of the new book has to make up for the fact the college bookstore, or sites like Amazon, will sell or rent that exact same book four more times without ever giving more money to the publisher or author.

Why Won’t the Bookstore Buy My Book Back?

Again, there are multiple answers.  Let’s assume, however, that your book isn’t too damaged to be resold (isn’t missing pages, isn’t water-damaged, isn’t highlighted in so many colors no one else can read it) and that the book is actually being used in a course next semester (i.e. there is an existing demand for the book).

My first response is: No one is obligated to buy your book back from you.  Most college bookstores are not actually run by the college; they are run by outside companies who, yes, would like you to be a happy customer but who are also interested in making money.  They’ll only buy the book if they can make a profit from the deal.

Thus, the most common reason stores can’t by books back is lack of demand.  Yes, the college may be assigning the same book next semester, but the bookstore may have 300 new copies already in stock and may have already bought 200 used copies from other students.  The store knows they are only going to sell 500 copies next semester, so they aren’t going to buy yours and end up with 501 in stock.  At this point, a good option for the student “stuck” with the book is to try selling to another company or to try selling directly to another student taking the course.

Why Can’t I Return (Insert Product)?

An opened loose-leaf book: The store has no guarantee the pages are all present, and would not like to risk selling an incomplete book to another student.  Try selling directly to a student who needs the book; many are willing to gamble you haven’t lost chapter 12.

An online access code: The store often cannot tell whether the code has already been used, and would not like to risk selling an invalid code to another student.  Again, try selling directly to another student in need.

A book the professor never used all semester: First, the store has no idea what’s behind this story. Did the professor never assign readings from the book, did you just never look at the book, or are you making this all up in an attempt to get a full refund?  Second, this goes back to the store’s being divorced from the college.  The store doesn’t control book usage; it just stocks the book, and only does so because the professor requested it.  If the professor told students to buy an expensive book and then never utilized it in the course, that’s a situation for which the professor should be taken to task.

More questions about textbooks? Ask me in the comments!

4 thoughts on “Textbooks: Offering Priceless Knowledge, or Swindling Students?

  1. Krysta says:

    I’m really glad you addressed this. I often hear people complaining about the high costs of textbooks, assuming that a $200 price tag means the publishers are rolling in money. Even though I have tried to explain to people (even those who work in bookstores!) why the price is so high–the need for the publisher and author to make all their money on the first sale–the other person invariably continues to tirade against the publisher rather than acknowledge that the bookstore’s used book and rental policies are the problem. Why? Maybe because then they would have to acknowledge that their own participation in buying used and rental books has upped the price of textbooks. At any rate, bookstores seem to have done a great job of driving up prices while having their customer base remain loyal to them for them doing so. By selling used, cheaper books, bookstores make themselves look like they are helping students win against those mean, money-grubbing publishers. It is, to say the least, quite ironic.

    I am also disappointed to hear about how many people think textbooks should be free or who assume that a digital text means that the book should be free. Again, I have tried to explain that the $200 price tag of a book does not all go into paper, but pays the publisher, editor, author, reviewers, etc. Even a digital book has people who have worked to code and store it who need to be paid. But for some reason, people think all this should be free to them. Yes, in an ideal world, we would have free knowledge for all, but as it is, people need money to live and money to produce this knowledge. I guarantee you that all the places that offer “free” knowledge to people are being subsidized somehow by some sort of grant or donations. People need to eat, after all.

    The “I didn’t use it” argument bothers me, as well. Even if the professor didn’t assign readings from it, that doesn’t mean he/she didn’t expect the students to read it on their own or to refer to it for homework. I had many cases where it was assumed I would use the text on my own to supplement my learning–and I performed better in class than those who never opened the book. College students are adults and have to take some responsibility for their own education.

    That’s not to say some classes legitimately never use the book. I have had instances where I bought books we never used in class and that were useless to me on my own. But, as you note, that it is a topic that should be brought up with the professor, not the bookstore, who merely orders what they are told to order. And I especially would not yell at the poor sales associate who is as likely as not a college student in the same boat. He or she definitely didn’t assign the books to be bought!


    • Briana says:

      I think the worst thing is when the professor orders a “recommended” $100 textbook. Am I supposed to buy that or not??? Technically not, because it usually is something the professor never looks at or something they’ll put on reserve in the library and think it’s just “nice” for students to have, but I think the practice is highly confusing. They apparently think I “maybe” should own it, whatever that means.


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