Textbooks: Offering Priceless Knowledge, or Swindling Students?

publishing post stars

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!

Let’s Talk Textbooks!

A Discussion of Textbooks

In the book blogosphere we, of course, spend a lot time talking about books: what we like, where we buy them, how we organize them, and how we write about them.  Today, however, I want to expand our horizons a little beyond fiction, which tends to get most of the love, and talk about textbooks! 

These questions might be most relevant to college students or grads since, at least where I live, high school students are loaned textbooks by the school and are expected to return them in the same condition they received them at the end of the year.  So maybe there’s not much to talk about there.  But I hope even those who don’t spend a lot of time with or talking about textbooks can find something of interest in this discussion.

Where do you buy your textbooks?

Personally, I always do that dance where I look all over and compare prices and see whether paying one dollar less for a used book is worth passing up a brand new book.  I only like books in great condition, so I’m not willing to buy a book with highlighting and writing even if it’s vastly cheaper than a book without markings.  In the end, I tend to find what I’m looking for from independent sellers on Amazon, books that have a “used” price but are in “like new” condition.  (Though every semester I seem to encounter one book that no one sells and is strangely only available from the campus bookstore!)

Do you write in your textbooks?

I prefer keeping my books pristine, so notes in my textbooks happen in two instances:

  1. Foreign language classes, where I write down difficult vocabulary translations, and where I sometimes summarize novel plots in the margins.  I’m not at a level where I can skim books in Spanish or Latin the way I can in English, so plot notes help me find relevant passages more easily.
  2. I’m running out of time and it’s faster to write in the book than to take notes.  In literature classes, taking notes often involves marking down plot points so you know what part of the novel you’re talking about.  Sometimes, writing notes in the margin, directly next to said plot point, can save valuable time for a harassed student!

Do you tend to keep your textbooks?

I majored in English, so a fair number of my “textbooks” were actually novels.  I assume the same will be true as I enter grad school for English literature.  Novels I always keep.  Actual textbooks, I usually sell back (and, again, I usually get the best prices from Amazon, though once in a while Barnes & Noble does offer me a better deal).  Sometimes I hesitate about selling and think, “But I may want to reference this book one day!”  Then I realize that if I ever want know, say, how to do a differential equation again the future, I’m far more likely to look it up online than I am to search around in a textbook.

Thoughts?  Questions?  (I do have experience working in a college bookstore, so I might actually have answers!)