College books are inarguably expensive. They’re not just pricey; they can be downright prohibitive. But why is this the case? Why Are College Books So Expensive? And what should students and parents be aware of when purchasing them? In this blog post, Penn Book will look at some key factors that contribute to the high price tag on college books and how you can make smarter choices about what to buy and where to buy it from.
Average Cost of College Textbooks
$1,200 a year
The average student spends $1,200 a year on textbooks or about $500 on each class. If you’re fortunate enough to find an open-source text, that’s great, but it is not always available for every required course.
Now consider the fact that full-time students now take nearly 12 credit hours a semester, up from the traditional nine. That means almost $6,000 on books alone for one year!
Publishers vs. Students: A Captive Market
To make matters worse, college bookstores are run not by publishers but by the campus itself, and sales staff is trained to sell students anything, including services or tutoring, whether they need it or not. They don’t necessarily offer the lowest prices. Students can be charged hundreds of dollars more for a textbook than other consumers who buy their books at online retailers like Amazon or BookaCheap.com.
One reason is that college bookstores have no competition and therefore can set higher prices and still sell out. They know that if the bookstore sells out, students will shut down their search for books and either drop the course or delay buying a text sometimes until just before the class begins.
Students who buy used college textbooks online or over the phone suffer no such penalty.
Why Are College Books So Expensive?
While state legislatures are cutting budgets for public education and students pay more to attend, textbooks prices continue to increase at three to four times the inflation rate. And if you buy new textbooks, your college bookstore is not obligated to sell them back. The community’s bookstore may be a publishing giant, but its local competitor, the college bookstore, is an island unto itself, a self-contained monopoly that operates under different rules.
Total Price or Fail
The other reason is that campus bookstores operate in a no-win situation. If they don’t sell everything, the store looks terrible, and faculty will complain because students are failing courses because they can’t buy required books. But if the bookstore sells out, it loses money on unsold texts purchased at wholesale prices for the total cost.
College bookstores have repeatedly lobbied for laws requiring faculty to assign textbooks published by a select group of publishers and to require that books posted receive an ISBN (International Standard Book Number). Faculty can still give any book they choose, but they must get this number. Previously all college textbooks had ISBNs, so the publishing giant claimed this was needed to “standardize” college texts. In reality, it was an attempt to cripple the used textbook industry.
The campus bookstore’s policy is that all required texts must be purchased new by the student, although there are ways to pay less. Is this book not available used? Why not buy a “loaner copy” for $5 from the store and sell it back at the semester’s end when you’re done with it? You’ll save yourself $200.
Connecticut is the only state that prohibits this practice, holding that students must buy texts from campus bookstores and publishers can’t stop them. Why? Because they fund part of the school’s operating costs through royalty fees and other payments related to their “compulsory” purchase policy.
California considered legislation in 2001 that would have prohibited required purchases from campus bookstores unless the students were also given an option to buy them used. The bill was sponsored by California State Senator Tom Hayden, who called the proposals “predatory pricing” on books and said they discouraged low-income students because they forced them into the cash economy of convenience stores rather than using credit cards, which offered a discount.
The bill was defeated after the campus bookstore association spent $1 million lobbyings against it. At the same time, the campus faculty association supported it, saying professors should be free to assign any book they choose.
University of California at Berkeley and the University of Houston – Clear Lake in Texas are among those that stopped requiring students to buy textbooks from their campuses. However, they can still do so if they want to.
The faculty has also been known to choose books they want students to read rather than those most suited for the course. Why? Because that’s what they like, and that’s what they’ve become accustomed to working with. Why encourage students to buy and read an alternative text when you can force them to use yours? It saves teaching time if students use the book you’re familiar with rather than one that could be quite different. Why encourage them to buy and read more books?
Authors also tend to publish their books. They are guaranteed sales and earn higher royalties since they don’t have the middleman (the publisher) cutting every deal as traditional publishers do. Why? Because vanity press authors do everything from editing, layout, publishing, and marketing themselves, they pay no one for this service, and they don’t have to share the book’s proceeds with the publisher. Why should they? They did all the work themselves for free!
The average vanity-published book sells less than 100 copies,  although some are over 1,000, most trade in the low hundreds. Why spend thousands of dollars on a book that will sell fewer than a thousand copies? Why ask people to pay $300 when you can get them to spend $10 on your book that will contain their name. Why not make it accessible for the “honor”?
The cost of vanity publishing books is usually prohibitive for students. However, this approach is still in everyday use by educators looking to add to their libraries or those who want to become famous. Why? Why not pay for vanity publishing services rather than spending all that money out of pocket and then donating the result to your school library where it will sit, unread by students, collecting dust alongside thousands of other books no one cares about?
Students Under Surveillance: Publishers & Data
Publishers are also reluctant to allow students to sell or rent textbooks because it undermines their control over the market and collecting data. Why? Because most of the power players in publishing do not see selling books but licensing them, which has earned them more than $6 billion annually.
Ways to Save on Textbooks
Check For Textbooks On Project Gutenberg
If you’re okay with reading material created in the public domain, then check out Project Gutenberg. Why buy a book when you can download it for free?
Check For Textbooks On Amazon Marketplace
Please do some research on your potential textbook purchases before deciding to purchase them new. Check the prices on Amazon Marketplace and other online stores where they might be listed as used. Why pay a hefty price when you can avoid that fate by spending less?
Project Open Textbooks (Open Education Network)
There is also the open-source alternative to commercial textbooks called Project OpenTextbook, part of the Open Education Network. The creators have made several math and science books available at no cost on their websites. Why? Because they want to save students and educators money! The books are free for anyone to use, download, or print. You have no investment in the books, so feel free to use them as you see fit.
Buy Used Textbooks Online
Buying used textbooks online has become a popular trend, especially for looking to save money on college expenses. Why? Because it is cheaper than buying new ones that come at a total price! There are international editions of textbooks available for less than the U.S. versions. You can also find them on Amazon Marketplace, Half.com, BookFinder.com, and other websites that offer this service. Why buy a new book for $200 when you can get it used for less than $50?
Buy An Older Edition
When you decide that it’s time to buy a book, why not purchase an older edition? Why pay thousands of dollars for the latest edition when you can save money by buying an older version with fewer pages and less information or content. You might find out the old editions are better too!
Rent Your Textbooks
Renting your books is another alternative to buying them. Why pay for something you will use once and then never see again unless it’s in the library, which is unlikely since most students want to get rid of them as quickly as possible? Renting allows those who need the book only temporarily to get what they need without breaking the bank.
Compare Book Types (If Available)
Some publishers offer different versions of the same book. There are some types you might want to consider:
Closed version – This is a textbook that has been copyrighted, and its author has reserved all rights.
Why? Because they can control the price, restrict distribution, and prevent other people from publishing or distributing their work without permission.
So what? Well, you have no control over the content unless you are a copyright holder or have permission to make changes. The book will not be sold to other students at a lower price since it is still under copyright. It’s useless if you don’t meet the requirements of the class.
Accessible version – This type of book has also been copyrighted, but the contents can be viewed online with permission.
Why? To make “access” to the book easier for students taking a class that requires it and have no ownership of it after it is purchased or accessed.
So what? If your instructor assigns this type of textbook, you won’t be able to resell it or purchase one from another classmate after the course is over.
Virtual version – This type of book hasn’t been published—not in paper format, at least. If you can read it, then that means it’s a virtual book. The information is digitized and electronically displayed on a computer screen or other technology to allow students access to the instructions and data.
An instructor accesses virtual books to provide real-time feedback or discussion in a traditional classroom setting. Why? To accommodate all students without having the expense of printing copies for each one.
Proprietary version – This is an electronically downloadable book that is sold on a particular website. It can be read-only on that website.
Why? Because it is cheaper to give you access to one website than all of them for content or new up-to-date editions and formats.
So what? If your instructor requires this kind of book for the course, you can’t use it in another class and expect to have access unless the original version has been updated to the same format.
Check The Open Education Network
If you want to find an open-source textbook, then try The Open Education Network. It is designed to help students save money on textbooks by providing information about books that are already under the Creative Commons copyright or those with waivers that allow them to be used for free. Why pay thousands of dollars for a book when others can be accessed for free on this resource?
Access more than 500 books available at The Open Education Network.
Share Textbooks With Classmates Or Friends
You don’t have to buy your books if you can share them with friends or a classmate. If two or more of you are in the same class and assigned the same book, it may be possible for you to share the cost. Be sure to check with your instructor about this option before taking advantage of it.