Just over a year ago, college textbook publishers were bombarded with complaints about the exorbitant costs of purchasing college textbooks. A report issued by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that textbook prices were increasing at twice the rate of inflation. Student advocacy groups claimed the rate was much higher. Publishers were found to be releasing new editions at increasingly frequent rates, driving cheaper used older editions out of college bookstores. New editions, which were discovered to increase in price by 58 percent from one edition to another, were also found to contain only minimal changes. Major newspapers nationwide released stories in reaction, decrying the publishers' monopolistic actions, accusing them of forcing lower-income students out of colleges by increasing the already burdensome cost of attendance. Parents got mad. Students got mad. Lawmakers and political figures expressed outrage in congressional hearings. And then…

And then, well, nothing happened. The GAO's study left just enough justification for the textbook publishers to slip out the back door and continue their crooked ways. There was just enough explanation provided to make students and parents bow down and take it up the tailpipe. These explanations were never well founded nor were empirical, quantitative data ever presented to support these excuses; but the angry mob was eventually quelled and dispersed. The subject of expensive textbooks faded from the national spotlight. 

Today, textbooks are still unbelievably expensive. If the books went to class for you, did your homework, passed your tests for you, and provided you with complimentary laundry service, it seems they couldn't be priced much higher. Students are still rubbing their eyes in disbelief as they leave college bookstores. Parents and students are still wondering how they're going to make up for unexpectedly high textbook costs. And the publishers are still laughing all the way to the bank.

Therefore, having just been taken to the cleaners on my school books for the umpteenth time, I'm going to revisit and reanalyze those explanations provided by the publishers. My goal: to show that these lame excuses are hardly sufficient to justify price increases and to show a pattern of consciously, strategically forcing prices up. Let's get started…

1. "Frequent new editions are necessary to win school support." I have a difficult time believing this one. New editions are reportedly being released, according to the California Student Public Interest Research Group (SPIRG), every 3.8 years on average. However, according to reports and personal experience, schools are not supporting the frequent release of new editions. On the contrary, countless colleges across the country have created booksharing programs to alleviate the financial burden being forced on their students. They encourage students to use websites like Half.com to buy textbooks at half the retail price (most of which end up being international versions that have been sold overseas).

In my own experience, my professors have apologized at the start of every term about the exorbitant book prices. They make every effort to use packets of their own design, which are usually cheaper than textbooks, out of concern for their students' budgets. In addition, they are the first to comment that, with the lag from research to publishing in a journal to inclusion in a textbook, new editions of textbooks are always at least 7 years behind developments in their fields. They cannot be up to date, and schools know this. I find it hard to swallow that publishers are impressing anybody with textbook content that is almost a decade old.

Finally, I've never had a professor tell the class, "I know we just got a new edition a year ago, but I just had to have this new edition because they've put this handy new graphic on page 239. That really made the difference for me, and I think it's worth an extra $58." No, their apology has always sounded something like this: "We wanted to get last year's edition for you and save you some money, but the bookstore was unable to get additional copies of that edition from the publisher. So you've got to buy the new one. Sorry."

If it sounds like schools are accepting these new editions reluctantly because they don't really have a choice, it's because they are. By limiting access to older editions, professors are cornered into accepting new editions whether they like them or not. Publishers aren't winning school support; they're squeezing it out of their customers.

2. "Textbooks must be constantly modernized to keep students' attention." The publishers' rationale here is that this new generation of students has been raised on the flashy graphics and visuality of the internet, and, therefore, textbooks must mirror this design standard to be effective with them. According to publishers, this means putting out a new edition every 3 years. So, if you accept this excuse, students' visual tastes must be changing every 3 years to justify every new edition. Does anyone else here smell a truckload of bull-oney pulling into the college parking lot?

Now, I'll be the first to concede that textbooks need to have some measure of visual accessibility. I've read some of the driest textbooks around. One book, the size and weight of a large cinder block, was meant to chronicle every detail of gathering, measuring, and analyzing survey data. I think it also included a chapter on the joys of watching paint dry. Worst of all, the book did not contain a single diagram, photograph, or even a single dot of color. Just paragraph after boring paragraph in the smallest font possible. Note: if you are considering using sleeping pills to cure insomnia, try this book first.

But I refuse to believe that publishers need to release a new edition every 3 years to make textbooks visually tolerable. I mean, what can they add every few years that makes it that much better? A new stripe here? A fancy icon there? A snazzy paragraph that manages to fit Britney Spears into the Law of Diminishing Returns? Seriously, is anyone really saying, "Darn, it's a good thing they put that new smiley face graphic at the corner of each page. I don't think this new batch of students would've gotten this stuff otherwise"?

Let's get real here. Textbooks will never be used as leisure reading for college students. Reading assignments will rarely be viewed by students as an aesthetically pleasing experience: "Just having those multicolored stripes at the top of each page really made me want to go on to chapter 3 and then 4 and then… well, I just couldn't help myself." No, for the vast majority of students, reading assignments will always be viewed as a grueling exercise in comprehending mass amounts of information with the hope of being able to retrieve them in lecture. Honestly, we could make due with one less graphic if it would save us an extra $50.

I'll give publishers this much: every new edition does indeed catch students' attention- but not because of the striking graphics. The overblown price and empty feeling in our wallets are what catch our attention. The fact that our leisure money for the next month is blown because of your new edition catches our attention. Instead of feeling prompted to read that whiz-bang marvel of modern textbook publishing, however, we feel prompted to use the thing as a projectile to put out our professor's office window. And we would- if they hadn't cost us so much.

3. "New editions include newer teaching techniques and more modern information or interpretations." Call me skeptical, but how much do teaching techniques or information on a given college subject change in 3 years? And aren't professors better equipped to bring things up to date for their students or to determine teaching techniques, for that matter, than publishers, who I've already pointed out are seven years behind current events?

Publishers have insisted, for example, that new editions help to ensure that textbooks are current and politically correct, including viewpoints from underrepresented groups that were previously left out. That's important, of course. But do revisions need to be made to history books every three years? Do they need to be made to economics books, a field in which major advances happen every decade at the most? Do they need to be made in algebra, where the subject matter has not changed since ancient Persia? Authors are not even mentioned in literature anthologies until their works are, like, 30 years old. So what's another 3 years? Again, publishers are inventing a false utility for their product to justify raising their prices. It is simply not true that new teaching techniques and information demand new editions every 3 years. Period.

There is a human being at the front of every classroom for a reason: to overlay current events on course subject matter, to help students make interpretations, and to use their unique teaching techniques to run their classes. You would be hard-pressed to find a college instructor who leaves the teaching up to their textbook.

4. "Bundling of textbooks with CD-ROMs, study guides, website access, and test questions helps professors teach better." At the most basic level, a book is just a book- a structure of paper, glue, string, cardboard, and ink. If all you've got is a few photographs and diagrams and a lot of text, how much can it cost? Only so much. Now let's say you throw in a ridiculous collection of multimedia tools and other booklets to complement a textbook which is already probably too large to get through in a single term, as if your tri-annual revisions to the actual textbook weren't enough to school any student who should fall under its influence. CD-ROMs come with significant development costs. Study guides easily jack up the price farther. To get a website functional to complement the book also incurs web design and development expenses, as well as ongoing costs for maintenance of the site. What happens? The price you can charge for each book suddenly makes an Olympic leap because, I mean, look at all these toys at your disposal.

But the fact of the matter is, professors don't need, and, in many cases, don't use, all of these toys. Unfortunately for students, the whole package, the learning extravaganza gold package created by the publisher, is the only package they advertise. Cheaper, stripped down versions with just the text that you can slide into a three-ring binder are available in many cases. But, of course, with a fraction of the commission they could make off the deluxe version, these discount versions are conveniently neglected by sales reps. Professors don't even know about them for this reason.

Don't be fooled by the bells and whistles. They only exist as an excuse to jack up prices and to give the impression of changes made to a new edition. Any student who has had to pay for one of these deluxe editions has probably noticed that their professor didn't have the time to really use the added features. Like a computer loaded with way too many features and programs, students' money is wasted on these so-called tools. The fact is, time is a very finite resource for both professors and students. They just don't have the time to read from the textbook, run through a simulation on the CD-ROM, check into the website on a regular basis, do practice problems from the textbook, and then do more practice problems in the study guide.

And we haven't even addressed the question of whether these study aids really help students learn better. My experience- take it for what it is- is that practice brings learning, whether it is on a good, old-fashioned sheet of paper or in a slick CD-ROM presentation. Throwing in the inconvenience of installing and navigating a CD-ROM only makes the student less likely to use the CD-ROM. Personally, I'd rather just open my book, pull out my calculator, and get to work.

But don't count on publishers to realize this anytime soon. Sadly, with every consecutive edition, California SPIRG found that inclusion of these non-required materials rose by 21 percent. They will keep packing them in and pushing prices up until we wise up and push back.

Does this make you angry? It makes me angry. The college textbook rip-off continues. And the worst thing we can do is forget and let the publishers keep doing it. Students, parents, lawmakers, and publishers need to be reminded that this is unfair. So, if you're angry about this, leave your comments below and send this article to your friends.

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25 comments on “College Textbook Rip-Off Continues

  • I live in a town with 2 universities, and we have an alternative store called “Beat the Bookstore,” and they sell textbooks at greatly reduced prices. Maybe other college towns have similar places.

  • This article is very true, that’s why I always buy my textbook online either at ebay.com or textbookw.com

    Save me a bunch of money!

  • LaGuardia Community College, CUNY, is a scandal waiting to explode. You are invited to visit http://www.Laguardiacorruption.com to see the deleterious effect of administrative corruption on education and, in particular, how political cronyism, rampant grade inflation, fraudulent course material and fraudulent remedial exams have rendered the Mathematics and English Departments dysfunctional. With more than 125,000 visits to date, the website aims to inform all colleges, education associations, interested taxpayers, elected officials and news media in the New York City vicinity.

  • Textbookw.com is very unorganized. I placed an order and a week and a half later they tell me that they don’t have it in stock.I checked their website again and it’s still listed in their inventory.Their website claims that they will respond to you within 24 hours but was more like 72 hours. I’ll never place an order from textbookw.com again.

  • We sent our twin daughters off to college and had to purchase books for their freshman year, we spent nearly $1100 on books alone for their first semester.

  • I just started community college for my first year, and my book fees alone cost me nearly $600. Might I mention that half of my books weren't even seriously used in class? Oh, how I learned my lesson.
    Tip I've heard from numerous students: Don't feel pressured to jump ahead before classes start and buy books willy-nilly. Wait until the first week of class and ask your professor about the extent of which the book will be used. Many professors at my school will post required texts and then never at all use them; they become in essence backup sources, in case one needs them. How useless is that, for $150 in some cases?
    And, truly, don't rely on the school bookstore for purchasing one's books. They do have to conform to the radically overpriced book system. I'm at the moment attempting to find a version of a "required" textbook for a class in Life in the Universe, and I absolutely refuse to enter that campus bookstore. I'm using Ebay and Google instead, particularly for the cheapo previous edition of the book. (Do the math: First Ed. costs on average $25. Second on average $125. Heartbreaking.)
    Good luck, everyone!

  • I purchased a much needed text book from textbookw.com, they stated that it would be shipped in 24 hours, I waited over 10 days and I finally had to email them to only find out that the book was no longer in stock but if you check on their website the book is still available. Communication is awful!!  I will never use that site again and I encourage everyone not to also.

  • We love using Chegg.com to rent textbooks and save a lot of money! I wanted to share a code that your readers can use to get a discount on their text order. Put in the code when ordering and hit the "apply" button. The code also gives you back an additional $5 when selling Chegg your used texts.
    The code does not have an expiration date so it can be used with every order.  Here it is:
    Feel free to pass this code to friends!

  • There’s quite a few comments about websites to buy used textbooks, but a problem that has not been mentioned is this: Without the I.S.B.N. number, that information is useless. I do not know about OTHER colleges, but the college I attend has just started providing the I.S.B.N. numbers for THIS FALL SEMESTER (2010). I am simply curious as to if there is any possible benefit -perhaps underhanded- the college gains by pushing new textbooks? Please understand: When I say “college”, I’m referring to the institution and NOT the instructors.

    p.s. I may or may not be correct, but I think it’s possible I’m getting a double-whammy as our bookstore itself is run by Barnes & Noble. I was forced to buy a new textbook for a class then at the end of that same semester, a new revision was released and there was no buyback. I’m $108 out of pocket for the one textbook. WHAT CAN WE DO??? 🙁

  • and students get ripped off with housing costs too – the price we have to pay for 5 to live in a shabby house is unbelieveable, its a racket!

  • My microbiology professor would allow us touseolder editions. When he gave an assignment hewould tellthe page number or the chapter headingin whatever edition you told him you owned.

  • I think everyone may be missing the obvious, here. Why do we have physical textbooks at all? Why isn’t is all digitized so everyone uses their $500 iPad or $200 Kindle to read books? Welcome to the new century!

  • I have some insight into this question/statement. Book sales all over the country are at a low. Publishers are not making the money that they used too. To compensate for this lack of funds there is a market of people who have to buy books, students. Professors require the purchase of textbooks for their courses and students are obligated to comply. Publishers have forced their way into the market.

  • Make Textbooks Suck Less
    Students at the University of Colorado at Boulder are trying to make it easier for Students to sell their books for good prices without the effort.

    List your textbook once and have it posted to dozens of the biggest textbook sites. When it sells, place the book in the envelope we send, let the mailman know you have pickup, and enjoy your extra free time.

  • Buying text books online is a great way to save money. BUT the publishers have found a way around that. Either by convincing (kickbacks?) colleges to use a college specific edition which can’t be purchased elsewhere or by coming up with new editions way too frequently than necessary. Case in point: my son last year took a music appreciation class that required a new edition bundled textbook/CDs. $130. This year exactly ONE YEAR LATER my daughter is signed up for the exact same class, same school, same professor SAME BOOK NEWER EDITION? Really? In the world on music appreciation in a class that focuses on music of the 16tg- early 20th century there have been enough changes to warrant a new edition text? SCAM! and yes she’ll be asking if she can use the older edition. We’ll see.

  • Cindy,

    Unfortunately it is an absolute scam, but trends in online book purchases and the recent exposure of publisher kick backs will soon levy a might blow to large publishers like McGraw Hill (and the like). Hardware/software integration, such as the Nook, ipad/iphone, will soon replace the hard copy world we grew up in. The question will simply be this: when will the universities, many of which who receive kick backs from the publisher, allow better means of acquiring the necessary materials for the class (not the latest edition with a new forward and cover). Schools are a business, one that gets to play by a different set of rules. I see this changing very soon.

  • Here’s another ripoff. I just got my book list and can’t find the ISBN codes online. I can find similar books by the same publisher but not the exact books listed by the college. The bookstore told me that the college gets the books specially printed with chapters arranged in the order their professors request. It’s basically the same information as the regular publishing, just rearranged. Why do they do this? So you can only buy the books from the college bookstore. They cost way more than similar books from other retailers. Since no one else will ever be looking for these special ISBN codes on Amazon, the only option you have for resale is at the college. You’d expect them to have plenty of used books for sale but they never do. That’s because everything has an online content these day. The access codes are a one-time registration. Even if you sell your book, the new owner won’t be able to access it online. The college will sell them a new access code but they charge almost as much as a new book with the code. So used books are pretty much worthless

  • Absoultely college books are a ripoff! With all the costs of printing / shipping, why can’t /.won’t publishers disburse their texts via CD-ROM or on a server?? It would save the environment and lots of money for students.. But naw, they’re like all these other greedy ass people in it for the money

  • Absoultely college books are a ripoff! With all the costs of printing / shipping, why can’t /.won’t publishers disburse their texts via CD-ROM or on a server?? It would save the environment and lots of money for students.. But naw, they’re like all these other greedy ass people in it for the money

  • I used to barrow text books from class mates and take a photo with my point and shoot camera’s text mode of every single page, yes every single page. I would say this took me a couple of hours per book, but figure if my time was worth minimum wage, it was well worth it. I then made them into searchable pdfs for ease of use. I never gave them away or sold them. While I am not sure this was completely ethical, I do not think the current textbook racket is either.

  • The cost of textbooks and not the access codes is exhausting and defeating as a parent. Is there anything we can do to stop the publishing company’s from robbing us blind?

    I am sending this article to as many people as I can but is there anything we can do to get the government to help?

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