Why Textbooks Are So Expensive—A Lesson In Recent History

By John Suchocki


Main Ideas

• Writing a textbook requires a huge commitment of time and energy.

• Used textbook sales have been the prime driver of inflating textbook costs.

• Bookstores renting textbooks while keeping all the profit is a blatant disregard of an author’s intellectual property rights.

• Most publishers are investing heavily in online delivery of content and study aids, which will soon include the next-generation dynamic e-textbooks.


OK. We all understand the importance of a textbook in helping students learn. We understand that creating a textbook is no simple matter. But why has the price of a new textbook been increasing much faster than one would expect from normal inflation? The purpose of this article is to dig into that very question, which is addressed from the point of view of the author. For the moment, let’s assume that the author is YOU.


To write a textbook, first you’ll need to become a seasoned expert. Usually this means a Ph.D. followed by a couple years as a post-doc, followed by a full time professorship at a college or university where you’ll need at least a decade of teaching experience. A publisher learns you’re popular with colleagues and students, plus you have strong writing skills. They ask if you might want to write a textbook. Honored, you say sure! So you spend the next 7 years working on your first edition, while also working full time with your regular duties. In the final years it gets rather hectic. The publisher provides you an advance on royalties. This allows you to cut back on your teaching schedule and focus primarily on the book. They’ve also hired an army of editors, reviewers, and graphic artists to make sure your new and unique approach stands out against older approaches already on the market. They also support an even larger army of sale representatives to promote your gem of a textbook, because quality doesn’t matter if it’s sitting in a warehouse. Of course, they also pay for the customized printing and binding and also oversee the textbook supplements and media. For the first edition alone: 10,000 hours of your time are consumed and several million dollars in the publisher’s financial investment. A break-even point will be about 50,000 units.


Let’s do the numbers and watch how they grow over time. Initially, the publisher sells each book to the bookstore for $70. They keep $60 and give you $10 (after payback of advances). The bookstore adds their mark up of up to 40% plus cost of shipping. That’s $105 to the student. At the end of the semester, the bookstore buys the book back from each student for $20, and sells it to a used book company for $30. Then it gets crazy. The used book company sells it back to the bookstore for $60. The bookstore marks it up to $95. The following semester the student sees the new book for $105 next to the used book for $95. Well, as a student, what would you do? Is it the paper the student needs or is it the intellectual property printed on that paper? Who cares. Save ten bucks. Of the student’s $95, the publisher and you—the creators of the intellectual value—receive $0. It all goes to the bookstore, shipping, and the used book dealers.


Think of the ethics. The student needs the carefully crafted words and illustrations printed within your textbook. For many classes, those words and illustrations are the centerpiece of the curriculum. That has value. Yet when the student opts for the used textbook, none of the student’s money goes to you, the creator of that value. It’s like a consumer buying food with no money ever making its way to the farmer. Food is bodily nourishment. Ideas within a textbook are intellectual nourishment. Growing food requires perpetual physical labor. Growing ideas requires perpetual intellectual labor. Both are worthy of support. Actually, support is vital—without it, our agricultural and educational systems fall apart.




So far, the publisher hasn’t sold anywhere near 50,000 units—their break-even point. Thus, they urge you, the author, to create a new and improved edition. Indeed, you’ve been class testing the first edition and numerous unforeseen issues have come to your attention as well as some inspiring new ideas on your approach. In a few years, out comes the second edition, which the publisher sells to the college bookstore for $90. Why the price increase?  There’s normal inflation, but mostly the publisher needs to catch up against used books sales, which were stronger than in the past. The bookstore adds their 40% plus shipping, which brings the student price to about $130. By next semester, the used second edition textbooks appear for $120.


Are the used book folks doing students a favor by offering a lower price? Or are they driving the price higher with each subsequent edition? Notice the used textbooks themselves are rather expensive. Students must buy the textbook. Knowing this, dealers and bookstores price the used textbook slightly less than the new textbook to maximize their income. Of course, many students simply don’t buy the book, new or used. Or, they share the book splitting the cost with a classmate. Either way, learning is compromised. Tuition dollars (another story) are being wasted. Through one impacted student after another, the educational system itself is weakened. Students don’t like to buy textbooks because they’re expensive. Instructors don’t like expensive textbooks because they know their students stop buying them. So everyone supports the used books simply because they’re less expensive. Short term, this seems fine. Long term, it’s problematic.


Over the past couple decades used textbooks have inflated new textbook prices well beyond normal inflation rates. But bookstores have recently learned how to improve their earnings by renting, which sidesteps the used book dealers. For the publishers, used book sales have long been a difficult situation. The recent trend in renting textbooks is taking that difficulty to another level. When you rent a video from Netflix or go to a movie theater, some portion of what you pay goes to the content creators. That makes sense, right? You want to support the folks who created the content you value. When a student rents a textbook, how much goes to the folks who created the content the student is renting? The answer is 0%.  Imagine mowing your neighbor’s lawn. They like what you did so well they pay you nothing. Rather, they send a check for $20 to John Deere, the maker of your lawn mower. Clearly, that’s not a sustainable situation. Yet this is exactly what textbook authors and publishers face and it’s a strong motivator for them to 1) create new editions and 2) raise the price of each subsequent new edition. Rentals will push this trend all the more, especially given the growing popularity of renting. Bookstores begin to look like libraries—only a kind of library that “lends” intellectual property it doesn’t own for excessive amounts of money. Students who mishandle the physical book containing that intellectual property are fined heavily.


The general public may assume the textbook is already good enough—no significant improvements or updates are really needed. Plus, there’s no need to compensate the creators because they already got their one time profit. Tell that to a software developer or a performing artist whose CD’s get ripped. The textbook is a uniquely complicated product in need of perpetual development that goes beyond simple updates from recent events. If you doubt this, try writing one yourself.


The moral of this story: do not blame authors and publishers for the high price of textbooks. They create and distribute a valuable educational tool. Look deeper into the eyes of the used book dealers who profit from the work of others thereby inflating the price for everyone. They literally roam campuses with wads of cash to offer professors for the textbooks on their shelves. Students should think about where their money isn’t going as they rent their textbooks. Also, everyone should consider our current judicial system, which has yet to provide textbooks with the same intellectual property protection given to software and artistic performances. Shouldn’t a key educational resource, such as a textbook, be worthy of such protection?


The good old college bookstore’s practices are not sustainable. In a short while, these bookstores will be primarily a place where students buy candy, blank paper, and sweaters. Across the country, most college bookstores now outsource their online presence to corporations such as Amazon or Barnes & Noble. In doing so, they have become sales agents for these corporations. They serve as agents as they re-direct student traffic to corporate online portals where large banners in school colors read:  “Save lots of money. Rent your textbooks!” Which translates to: “Help us make money off your author’s intellectual property in a way that allows us to keep his or her earnings!”


         This story, however, has a promising ending with the advent of the electronic textbook. Allow for a system where the consumer of value can directly support the creator of value, then two important things will happen: 1) the price will drop, and 2) the value will get better.  Electronic textbooks are already much cheaper than their printed counterparts. That’s NOT primarily because the publisher is saving trees. It’s primarily because the middlemen have been cut. The printed book has all its advantages, but it’s also heavy, gets torn up, and is—for widely misunderstood reasons—rather expensive.  Most e-textbooks today are merely captured images of the textbook pages, which is not much of an improvement. But the industry is working feverishly to change all that. In a few years students will find a next-generation of e-textbooks with video tutorials embedded within the paragraphs. So students can read, watch, and listen, which helps to reach a broader range of learning preferences. Illustrations will become dynamic. For example, the student changes parameters on a graph and the shape of the graph will respond. Instructor will be able to rearrange and customize the table of contents to match the learning goals of the class for that semester, which means students will only see what they need to see. Homework assignments and practice exams will also be embedded and results automatically graded and sent to the instructor’s grade book. And that’s just the beginning.


Why must we wait? Why aren’t these magical e-textbook here right now? Remember, development takes time. Even a Hollywood movie takes many years to develop—the movies we see today had their beginnings up to a decade earlier. To get things moving in a positive direction, instructors and students should start using the cheaper e-textbook purchased directly from the publisher. This saves money and trees while also supporting the content creators who are working on the next generation of interactive e-textbooks. For a sweater with the college logo, students can find one for cheap at Amazon.com. Or they might visit their on-campus college “stop ‘n shop” where they can also pick up a soda for a late night of study with their electronic textbook. A student looking for the printed textbook should consider a visit to the reference section of their campus library where intellectual property rights are respected and the books are always free.


Professor Suchocki (aka Coach) has been teaching introductory science courses at St. Michael’s College in Colchester, Vermont, since 2003. He previously taught at the University of Hawaii, where he resigned from tenure in order to focus on the development of curriculum now featured within his textbooks and also here at Conceptual Academy.