Buying Textbooks for the Spring? Here's Why They're so Expensive

January 10th 2015

Ethan Senack is the federal Higher Education Advocate for US Public Interest Research Group. He works in Washington, D.C., on behalf of students on college affordability and accessibility.

Q. In a sentence or two, can you explain the college textbook crisis? 

A. Every student knows what it’s like to walk into the bookstore and see your required textbook has a $200 price tag. Unfortunately, textbook prices have gotten so high (increasing more than 800% in price over the last 3 decades) that students are opting out of buying books and hurting their grades.

Textbooks are expensive

Q. Why exactly are textbooks so expensive... does course curricula really change that much from year to year

A. Textbooks are so expensive because professors assign specific editions and just five publishers have a lock on the market. That means they're able to drive up prices without fear of market competitors. The content of some courses changes, but not nearly enough to justify brand new print editions—sometimes every two years—that carry such high prices.

Q. Who is getting rich from textbooks? 

A. According to the National Association of College Stores, more than 77 cents of every dollar spent on textbooks go to publishers. Of those 77 cents, the publishing company makes about 18 cents in pure profit, while spending 15 cents on marketing, and roughly 32 percent to cover costs (paper, printing, employee salaries, etc). At the same time, the author - the person who dedicated hundreds of hours of research to write the book – only gets about 12 cents on the dollar on average.


Q. Is there a policy solution? 

A. Absolutely. Late last year, Senators Durbin and Franken (and Congressmen Miller and Hinojosa) introduced a bill called the "Affordable College Textbooks Act." The bill supports the development of open textbooks - which are exactly like traditional textbooks, but they're released under an open license. Why does that matter? Because they're totally free to access online, free to download, and only around $20 for a hard copy. Open textbooks have the potential to break the traditional publishers' lock on the market - and they can save students billions of dollars without sacrificing quality.

Q. Ok, but Congress might very well not pass anything soon. Are there any practical steps that students can take in the meantime to save money?

A. There are hundreds of open textbooks available right now, but we need to spread the word. Students should talk to their professors about adopting an open textbook in their class. Check out the Open Textbook Catalog to see if there's a book available for your class. In the meantime, students need to be smart consumers. "There are many cost-saving options available right now: students can rent books at most bookstores, search for lower-cost e-textbooks, buy older editions instead of the most current, or join a bookswap and purchase directly from other students. If those options are still too expensive, students should inquire at their campus library: copies of textbooks are often kept on file for public access.

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