A Philosopher's Blog

Textbook Prices

Posted in Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on October 3, 2016

While most of the attention about the cost of a college education is focused on tuition, there is also concern about the ever-increasing prices of text books. While textbooks are something of a niche product, their prices tend to be far higher than other niche books. For example, a new hardcover version of the Pathfinder Role Playing Game retails for $49.99 and sells for $30.47 on Amazon. This 576 page book is lavishly illustrated and is of excellent quality. In contrast, the latest edition of the 512-page softcover Critical Thinking book I use in my class sells for $176.60 on Amazon.  While it is a quality work, it hardly seems worth the price.

There are numerous reasons textbooks have high prices. There is the fact that textbook sales tend to be relatively low, so the price needs to be higher to make a profit. There is also the fact that behind each textbook is typically a small army of people ranging from the lowly author to the exalted corporate CEO and everyone needs their slice of the pie. And, of course, there is the fact that the customers are something of captive market—the students are expected to buy what professors select and are often stuck with only that option. In any case, textbooks are now rather expensive—they can match or exceed the cost of a low end laptop.

While students have long been inclined to neither read nor buy texts, the rising prices serve as an ever growing disincentive for buying the books. This greatly lowers the chances that a student will read the book and this can have a detrimental impact on the student’s education.

Several years ago my students complained about the high costs of books (and these were not very high), so I took steps to address this concern. While they are lagging behind me, some state legislatures have started pushing for schools to address the high cost of textbooks. On the one hand, they seem to be taking the wrong sort of approach: publishers and sellers control textbook prices, faculty do not. This would be analogous to putting the burden of lowering the cost of prescription drugs on doctors rather than the pharmaceutical companies and pharmacies. The state legislatures could, if they think that the high cost of texts is a cruel burden on students, legislate price restrictions on these books or address the matter directly in other ways. On the other hand, professors can take steps to address the costs that students have to pay in regards to the required material for their classes. As such, there is a legitimate role here for faculty.

While I certainly support the goal of making the costs of texts less burdensome, the focus on textbooks by state legislatures smells a bit like a red herring. After all, one main factor driving the increased cost of a state college education is the systematic disinvestment in higher education by these very same legislatures. Students would, I think, be far better served by these legislatures restoring the investments in higher education—something that will aid the students and pay for itself in returns many times over.  But since legislatures seem reluctant to invest in the future of America’s youth, I now turn to addressing how faculty can lower the costs that students have to pay for texts.

There are, of course, some easy and obvious solutions. One is for the professor to shop around when picking a text.  Textbooks vary considerably in price and some companies, such as Oxford University Press, make a point of keeping prices in a more reasonable range. The challenge is, of course, to ensure that the lower cost book is of suitable quality; but this is generally not a problem if a professor sticks with the reputable publishers.

Another option is for professors to use older editions of books that are still readily available from resellers such as Amazon and whatever used bookstores remain in business. These books can be far cheaper than the new editions. The main concern is that older editions can become out of date. This can range from the relatively minor issue of having examples that are no longer current to the serious issue of a book containing information that has been proven to be in error. Concerns about the age of the text tend to be relative to the field. To illustrate, a class on ancient philosophy can easily use an ancient book while a class on contemporary moral issues would need a contemporary book. There are also public domain books readily available for free in electronic format, including versions available through such sources as Amazon.

Professors can also keep costs low by ensuring that they only require books that are really needed in the course. Some professors, perhaps to get free desk copies, require many books for their courses that end up either being underused (such as reading one article from an anthology) or not being used at all.

There are also various other established solutions such as using a custom course pack of readings (often assembled and sold by a local copy business) and having the course material put on reserve at the library. Professors can also locate free online resources, such as educational videos, that can be used in place of or in addition to traditional books. The

Professors can also aid students by doing the student’s research for them—looking up textbook prices online and informing students of the best deals at that time. Some states have been requiring professors to turn in text book orders months before the start of the semester; the theory is that students will use that time to hunt down the best textbook deals. This does require a means of informing students about the books, something that presumably would be listed online with the class.  Sometimes professors have to turn in their book orders before they even know what they will be teaching, but this can be addressed by setting schedules early enough. In cases involving adjuncts (who are sometimes hired days before school starts) or new hires, books will no doubt be assigned by some other faculty member on the grounds that the alleged savings of being able to shop around early will outweigh any concerns about academic freedom or faculty decision making in regards to course content.

There are also solutions that require more effort on the part of professors. When my students began complaining of the high cost of books, I addressed the problem by assembling texts out of public domain works. While these “books” began as text files, the advent of PDF enabled me to create robust digital texts. The students can download these books for free from Blackboard, which saves them money. This approach does have limitations, the main one is that the works need to either be in the public domain or permission to use them for free must be granted. There are also creative commons works, but these are not terribly common in academics. Because of this, most of the works that can be included will be older, out of copyright works. For some classes, this is no problem. For example, my Modern philosophy class covers long dead philosophers, such as Descartes and Locke, whose works are in the public domain. For classes that require up to date content, such as science classes or classes devoted to contemporary content, this approach would not be viable.

Professors can, and often do, write their own texts for use in classes. If the professor goes through the usual publishing companies, they might have some ability to keep the price low. But, since author royalties are usually but a small fraction of the cost of a textbook, even if a professor were to forgo this royalty, the impact on the price would be minimal. As such, this is not a great option in terms of price control.

Thanks to on-demand publishing services (such as CreateSpace) and eBook publishing (such as Amazon’s Kindle eBooks) a professor can also publish their books with almost complete control over the price. For example, an author can set a Kindle eBook to sell for as low as 99 cents. On the positive side, this option allows a professor to provide printed and electronic books for very low prices.

On the minus side, self-published books are not subject to the review usually required by academic publishers and thus quality can be a serious concern. There are also some ethical concerns about a professor requiring students to buy their books—although a low relative cost can offset this worry. Although I have written numerous philosophy books, such as 42 Fallacies, I have not used them in my classes because of this concern. They have, however, been adopted by faculty at other universities.

While professors are now expected to keep the costs of texts down, there are ways students can save themselves money. The classic approach is, of course, to not buy the book (or only buy some of the books). While this does save money, it can impact negatively on class performance and learning. Another approach is to split the cost of the text and share the book, although this runs into the usual problems of sharing.

Text books can sometimes also be checked out from libraries; although there is the obvious problem of limited availability. Students who are more frugal than scrupulous can also acquire free books by other means—almost anything can be acquired through various channels on the web.

Students who are willing to buy a text can save money by shopping around online and at used bookstores for used or discounted copies of the text. Previous editions of books can also be found, often at lower prices. The downside is that publishers take special effort to make it harder to use previous editions—one tactic is to move around homework questions so the numbers are different between editions. On the positive side, content changes between editions tend to be otherwise minor.

Publishers also offer textbook rentals that offer savings relative to the sales price; given that the money students get for selling their books back is very little, this can be a good approach for people who would otherwise just sell their books back.  Some books are also available at a slightly lower price as eBooks (although there is the concern about being able to sell them back).

A student can also make an appeal to the professor; they might have a copy they can lend or they might be able to suggest some lower cost options. While many professors are aware of the cost of texts and take steps to keep costs down, some professors are unaware—but might be willing to address this if asked by students.

To close, while state legislatures should be focused on the main cost factors of higher education (such as their own disinvestment choices) they are correct in pointing out that textbook costs do need to be addressed. While this should be handled by those who set the prices of the texts, professors and students can use the above approaches to help keep costs down.

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6 Responses

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  1. ajmacdonaldjr said, on October 3, 2016 at 9:06 am

    It’s a scam. A cartel of textbook publishers scamming the students (and their parents). The price of textbooks has always been too high. Now they want to sell or rent their overpriced e-books for nearly the same price as their overpriced paper books? Nonsense. The Big Pharma analogy was closest to the truth. Big Textbook Publishers should be brought to heel by the state. “Cartel: an association of manufacturers or suppliers with the purpose of maintaining prices at a high level and restricting competition”

  2. Glen Wallace said, on October 3, 2016 at 4:23 pm

    The US Government already has a Government Publishing Office where they write, print and sell a great variety of books and other print materials that are generally of a high quality and a reasonable price. The obvious solution then is for the GPO to begin offering textbooks at cost for all the general courses required of most undergraduate students attending most accredited US Universities. Problem solved. https://bookstore.gpo.gov/

  3. ronster12012 said, on October 4, 2016 at 10:51 pm


    Surely the biggest problem is frequent changes of textbooks. If courses and textbooks remained the same from year to year then a good secondhand market would develop on campus. If a $150 textbook sold for say $100, the initial buyer would lose only $50 and subsequent buyers would actually get near free textbooks after onselling.

    How much do subjects actually change from year to year anyway? Mathematics doesn’t change ever, so why aren’t 20+ year old textbooks being used? Same goes for physics, much science, engineering etc Teaching principles doesn’t require up to the minute textbooks.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 6, 2016 at 7:32 pm

      As you note, many books would be suitable for a very long time. This would save the students money; but would certainly be rough on the publishers.

      • ronster12012 said, on October 6, 2016 at 10:48 pm


        Given that publishers have no right to a guaranteed income, it is no concern of anyone else that they should continue to receive one.

        Pretty soon these same publishers will stop (if they have any business sense) producing physical books and will merely lease you an electronic copy for a semester or year. Game, set and match…. .

        A further question might be asked concerning collusion between publishers and educational institutions and the requirement for new textbooks for courses. Who designs courses and more particularly, course changes? And how genuine is the need for constantly changing courses?

  4. nailheadtom said, on October 6, 2016 at 7:02 am

    Why should there be such a thing as a “text” in the first place? A professor’s lectures should be the core of the class and ancillary reading should be in easily available publications. Now the presence of the WWW makes dedicated texts even more obsolete. It’s past time for education to join the 21st century.

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