NEWSFLASH: College textbook prices are insane

I registered for 4 classes this summer. 2 of those I bought the required texts for yesterday. One class has a textbook, study guide, and practice tests as required purchases and the authors were comprised mostly of professors at the school I am attending (University of Alabama at Birmingham). The total for the 2 classes: $380.00. I was speechless. Here I thought they were overpriced 10 years ago when I went through the first time.

Some of you professors and smart people, what causes these exorbitant prices? Is it similair to pharmeceuticals in that all the cost is in the R&D so they have to make up for it with inflated prices? Bring on the LOANS!!!

I personally think College is one of the biggest rackets in the world. I never paid that much for books though, I think the most I paid was about $200, the most for a single book was $90 for a biology book.

My cost-saving hint, which I’ll pass on since I just graduated last week: check Amazon. They sell textbooks–and often have used ones available–and they are a hell of a lot cheaper than your college bookstore, on average. Just make sure to check the edition number before you buy.

That’s another thing. Economics and Accounting and, certainly, History do not change a whole hell of a lot over a one or two year period. The need to change texts that often is general practice, however. Crazy. As if the world and life is not difficult enough, the process of higher education is a rigorous chore and that is outside of class attendence and attempts to learn. I am glad I forgot what a pain in the ass this all was until after I decided to pursue this course of action.

OK, enough venting. Off to class. :arrow:

Part of it is that the used market eats into publisher/author profits substantially (just like used games). Consider, one used copy generates 1 sale for the publisher, 1 commission for the author, and can be used by 5-10 students. (Unless, of course, you’re at the school with the professor, in which case many profs. tend to require new editions whenever they’ve just published them, for example.)

Also, a lot of textbooks, especially for higher level classes, are very specific and therefore there tends to be no competition. I know the field I work in has this problem; modern theory/thinking has been more or less where it is for the past 30 years, but only in the past 2 or so has there actually been an attempt to write a comprehensive textbook about it. If they can afford to wait that long, chances are the size of the entire audience for that textbook is somewhere in the 10-50k range, which is a small audience to write a book for. Then consider that generally a good book comes from a good professor which, in areas of research like those I work in, tends to mean the prof has to make a conscious decision whether to cut back on research (and the money it brings) or skip writing a book…

Next time, get the ISBNs and check to see if you can find them cheaper. Buying them at the college bookstore is almost always the worst option price-wise. (And Amazon is often not much better; they’re pretty horrible about discounting textbooks because they just don’t move the volume on those to make it worth their while. There are places that specialize in more technical books that do, however.)

In general, though, who cares about $400 when you’re already going $8k into debt to pay for tuition. (That’s what my summer tuition is billed out at this summer; great racket they have going here! Glad I don’t have to pay for 99% of it!)

Even though the do change up the books every year to make it hard for used copies, a lot of professors will allow the old versions in the class and put anything that differs on a website or whatever, like the problem sets.

You can save a ton of money buying used from individual people. Ebay and Amazon work too, but it usually costs a bit more.

Amazon is good if there are used books available, though. Those aren’t technically sold by Amazon (it’s more of a swap meet sort of deal, where users can sell used books to other users, and Amazon takes a transaction fee of some sort), and I’ve found some really good bargains that way.

New textbooks through Amazon are generally just as pricey as the bookstore, though.

I am glad I forgot what a pain in the ass this all was until after I decided to pursue this course of action.

Heh… yeah. I hear ya. It’s amazing how quickly you forget that school is, in fact, a metric assload more work than a regular job. For the past six or seven months, it’s consumed every waking hour of pretty much every day of my life. And more than a few sleeping hours, too.

No way! No. Freaking. Way. They have a school in Alabama?


Kidding aside, I think another part of the reason is that textbooks don’t sell many units at all relative to other books, so they have to raise the price to compensate, especially for expensive books with hard covers and full color pages. One of my collegues has written several text books, and a couple of them are very widely used in certain classes. He says he makes peanuts off them.


Publishers reprint the same two undergrad level math, physics and chemistry texts with the questions and sections moved around for 10 years at a time, and sell them for over $100 each. I call bull.fucking.shit on anyone telling me that this isn’t a scam.

Most freshman/sophomore level classes are done from a stable of about 5-7 books which are relatively infrequently updated. This is stuff like Calculus, Physics, History, Writing, etc… Those books probably make decent money.

However, by the time you get to Junior level, major specific courses, there are maybe 2-3 books to choose from at best, and they can differ widely in quality. I’ve had multiple profs teach math and the like out of those little Dover public domain textbooks which you can buy for $15 or so. However, the prof has to be motivated and good to teach from those, because they’re written in an archaic style and not particularly self-explanatory. Of course, by the time you’re teaching junior/senior level math, you can also afford to assume the students will be motivated enough to put in the effort to understand if they don’t. (Or assume that you should be flunking them out to get them on the road to professional truck driving if they’re not.)

The books you’re talking about are seen repeatedly because they’re on like the 14th edition and have been whittled down to high efficiency. (Anton’s Calculus comes to mind). What you’re paying for there is the fact that someone has put enough iterative work into the book over many, many years of teaching that the bleary-eyed grad student who just stumbled into class can still teach from the book, even though he left his notes at home and hasn’t really thought at all about how he’s going to explain infinite series.

I’d almost believe this if I didn’t throw up my hands in frustration every time I needed to look something up in a textbook. I have several texts on discrete math, calc, and numerical analysis, and what I needed to do was solve a sum of an infinite series, and none of them provided a solution (neither did Google), so I ended up asking a friend who had to point out that it was an arithmetic-geometric series and thus the answer was 4.2. Took me days to figure that out.

my cost saving hint is to just not buy the damn things. i probably skipped about 1/3 of the “required” book purchases during college. i had classes where there were “required” books that the teacher literally never referenced. of course, if you are a literature major, this might not work out so well for you. :roll:

Yeah it doesn’t work well for lit/history majors :)

Then again, if you are a lit/history major, chances are a lot higher you’ll find the book you’re looking for, cheaper, at a place other than the university bookstore. The disadvantage is that you’d probably be buying a lot of books.

Amazon now more than ever, back in my day the local used book stores were very handy. Bookstores would also generally carry the books till about halfway into the semester before changing slowly over to the new semester for shelfspace, so you might be able to pace purchasing.

Prices have always been high, that’s never been a doubt… and yeah some of it is probably a racket, but for upper level courses, once you understand the nature of the content, the numbers of copies printed (very small), amount of work, etc. - they start getting a little more justified.

— Alan


I’d almost believe this if I didn’t throw up my hands in frustration every time I needed to look something up in a textbook. I have several texts on discrete math, calc, and numerical analysis, and what I needed to do was solve a sum of an infinite series, and none of them provided a solution (neither did Google), so I ended up asking a friend who had to point out that it was an arithmetic-geometric series and thus the answer was 4.2. Took me days to figure that out.[/quote]

There’s actually a fair bit of difference between textbooks written as reference material and teaching material in how they’re presented, indexed, etc. Most of the ones I was talking about are written with teaching in mind, primarily because they represent the traditional “cattle car” classes wherein 150+ people all take the same class from one lecturer. These things are generally abysmal when you want to find information quickly in a reference type manner, as their indices point to things like the beginning of the discussion about a concept, when all you really need is a concise definition which you can apply against the work you’re trying to do.

If you’re looking through your math textbooks for reference, you’re looking in the wrong place. Try one of the handbooks (or, alternatively, if it’s higher level mathematics, it should theoretically get easier to find as you progress to higher level courses where they offload more of the burden of learning onto the student).

Of course, the more you understand what you’re doing, the easier it is to zero in on what it is you need to look for, as always.

I spend a lot of time on Eric Weisstein’s World of Mathematics if I need answers to math problems.

They didn’t have the answer either. Basically I had a function that had to be evaluated as an infinite series, and I wanted an exact analytical solution, assuming it was possible (it definitely converged), and in the case of series it seems like it’s just a big fat pattern match. So I went through the usual suspects (arithmetic, geometric, alternating, harmonic, telescoping, etc.) and gave up when none of those worked.

Someone else ended up giving me the answer (arithmetic-geometric).

Its been a while since I have been in school, but I remember a PBS special last year on this very topic and their suggestion was to check online at for books because the market price for textbooks is much lower in the UK. You will still have to make sure that the total cost for the books includes international shipping and currency conversion, but it may be worth the extra effort.

The limited number of sales and the used market were factors I had not given enough weight to in my little pissy equation. I guess I am really most irritated at the used book sellers. Much as EB’s and Gamestop’s sell-back price vs. resell price is so out of wack, $10 for a $70 book which they then re-sell for $55 is nuts.

In fact, just like games, I simply will not sell my book back if I am not getting what I perceive as a fair amount of cash. Call it bullheaded or stubborn, but I would rather keep it on a bookshelf or in a box at home and never open that bastard again rather than have them make that kind of profit off a product on which they have already profited.

Oh well, on a brief positive note, either I did not pay attention a decade ago and missed all the interesting ways those textbooks were attempting to teach me or the authors and publishers have actually improved in their delivery of the the information. There seems to be a lot more of interest to me in some of these books. Like I said, however, it could just be that I have moved from not giving to giving a shit about learning something.

No way! No. Freaking. Way. They have a school in Alabama?


Most citizens are not made aware of the availability of higher levels of fancy book-lernin’ within the state. Only us smart, white males get the certified letter of opportunity which has to then be decoded using a secret language only known to us. That code is known in academic circles as proper English grammar and is foreign to many in the Southeast as well as nationwide.

I actually try very hard to keep the price of the textbooks for my classes down. The most expensive course of mine would be American Drama, with 5 plays each being somewhere in the $10-$20 range. My Theatre Workshop class I need a technical theater book which is $20 (and a good one), and I need plays to apply the tech stuff to, so I found a good Penguin paperback collection of contemporary american plays for $7. Seven plays for $7 and they fit the class remarkably well.

So this year when I was teaching my first games class I went in with the same attitude. It’s Social Issues in Interactive Media and Games, so I wanted to do a MMORPG and a “not game” kind of MMORPG. I went with AC2 because they offered me a deal where the entire class would get the game for free for the period of the class, and Second Life because it’s $10 for a lifetime pass. Then tons of web reading which was actually more work for me to collect than just finding a book and teaching from that.

At the end of the class the students overwhelmingly agreed that they’d pay for a MMORPG so they didn’t have to play a “sucky” one (their words, I think AC2 is fun), and paying for two MMORPGs for the period of the class is still less money than one textbook for a “regular class.”

My impression from them was that their parents/student loans/grants were paying for books anyway, so they didn’t give a shit how much books cost, so I might as well go for the big ticket textbooks anyway. My memory as a student was that the less textbooks cost, the more money I had for rent/food/clothes. Personally I’m torn about the entire subject.

You’re assuming of course they can sell what you give them, the amount of inventory that doesn’t move is generally quite a lot at some places.

The resale value of the book pays for: shelf space, rent, the employees, stock, reselling, etc. at places like used book resellers. I mean, used book places have been like that for hundreds of years.

More specifically though we’ve been blessed with an abundance of Half-Price Books in Texas, which really helps cut down on the cost. If they are located near campus that’s like a huge friggin’ bonus.

— Alan