Monday, July 28, 2008

Textbook Case

Textbooks are expensive when compared to the cost of most other books. The expense of textbooks can be a burden for some students, especially if a course requires a new textbook that is not available as a somewhat cheaper used edition.

I am not going to try to evaluate whether textbooks are overpriced compared to what it costs to produce them and what the author(s) are paid and how much the college bookstores profit. I've read articles on the issue of textbook economics, but other than stating that I am not making a profit compared to my efforts with textbook-writing, I have little knowledge of the various components of textbook pricing. I am, however, interested in the phenomenon of the perception that textbooks are overpriced.

When I teach a large class, I put copies of the textbook on reserve in the library, and I tell students that they can acquire any edition they want -- the latest one or older ones, and I provide reading guides on the syllabus for the two most recent editions. In addition, I have a raffle on the first day of class and give away a dozen textbooks.

In my medium-sized classes for Science majors, I expect the students to buy the textbook or borrow a copy from me or the library. I recommend that they buy the book if at all possible, as they will use it as a reference for future courses, but I keep extra copies on hand for lending.

In my smallest class, I buy used copies of the primary text (a paperback with abundant inexpensive copies available) and give them to the students. They can keep the books or give them back at the end of the term, whichever they prefer.

So, in general I consider myself to be fairly accommodating about the issue of textbook expenses, but I must admit that at heart I don't really understand why textbook prices cause quite so much anger.

Whether or not someone is making an obscene profit at the expense of students who are struggling with the rising cost of higher education, the high cost of textbooks clearly makes some (many?) students angry. There are now textbook piracy websites that contain scanned copies of textbooks, and these websites are apparently motivated by a wish for 'revenge' against someone or something (e.g., publishers, professors, bookstores).

Why do textbooks in particular make students angry compared other high-price items involved in the cost of higher education or compared to other essential items such as computers?


- Other types of books are not nearly as expensive, so it is shocking to have to pay so much for something that is, after all, just a book. Students therefore assume that someone is making an 'unfair' profit at their expense.

- Many students buy their own textbooks, or at least do the selecting/ordering, and so are very aware of the price. If the price were included with the bill for tuition and fees, the amount wouldn't have such a visceral effect.

- The people making the students pay these high prices -- the professors who select and require the textbook -- are visible to the students in a way that, say, college presidents or computer manufacturers (or oil companies) are not.

I am just musing here, but whenever I read an article about the high cost of textbooks making people angry and upset, I wonder if part of the problem is that textbooks are books.

I wish that textbooks weren't so expensive and I support innovative efforts to make texts available at lower cost, but I think that student anger at professors for assigning (or writing) expensive textbooks is misplaced.


Wallflower Physicist said...

I have to say that I LOVE the idea of raffling off free textbooks on the first day of class. It sounds like you are at least making an effort to alleviate some of the burden your students face in paying for expensive texts.

I personally don't have issues with paying for good textbooks that I'll be referencing for years to come, but it does peeve me when I'm required to have half a dozen expensive books for an elective class that is irrelevant in terms of my long term academic goals.

The_Myth said...

Textbooks are required for education. Many students [and they tend overwhelmingly to be the most vocal ones complaining about price] refuse to accept that notion as part of the educational package. [Your idea about folding it into "fees" has some merit!]

When I was a poorly paid adjunct [before I quit grad school and became unemployable], I did one of two things:

1- Used the book assigned by the department that hired me. Not my decision to select the text, so I directed all complaints above...

2- Jumped through hoops trying to select the cheapest, most reliable textbook that covered what I needed to cover. I usually had to wait until the week before classes began for *my* copy to arrive, so I had little sympathy for the student who groaned about having to pay ~$50 for 1-2 texts for the class. That was a bargain compared to what I often paid 20 years ago as an undergrad! [The worst part was always when the bookstore (or the department secretary!) changed the order to a different version. Totally foiled all my hard work.]

And yet I found many [but far from all] students who:

1- didn't buy the book [often claiming it was too expensive, which we all know wasn't the case with situation #2],

2- bought the book but never cracked it [which I think was their over-reliance on the pseudoscientific theory of psychic osmosis: it won't seep into your brain while you sleep if you place it near your pillow!], or

3- bought the book and then thought they could read 9 chapters the night before the big exam. [Yeah, that always worked...]

In conclusion, I think you deserve a standing ovation! I never...NEVER...had a prof do so much to provide books for students who might be strapped for cash.

As an instructor, I have at times been incapable of even placing a copy on reserve in the library because I was a poorly paid adjunct without even old editions at my disposal. So, for a professor to 1/ give away copies, 2/ buy used copies for loans/gifts, and 3/ actually use your own money to do this [it is yours and not the depts.'s, right?], I think you deserve a medal for benevolence towards undergrads!

Although, on the flip-side, you make the rest of us look stingy and unsympathetic. Hmmmm...maybe you're why my students in the social sciences/humanities rebel when I don't bend over backwards to give them the supplies for the course they're supposed to buy for themselves.

Hmmm... ;-)

Christie Rowe said...

how do you pay for giving books away?

muddled postdoc said...

I got through my undergrad buying used textbooks, and then re-selling the ones I no longer needed or just getting them from the library.
But one professor really managed to bug the lot of us. Not only was his only reference the text book he wrote, it wasn't even a proper text-book just a compilation of notes and tutorials (for other modules our lecturers give out the hand outs printed themselves or we could print them and this is cheaper than buying a commercialized book of the same thing). He also kept putting out new editions each year so we couldn't get them from our seniors! I don't think the anger was misplaced in this case (I am over it now ... I think)

Anonymous said...

A lot of it is having to buy an expensive book that may or may not be useful in the future and you may or may not be able to sell back to the bookstore...which leaves you with some $150 doorstops.

Additionally most of the time (as an undergrad) I never even opened the textbook because we were given everything we needed to do well in the class in the lecture notes, but were told that we "needed" the textbook. There are some exceptions, but for the most part the exceptions ended up being textbooks that I wanted to keep for later.

Of course, now that I have no classes anymore (as a grad student) I find myself buying some textbooks independently to keep as really good references.

Anonymous said...

Hasn't the age of "print on demand" reached academia? This should be the way to go if you own the copyright on the text.

Anonymous said...

I know part of the resentment comes from having to shell out $100+ for a book that has the professor's name on it. Regardless of the economics, it certainly seems like a conflict of interest.

Plus, for those students not going to grad school, most of those books will just collect dust on a shelf after their 3 months of use.

If you accommodate your students' potential use of previous (i.e., used) versions of the books, then I think most students will not have a problem with buying a textbook (which then will only run them maybe $50, especially if you buy them from amazon to avoid the racket that is the college bookstore).

dot said...

Knowing that I would teach it several years in a row, I wrote extensive lecture notes and set of slides (special versions for tablet pc or from printing, versions with holes to fill in class and without them, ecetera) for my very first course, aimed to 2nd year students. I published everything online, and did not ask the students to buy a book (I merely listed the three books that I used as a reference for most of the material).

In the written reviews at the end of the semester, a minority of the students praised (with constructive criticisms) the lecture notes and the slides, while a good portion criticized the fact that the course did not have a textbook. Profs usually require the students to buy a very expensive one for this course.

In the end I am left with the concept that a good portion of the students just resent the fact of beeing force taught, and relish the fact that I am now mostly teaching optional courses to motivated students. (I kind of wish I was at summerhill!).

Matthew Hunt said...

You omitted a claim that I have often read, but cannot evaluate: That many textbooks are frequently issued in new editions, with very minor changes to the text, but with chapters, problems, etc. renumbered to make re-use difficult. This makes "current edition" books scarce on the used market, and makes it harder to sell your book when you're done with it.

I didn't run into this much when I was in academia, but it's been a few years. If this really is a widespread practice, I think it's a legitimate reason to be upset at the textbook companies.

I've also read that at some schools, the academic departments receive a kickback from the campus bookstore for books sold for their classes. This seems to me like an unethical conflict of interest.

See also this discussion of custom textbooks, which also seem to be designed to hurt the used market.

Anonymous said...

I'm impressed that you are so accommodating with texts for your classes, but in my personal experience, many (most?) professors have not been. What about those professors who set homework problems from the text (thus mandating that students get a particular edition)? Or those who insist on multiple textbooks per course? Also, the library never carries enough copies to fill the demand for a larger-sized class.

My second point is economics. Assuming an average courseload of 4 courses per semester and average cost of $100-$150 per text, that comes up to at least $1000 per year. If the cost of in-state tuition at public universities run somewhere between $3000-$8000/year, that's a fairly substantial chunk of expenses associated with books.

I'm in my 4th year of grad school now, and honestly, between the internet and (kind of) changing fields, there are only about 4-6 "go-to" texts I keep for reference purposes. Everything else went back to the campus bookstore for a rip-off refund. *shrug*

Anonymous said...

"Why do textbooks in particular make students angry compared other high-price items involved in the cost of higher education or compared to other essential items such as computers?"

Simple, a computer can be used for all the courses. If you buy a good one at the beginning of your college-life, it will last for the 4 years plus maybe 1 or 2 more. A textbook will be useful only for a year or so. After that, all the info you need can be found online.

Josh said...

While you're absolutely right in many cases, I've had some classes where the professors have assigned books, and then we never need to use them. I can't tell you how many classes I took as an undergraduate where the book was completely unnecessary, and in many cases I didn't even bother purchasing a book until we first needed, just to minimize this possibility. In these cases, it is the professor that deserves the blame.

I should point out that these classes were not math and science classes, but philosophy, english, music, programming / technology classes, and similar classes. In fairness, I also had classes in those fields where the book absolutely was required in order to be successful in the class.

The other thing is when professors require crappy books, and let it be known, either implicitly or explicitly, that they share my opinion of it. That is rather frustrating as well.

Never-the-less, I am a bibliophile, and I have no problem buying good books, whether they are 'textbooks' or not. One of my favorite books is a Rocket Science textbook I bought purely for my own edification. I've also bought biology and anatomy textbooks for the same reason. So it's not the price of the books that really bother me, it's the utility.

Also, is there any other kind of book that loses value more quickly than a text book? A $135 dollar book bought at the beginning of the semester may only be worth $10 or $15, or even less if there is a 'new edition' coming out.

And what's the deal with these 'new editions' anyway? Do textbook editors just suck that badly that they need to fix things every couple of year? I understand that in something like biology, they may want to work in new material or something, but does my Calculus I textbook really require a new edition every three years?

Geeka said...

Here is why I get so irked at textbook prices:
I had an organic chemistry class years ago where the combined textbook fee was about $125. (Given this was for 2 semesters and the books were used.)
If I chose to sell the book back at the end of the second semester, I was going to get $20 back. Essentially, I 'rented' the text for $105.

The next year, someone else bought my books, again for $125 dollars. That seemed wrong.

I also had to buy a $70 trig book for a class that took $134 to take (summer class at a community college). Something is wrong if the book is half the amount of the class.

I tended to not keep my science books because they became out of date so quickly (which justifies the higher price again). I did keep my language books and some ~10 years later, still reference them on occasion. Those books were only around $40 per class, which ended up being a much better investment.

Tom said...

I wonder if a move towards e-books might help alleviate some of the burden for students. It also seems as if making that sort of switch would also increase profits (since there are no printing costs).

Anonymous said...

I think it's a cost vs. quality issue. When I buy a computer, I'll get a lot of broad use out of it. Spending $100-$200 on a poorly written textbook is not a pleasant experience. Sometimes I realize that the book is the best in the field despite it's limitations and I understood exactly why the professor chose the book.

Still, some expensive books I've bought are so poorly written that whether it's $15 or $150 it's money down the drain and no one likes that.

Anonymous said...

In some institutes in India, on the first day of class, the Professor brings an expensive foreign textbook, and says "You know what to do." Indeed, the students know what to do. We get someone to photocopy it and bind it (costs about 1.5$ for a 300 page book.) Really, a small family can subsist on 50$ for a month. It is hard, but many Indians are poor.

It is for this reason that major publishers often have cheap (6 to 10$) eastern editions of popular text books; in which case there is no need to resort to piracy. It is also notable that some authors make a draft of their book available online exactly for this purpose.


Anonymous said...

My biggest problem when buying textbooks for my undergraduate days as a physics major was being required to buy a $150 textbook for a class and not even opening it because the teacher didn't end up using it. The other option was then to not buy any textbooks for any classes until a couple weeks into it when you could figure out if the instructor actually planned on using the textbook.

Many of my other math and physics text books still sit on my book shelf and I will continue to pack them up and move them with me wherever I go, they were good investments. I just didn't like to feel like I wasting my money purchasing books I didn't need.

Anonymous said...

I know when I was an undergraduate student, I found the price of textbook to be high for a couple of reasons:

1) the bookstores really feel like a scam; you can sell your books back to them, but they give you very little money for them (several dollars for a book that is over $100 used). BUT, they then put that book back on their shelves as a used book...for a lot more than they gave you.

2) I think students often find that the textbooks aren't that useful. A lot of profs base their exams on the lectures...and those lectures often differ drastically from the content of the book. So, students end up not really using a book that they spent a lot of money on.

I think people don't complain as much about the price of computers because they use them longer and for more things. Perhaps the only difference is the perception; computers are useful and textbooks are not.

Anonymous said...

The constant "updating" of editions can't be underestimated. I found an edition of a standard introductory textbook for $4 at a used bookstore once and didn't buy it because it was 15 years old. Come to find out, my new textbook four editions later had the same basic mistake on one of the major "founding" equations! As an undergrad, I regularly paid $500/semester on books that could not be resold because of bogus new annual editions. And you may be a singularly nice and helpful prof, but nobody has ever made more than 2 copies of the book available in any (grad or undergrad) classes I've taken.

However, in this day of the internet, students aren't constrained by the campus bookstore monopoly like I was as an undergrad. It's pretty easy to take your chances with an e-cheapo older version instead of paying the campus bookstore price.

Anonymous said...

You are much too kind. I agree that textbooks can be a significant expense for some students but...

Have they compared the cost to:

Their bar bill for the last month

The cost of their cell phone coverage

Their car payments

In the long run of college costs and benefits, textbooks are near the bottom, especially at a private universtiy where tuition is through the roof.

I also was interested to see that the previous commenter is peeved about books for a class they chose to take (it's "elective") even though it is "irrelevant for their long term academic goals". There seems to be an easy solution to that--choose a different elective.

Professors are damned if they do and damned if they don't--if we didn't assign a textbook we'd get complaints about that.

I must be feeling grumpy today--usually I am more sympathetic.

Mark P

Anonymous said...

I've only ever bought a few textbooks during my undergrad, and only when I fell in love with the textbook. I've always used a previous edition from the library that I renewed every two weeks. And I would get the questions from the new edition off of my friends. The library reserve books were also a lifesaver a number of times. Textbooks were a lot of money compared to tuition at the place I went to. Maybe up to 1/3 of the tuition. I often wished back then that professors would be more accommodating of those willing to use other books or previous editions.

Maybe the students are just a lot angrier because unlike back in the day, it seems very few of them actually read the textbook. The answer will be very predictable if I ask them, 'Did you read the textbook?' It can be hard to justify spending so much money on something that you don't ultimately use or don't use effectively. And is subsequently a reminder that it didn't help you get a better than a C in the class.

Anonymous said...

I think the setup with textbooks is too money driven, which causes students to complain.

"Updated" editions come out too often making the old ones obsolete, and professors often insist on the latest edition.

Also, there is the whole industry of used books, where students have to sell their books back at a huge discount, only to buy them for not so cheap in a half-price store.

If you type "expensive textbooks" into google, you'll get some good links, like this one:

Unknown said...

Had an issue with choosing a text earlier this year in an "intro-lite" course... publisher had two texts for this course, one in-depth and a shorter less in-depth one. The shorter paperback text - shorter by a couple hundred pages - was almost as expensive as the in-depth hardcover text (difference < $10). I felt scammed, honestly - the shorter less in-depth text seemed like a perfect option for a non-majors course, but the price made us choose the other instead.

I think some of the anger from students comes when texts aren't used - maybe the prof's lectures are too different from the text, or there aren't assigned readings/problems, etc. The students know they will probably get very little back for the text, so the money seems wasted.

I kinda wish the publishers would stop marketing the textbooks to profs so hard... I have a dozen or so copies of texts I don't intend to use for courses that all showed up unsolicited. Don't pay a textbook rep to stop by my office once a semester and ask me about what courses I teach and how I like the texts I use. Save that money and shave some $$ off the cost of the textbooks.

E-books (and "premium website content") are starting to be the wave of the future... will be interesting to see how they are adopted and used.

Anonymous said...

I'm not a great fan of buying the professor's own book at a debilitating price, and here's why.

- I'm already getting the professor's perspective and approach via their lectures and all the other things they bring to the experience. I like third party texts as they are often better edited and were produced with more resources = better text.

- I don't have to be concerned that professor is so determined to present everything according to them only - particularly in the sciences. I'm instantly distrustful of that approach.

I took marine bio from a prof with a self-produced text and it was disappointing, particularly after owning Campbell's Biology, a coffee table book of a text.

To be fair, I have also purchased texts that were authored by my professor at the time and they were satisfactory. But I wasn't thrilled about it.

ScientistMother said...

As an undergrad, it annoyed me immensely when I had spent significant coinage on a "required" textbook that the prof never referenced. I quickly learned to wait a few weeks into the semester before buying required readings as many profs only examined off lecture notes, while others required you to use the textbook

Anonymous said...

I think that part of the reason that textbooks evoke such a strong reaction versus, say, computers is because students know that many of these books will only be used for a semester. Depending on the major, a year's worth of textbooks can add up to a student-priced computer - but the computer will probably be used for much longer and for many more classes.

In addition, I know that it makes me, personally, very angry when I have to drop more than $100 for a textbook that the instructor never references and which is unnecessary to achieve a good grade in the class or when the book turns out to be poorly written or very difficult to follow. Unfortunately, this happens often enough to make me skeptical when I get my textbook assignments and one turns out to cost two months' wages. If, over the course of the class, it turns out to be a very useful book or I end up needing it for later classes, the annoyance evaporates.

I have to say that it's wonderful of you to allow students to use any addition of a book. There's nothing worse than having to pay a huge sum for a new book at the beginning of the semester and then discovering at the end that the bookstore won't buy it back because the class is moving on to another edition.

Anonymous said...

I think half the problem at least is that the bookstores can seem like they are running some kind of used textbook scam. As Geeka said, you can pay a huge amount for a used textbook. You then sell back a used textbook at less than 25% the price, which they turn around and quadruple 2 months later to make another profit. It is really appalling. The only way to not feel like you are being completely screwed by them (which you are) is to do what a lot of the undergrads at my institution seem to be doing, which is to post signs selling books to each other at about 75% of the bookstores used price... this scenario has nothing to do with utility of the book, whether the prof wrote it, or anything like that, its just the pricing structure of the actual stores...

Angie said...

As an engineering major, my frustration also stemmed from the fact that I paid at least twice as much as my liberal arts classmates for my required texts.

FSP--you are unique in your commitment to making the texts affordable to your students. I never had a professor suggest that you use more than one edition of the text.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

You are much too kind. I agree that textbooks can be a significant expense for some students but...

Have they compared the cost to:

Their bar bill for the last month

The cost of their cell phone coverage

Their car payments

In the long run of college costs and benefits, textbooks are near the bottom, especially at a private universtiy where tuition is through the roof.

Are you kidding? I went to an expensive private university and I didn't go to bars, didn't have a cell phone, and didn't own a car. Also I worked in the dining halls for 12 hours a week serving slop. With hundreds of fellow students.

Unknown said...

I think there are two causes.

The first is that textbook cost is widely variable (sometimes you can get away for $30 or even less, other times you spend $150+). Perhaps some students go through thousands of dollars of spending money in a semester, but my college experience was one of being on a tight budget. A single additional $75 textbook meant no eating out for the month of September. And some teachers (more in the humanities) really do require textbooks promiscuously.

The second reason is that undergrads don't see textbooks the way you do. You are thinking of textbooks as learning tools, or as professional equipment. When I buy a textbook now I see it as an investment; I don't buy them often but I don't resent it, because it is part of my permanent professional library. But for undergrads, a textbook is part of a course they are taking, which is a temporary obligation to be gotten over with, like all school has always been for them. (Even if they are smart and like school, this may well be true - it was for me.) They are not thinking in terms of investing in their career; they are thinking in terms of how much spending money this requirement is taking away from them.

Oh, and there's a third reason, perhaps the biggest one: in high school, which undergrads have generally just finished, textbooks are free.

Becca said...

Bar tab for all my months as an undegrad: $0 (seriously. I graduated with my BS at 19 years of age- I wasn't exactly a party fiend and it wouldn't have been legal anyway).
Cost of my cell phone coverage: $0. (didn't have a cell phone).
Cost of my car payments: $0. (didn't need a car in the university town. I did spend <$40 on a bike at the bike auction a couple of years though).

I didn't have a lot of textbook price angst as an undergrad. I didn't buy as many as most people, and I certainly didn't buy many new ones.
But when I started, I was at a community college.
Tution was ~$240 for a 4 credit math class, and the textbooks could easily run $60-100.
The reason undegrads experience textbook angst is because that $60 is huge. It's the difference between ramen for dinner or a decent stir fry with fresh veggies.
I know I lived more frugally than many undergrads. But I also know that I actually remember what it was like to spend $20/month of 'disposable income'.

I think I might be the only person I know who filled up their tank thinking "OMG, how awesome is it that the $10 extra I'm spending just doesn't matter at all ?!".

AsstFemaleProf said...

As a recent graduate, I agree with coneslayer's point. I experienced this many times - to the point that I have three copies (different editions) of the same text. I used it once in undergrad, once in grad school and then again when I TA'd a course (still in grad school). At least the third time I received the copy free. But buying even two copies of the text within 3 yrs was absurd. The fact it was re-issued within another 2yrs? The field didn't change.

The primary difference between the editions was the questions at the end of the chapters. I faced this in other books I used as an undergrad, and the only way I kept from being extremely bitter was that several of my classmates and I "bonded" together and essentially rotated who would buy the new text and who would buy the used versions. Then when homework time came around, we worked as a team (or at least copied the problems) - using the new book since the homework came from there. But we could easily study from the old text (these were fundamental courses).

Also, sometimes the professor would just type up the homework questions, eliminating the need to purchase a specific textbook. Instead they would have a list of recommended books. I actually preferred this, since it gave me a chance to see a few books and choose one which "spoke" to me. And since I wasn't restricted to buying the current edition, I could usually get an inexpensive edition.

Female Science Professor said...

In fact, I am not unique (in this respect)! Many of my colleagues routinely allow for students to use older editions of textbooks.

Patrick said...

Personally, I'm a fan of bypassing the publishing companies entirely and either paying the professor directly for something he/she bound at Kinko's, or using a book published through a site like

Anonymous said...

I know of two reasons why people I know have gotten angry over the price of books:

1. New editions without substantive changes. This really aggravates the faculty as well. In order to guarantee the bookstore can supply enough copies, they have to go with the new edition.

2. Expensive books that aren't very good. This drives me bananas. I don't mind being made to pay a $150 for a high-quality specialized text, but for a bad one, it's frustrating to be required to pay a month's grocery money.

I've been very surprised at the rise of textbook piracy I've been seeing; it's not huge, but a regular occurrence.

I wish I could buy all technical books in pdf. I don't care if I have to have a license key with it, so long as once I buy it, I've bought it. Searchable pdfs work better for me in most ways than dead tree.

Doctor Pion said...

What bothers me is that the price has gone up about double that of inflation with no obvious value added. My reference point is Calculus by Thomas, which cost me $13.50 new and inflates to about $65 or $70 today. The rewrite of the rewrite of the rewrite is not an improvement.

I think it is mostly because the books are often essentially useless and hence not used, yet the student only gets half of the cover price selling it back - if they can sell it back. In my youth, we kept the same book for a decade. Now there is a new edition every 3 years.

I know the irritation level of my students dropped a lot when an excellent book at a less obscene price appeared. True, there was still one student who complained without trying to use the ones on reserve, but others actually read it before coming to class.

I like the plan of accommodating older editions. Now that I no longer use problems from the textbook, I plan to do that in the future.

Unknown said...

I think it is the case that textbooks are so much more expensive than other books that creates the problem. That's always frustrated me so much - for example, forgive the French, but there is NO fucking excuse for a paperback book that's under 500 pages to have a retail price of over $150, unless the pages are gold plated and it is a five hundred run collectors item. Yet there are textbooks like this. For example:

You will not pay anywhere NEAR this much for a text of this size in any form but a 'text book'. The other problem I have is a similar complaint that others have made; a professor insisting that you need the text and then basing tests, homework, etc. exclusively off of the notes which amounts to you only needing that text if you skip/miss class. There is also immense frustration when you buy a text for $120, sell it back to the bookstore for $10 and see it used on their shelves a day later for $100.

Myself, I tend to resort to buying text-books off of Amazon (though, I do run into some trouble if I need to wait a week or two to determine if the textbook is necessary - I may find myself paying out the ass for rush shipping) and selling them on Amazon. I'd rather buy a used textbook in good condition for $80 on Amazon and sell it back to another needy student there for $70 and only lose $10 + shipping costs than support a greedy bookstore that screws everyone. If I seem cynical, I'll point out that the professors at my college have dubbed the college book store 'The Book Mafia' and frequently make off-the-record suggestions that we check online for cheaper books.

That said, you are wonderfully generous and that is great! You're doing a great service to your students and I am very sure they appreciate it, even if some complain to you. I would love to take a class where the professor took that approach - the closest experience I've had is a psychology class where the professor became angry when he found out that the edition of the primary textbook the publisher sent him was not available in book stores until half-way through the semester and that the secondary text cost almost as much as the primary text. He said 'To hell with this' and agreed to print out copies of lecture outlines for us rather than using those texts. If you're wondering, the primary text (hard cover, 500 + page textbook) was $75 used and the secondary text - which couldn't have been called anything more than a pamphlet; it was a thin paperback, at most 100 pages - was $70 used.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and the used textbook scams at bookstores would be another reason. It's a major problem at my university.

At a school I previously attended, it wasn't a problem. The bookstore, if it agreed to buy your book, would pay 50% of the purchase price. Used books were sold at 75% of the purchase price. This was fair enough that most students were happy with it.

At my current university, it's not worth it to sell used books to the bookstore -- you only get a pittance even if the bookstore will re-sell the book for over $100. Students find other ways of selling used books to each other.

Anonymous said...

Regarding the necessary steps to take in India -- I hear you on that one.

I know one prof whose textbook has a special edition for use in India only, as mentioned. Amusingly enough, it doesn't stay there. Copies of it get sold on ebay to students in the USA, because even with international postage it's still cheaper that way. Whee.

I should mention that quite a few profs at my university make efforts to help as FSP does. I actually hear more from faculty than from students on textbook price anger.

Cath@VWXYNot? said...

With very few exceptions, my genetics degree in the UK didn't use textbooks past the first year. After that our lecturers told us that anything in a textbook was probably already out of date, and we should be reading the primary literature instead. So I spent a lot of money on photocopying (pre e-journals), but not much on books. Oh, and lots on beer ;)

Anonymous said...

I get a feeling that a lot of the professors commenting here think students are being short-sighted and/or spoiled by not wanting to pay for textbooks. But really, from your standard undergraduate course, what percentage of the students are going on to a profession or grad school where they will actually USE this book ever again? Not many. I have exactly ONE book, of all the books that I spent thousands of dollars on as an undergrad, that I opened again to use in professional and grad school life.

Having said that, I am accumulating useful textbooks now that I am a grad student. I've smartened up and I'm not buying them through the campus bookstore.

Anonymous said...

As a student, I never had a professor go above and beyond in accomodating student's textbook needs like FSP (even giving away free books!) I had some professors who did choose less expensive books, and/or books with many used copies available. But honestly, buying books is not a "hidden" expense of a college degree that students are unaware of. Universities often provide cost estimates that show the cost of books and lab fees with tuition and housing expenses. The fact that students complain is just absurd. (I always had scholarships, so perhaps I was isolated from being a poor student.)
In my later years as a student, I always by-passed the campus bookstore and ordered books online, used if possible, and now, anyone can also sell their books online, or through a site like craigs list. I think the internet does give students many more options now.

Anonymous said...

In addition to the edition churn and professors' own book issues that others have raised, there's the enormous difference between US and foreign pricing that creates the huge discounts for gray market books. If students perceive that (US) textbooks are overpriced, it's because by any reasonable economic standard they are.

It's reasonable, if distasteful, that publishers create barriers to efficient textbook pricing; it's outrageous that universities, faculties and bookstores encourage them.

The_Myth said...

After reading all the comments, I feel justified in noting [again] that a lot of the undergrads whining about the cost of textbooks really have no basis for complaint:

1- Higher ed is expensive; it's not high school. In college, you buy your own supplies. If you go to a state school or a community college, your tuition is cheap because, essentially, THE GOVERNMENT IS PAYING FOR MOST OF IT! The "real cost" for any given class is probably comparable to those elite schools, where tuition may [or may not] actually go to cover education overhead. So, your $250 CC class may actually cost $5000 in "real" money; the $150 text is required nonetheless. Reduced tuition does not mean reduced book budgets!

2- Lots of undergrads do really have big bar tabs, big phone bills, and very expensive hobbies. Just because *you* didn't does not invalidate that general claim. Look around you, snowflake, and see what your professors see. That guy sitting next to you with the $5 latte everyday is claiming he couldn't afford the textbook either [do the math: $10 a week, for 15 weeks = the textbook!]. And if your monetary situation is truly so dire that you must eat ramen once a day so as not to break your budget, then you might want to consider this life-choice: Take one less class, then buy the books for the others and eat a burger. While not always an option, it still is there.

3- I remember a time *BEFORE* buy-back options. Yeah, nowadays they let you sell it back for 10% of the cover price. Note that Borders won't take back your heavily highlighted Harry Potter book for even a penny. And if it's too beat up, even a used bookstore won't accept it! This expectation to be able to recoup money is ludicrous and reeks of entitlement.

And therein is the big problem: Students who feel entitled to an education without any investment [time, money, intellect] and a feeling of being cheated by, you know, being expected to read a textbook. [Good heavens! Being expected to read for a class!]

Now, if you want to argue about the "new edition" scam...that's a different story!

Ψ*Ψ said...

Wow. I've never heard of a prof raffling off textbooks! Sounds like a good idea, though I usually Ebayed mine a few weeks before the first day of class.
My favorite classes were always the "your notes are the textbook" type. I guess it takes a good lecturer to make that work--I never skipped those classes.

Jones said...

I will throw in my ten cents. At my university you can buy used textbooks for around 100 bucks or so a book. At the end of the semester the school will buy them back from you, paying you around 20 or 30 bucks, they then resell them for around a 100 bucks. That is what upset me.

Anonymous said...

I must admit, I think I got a wonderful education without buying most of my textbooks. I checked them out, borrowed them from more-senior friends, and used older editions often. Since I was paying for food and textbooks out of my own pocket for all of college (never once phoned my parents for money), I was very discriminating about the books I bought.

Bought and enjoyed: Dover books, the cheap editions of French literature for my liberal arts classes, a few history texts that were worth the outlay, and anything by Springer Verlag or Birkhauser. A beautiful book on Japanese art history. Things, basically, that I can read now and get something out of.

Bought and resented forever: the thousand-page tome on object-oriented programming that was required for the first programming class I ever had. (WTF?) I've opened it twice ever. The class was not really about OOP, and I am not a computer scientist. It is too technical to serve me in a useful capacity and I will not go back to this subject anytime before I retire. By then it will be out of date. It was *really* expensive.

Not bought: very basic texts for classes far outside my major. I don't miss them.

At my undergrad institution, some clever CS students set up a searchable website to facilitate the student-to-student sale of textbooks. That was great: you can sell a text to another student for $40 less than the cover price, and still make 2-3 times as much as reselling it to the bookstore. Good for everyone!

Anonymous said...

I went to a both small, private, liberal arts college with high tuition and to my local community college. I, like others, did not drink or have expensive hobbies or habits. I noticed two things:

1. The community college classes had more book requirements, but they were cheaper books (generally) and they gave you a higher percentage back at the end of the semester.

2. The private college did not require books for most of the classes, the books were more expensive and they barely gave you any money back in the end.

I think that the anger does come when the book is not really used or does not offer much help. Even more frustrating is when bookstores do not buy the book back because they are "updating the edition."

I understand this is not the professors fault and I have never placed blame with them, they are doing what is necessary to teach a class. The blame is with the manufacturer and the distributor. The community college did everything on site, since they were large enough to store and manage the books themselves, while the private college used an offsite dealer to bring the books in and to take the books back at the end of a semester.

I have kept most of my textbooks from classes that were in my major, because they do make good references, in general and, for grad school. I actually wish my department had used more books. The head of the department used two primary references books for all of the classes, the rest of the material came from notes and reading articles. I would have been much more willing to shell out the cash for a book for a class, when I had student loans to pay for the books, than I am now, when it comes out of pocket.

Tomato said...

Wow. You really rock as a prof! I love it when my profs give us the little Dover books as a supplement or when they choose the Dover books as the text. gives me a warm fuzzy feeling!
I don't know if this is official or unofficial policy at my school, but generally speaking, the text books can't be found in the library. I believe they do this to prevent students from just using the free library books all semester and forcing them to go out and buy them on their own. Even in my history classes when we have to read novel-like books, they don't carry them in the library. It's stupid. But those of you who can take advantage of texts in the library are lucky. I had one english class in which the professor bought a bunch of books we would need for research and had them all put on reserve in the library so we could go read them there but we couldn't check them out or anything.

Anonymous said...

I was lucky to have a "book scholarship" for college that a law firm from my hometown paid for (it was 300 bucks/semester for all four years). It really helped even though I didn't drink, didn't party, and worked my ass off at multiple jobs to pay for everything else (and I'm still paying student loans). I really hated that some of the texts were as expensive as the credit. grrr.

I've never known any raffling profs before. But that's a great idea for making a class go green (it's all the rage, ya know - everyone's doin' it). I could certainly raffle books for my smaller classes, but not the large lecture. Campus bookstores are evildoers.

Anonymous said...

I've never had to buy a textbook during my education in France (engineering school and M.S.). Professors were making handouts and lecture notes available; texts were never mandatory which made it easy buy / borrow them when you were interested in them (often, we'd share them ‒ I must have bought a grand total of 5 books in 6 years of post-high school education back home). In all honesty, I was horrified by the fact that texts were often mandatory here.

But, yeah, we're talking about a country where it is considered that, unlike time and intellectual commitment, money should not be a barrier to getting a good education.

yolio said...

I thought it was because textbooks tend to come out of students discretionary funds, whereas their parents are picking up the other big bills. Or at least their other bills, like rent, are fairly inelastic.

I think that for many students, if they don't spend the money on textbooks, they will have it available for buying booze and clothes.

EliRabett said...

This is really quite simple, the people who specify the books get them for free (the professors) and the textbook companies market to them. The people who buy the books, the students, do not select them.

The difference in prices between the US and other developed countries is a factor of 2-3 because of this system

The_Myth said...


Are you implying that students should select the textbooks instead?

How exactly does that benefit education?

This position is sort of like arguing that the new member of a gym should tell the gym manager what machines to order for his or her personal use:

You join a gym [a college] by inspecting the services offered [brochures, web-sites, campus visits] and agreeing to pay membership [tuition, fees] to use the facilities [attend classes, earn a degree]. You may suggest equipment you'd like to have [books, courses, programs], but seriously, do you expect the gym [the college, the professors, the staff] to run right out and get it?

Some expert at the gym [a professor] chose the equipment being offered [books] and you either use what's there now [read the book] or don't [potentially fail the course].

I think a lot of undergrads [and some grad students too] just don't get this comparison.

Btw, not all instructional materials used by a prof are "free"...sometimes even they must pay. And as I've seen here, a lot of undergrads really have no idea how the publishing industry works. Are many publishers milking students? Absolutely! Now explain why my students didn't buy the $20 text for my class...

Doctor Pion said...

It really serves little purpose for The_Myth to spread myths in #1 of the 3 pm posting. The data are public, and I have chewed through some of them (also see links inside that article) and plan to chew through some more based on a comment I read about Florida colleges.

It does not cost $5000 to deliver a $250 CC class. At our CC the total cost for that $250 class would be about $630. We have a significant subsidy from the state, but nothing like The_Myth thinks we get!

At one R1 that I looked at in detail, the tuition for that same 3-hour class is about $1030 and the total cost is about $1500 after the state subsidy is accounted for. Their state only pays modestly more per course at an R1 than ours pays for at a CC. (Other states are, reportedly, more generous, but the summer may end before I can look at that.)

I think you can see that a lowest quintile kid on a Pell Grant who sees $250 tuition and a $150 book has a somewhat different take on the situation than an upper quintile income kid paying the same book price and borrowing $1000 for tuition (and the book).

Anonymous said...

I am horrified by this "And therein is the big problem: Students who feel entitled to an education without any investment [time, money, intellect]". I come from a country where the government pays tuition fees for third level education. In theory at least, anybody who gets the grades to get into the course should be able to study, regardless of how rich or poor they are.

There are still barriers. It could be difficult to get high enough grades if you went to a bad school, and you have to be able to afford to not work full time. And the peripherals of university cost a lot (accommodation, books, etc). I view these as problems that need solving.

To shrug your shoulders and say "Hey, third level education is a luxury. If you can't afford it, make way for those that can." is quite sickening to me.

The_Myth said...


in America, there is an ideal that everyone should have access to higher education. To meet that ideal, there are a variety of options to allow that access. One option is the community college. I bow to Dr. Pion's apparently well-articulated cost-comparison for CC budgets. But that still doesn't explain away the very fact that higher ed is EXPENSIVE. It's not free. Students still need to pay fees, buy books, and find transportation to school. That's part of their responsibility to EARN the degree.

I chose a community college BECAUSE it provided cheap tuition so that I COULD AFFORD to buy books for the class. *MY* choice, made consciously, so that I wouldn't break my budget. Hordes of others choose community colleges every year for this exact reason.

The very idea that a student complains about a $100 text because the tuition is, say, $200 means the student is ignorant of the monetary budgets necessary for higher ed.

Again, I am not saying that book is *worth* $100, but, c'mon, blaming the professor for choosing an expensive book and whining about how unfair it is holds very little weight. The books options may range from $80 [low-end crappy] to $250 [splashy graphics with added software]. If a prof decided the $100 text is the best option, exactly on what grounds is the fresh-from-high-school, barely-able-to-grasp-the-concepts undergraduate an expert at textbook selection?

Again, this is a separate issue from textbook-worth, textbook disuse by professors, or other issues. It's irritating how often Textbook Syndrome evokes such writhing disgust in people that they lose all faculty to rationally parse out the separate issues.

Really, I do think some people just want something for nothing.

EliRabett said...

What I am suggesting at a minimum is that professors NOT accept desk copies and pay for their own books.

Other than that, given that textbooks are pretty much interchangeable, allowing the students to choose among a few does not strike me as a bad thing. Even better would be if they could buy books at the prices charged in say the UK.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

Professors can usually get one book per a certain number of students---it's not as if we have unlimited numbers of desk copies coming our way. I usually do wind up buying a second copy myself, because I live a long way from campus and want one for home and one for school. Professors choose books based on what they need to teach, not on what they've got free in the mail.

Anonymous said...

Um, I wish you were my professor... or that I had ever had a professor even one-tenth as accommodating on the issue of textbooks!

From the student perspective, I think why it pisses me off more than similar items is based on a few things. Like you said, it's a lot more obvious to me than tuition expenses, since pretty much all my tuition is on loans while the textbook money is straight out of my pocket, from what I make at my ($8-an-hour) job. Also, expensive items like laptops are useful for fun things in addition to school, whereas textbooks are not. Plus, in the case of both tuition and my laptop, I somehow feel like I'm getting a lot more for my money than with a textbook... especially when we end up only reading one or two chapters the whole semester (REALLY pisses me off).