Lavish sales meetings in Miami’s South Beach. All-night benders with clients. Unlimited freebies for prospects. No, I’m not talking about Wall Street; I’m talking about your college textbook publisher.
I didn’t forget about being nickel and dimed myself at the campus bookstore. Nonetheless, I later went on to work as a textbook sales rep. (Students: I’m sorry). And although the high cost of textbooks may no longer surprise you, the industry’s sexy underground might.
Why Are Textbooks So Expensive?
Escalating textbook costs is such an issue, a coalition of U.S. public interest groups has an entire campaign devoted to the problem (maketextbooksaffordable.org). The group claims that ongoing industry practices are designed to keep new textbook prices high and discourage people who buy and sell used books. And they’re right.
To be fair, publishers do need to make a profit. Given the time and expertise it takes to create a 1,000-plus page textbook and textbooks’ limited audience (thousands of potential buyers versus millions in the mass market publishing industry), textbooks are always going to cost more than the latest bestsellers.
What’s not fair, however, is how “Big Textbook” manipulates both professors and students into buying brand new books every year.
“Big Textbook” Industry Tricks
The college textbook industry employs a number of squirrelly methods to make sure every semester they sell as many new books at full price as possible.
- Changing Editions. It’s no surprise that publishers release new editions of textbooks. Given medical advances, who wants med students learning pharmacology on a first edition textbook from 1980? But are 13 editions of an intro microeconomics text really necessary? Publishers release new editions every two years or so under the guise of presenting the most up-to-date information. In reality, every new edition makes the old book obsolete and forces students to pony up for new books.
- “Bundling”. Here’s an even sneakier move: Every year, publishers create a component (like an online review code, CD, or a small workbook) for their bestselling books and “bundle” them together. This not only allows the publisher to up the cost of the bundle, but it also creates a new ISBN (the coding number used by all publishers and bookstores) for the same book. Although savvy students and bookstore managers can still order the original textbooks, many will be confused by the new book number and assume they need to purchase the new more expensive textbook bundle.
- Constant Pressure. All large textbook publishers employ sales representatives to push their books. And I mean push! Sales reps become best buddies with the professors that teach your classes (and choose your textbooks) by sending them loads of free books and buying them dinner and drinks. Then the reps call professors numerous times a semester to make sure the prof will be requiring their company’s latest and greatest textbook for upcoming classes. Sales reps are under constant pressure to close “adoptions” (industry lingo for when a prof goes with your book) and earn big annual bonuses for exceeding sales goals.
Inside the “Big Textbook” Party
Not only do textbook publishers manipulate professors and students on campus to minimize used book sales, they use all-expenses paid trips, dinners, and drinks to motivate sales reps, win over authors, and reward loyal professors who choose their books time after time.
During my four years at one of the world’s ten-biggest textbook publishing companies, I traveled from Boston to South Florida every January for four days of product training by day and corporate-sponsored debauchery by night. There was rarely much sleeping.
Other publishing companies all had similar annual getaways for sales staff to Florida, Vegas, and even Europe. The trips were designed to motivate and reward staff for working longish hours and endure hefty pressure for little pay. (Many sales reps are entry level employees with English majors that turned over every year or two. Those that stick it out and build rapport with professors can earn a bundle, however).
Outside of the annual sales meetings, the college textbook salesperson’s job involves a lot of phone calls and a lot of travel to visit colleges, attend trade shows, and wine and dine professors and textbook authors (most of whom also earn very little for their efforts, despite the books’ price tags). Although I cannot say for certain, I would estimate that if you looked at a pie chart of what makes up the cost of a college textbook, a noticeable sliver would account for such “travel and entertainment”.
Raises an eyebrow, doesn’t it?
What You Can Do to Control Textbook Costs
When you’re staring at a list of textbooks costing several hundred dollars for one semester, you probably don’t need prompting to find ways to trim your costs. Of course, buy used if you can. Once a new edition publishes, the old edition becomes virtually worthless on the used market, so ask your professor if you really need the very latest edition.
In response to outrage over textbook prices, many publishers are also experimenting with both digital versions of textbooks and with textbook rentals, which can cut the cost of a new book by 50% or more. Check with the publisher of your texts to see if either is an option.
I have to admit, working in the textbook publishing was fun, and I might still be there today if I hadn’t made the decision to move away from one of the industry’s hub cities. I could never escape the feeling that my escapades came at the expense of struggling students, but I also believe publishers are starting to see that light that students won’t give an arm and a leg for their books forever and that new options will emerge that will make textbooks more affordable while continuing to allow publishers to produce high-quality materials and turn a profit.