Textbooks can be ridiculously expensive. Here's what a textbook salesman has to say about why they cost so much.

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.

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About the author

David Weliver
Total Articles: 353
David Weliver is the founder of Money Under 30. He's a cited authority on personal finance and the unique money issues he faced during his first two decades as an adult. He lives in Maine with his wife and two children.

Article comments

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Penny wise, Pound foolish says:

I’ve done all that has been suggested above and okay don’t shoot me but I just don’t agree. From personal experience, I think this is a penny wise, pound foolish approach.

I have never worked in textbook publishing. When I was a student I tried to get books as cheap as possible but I just consider it a sunk cost.

Why? Because once I started thinking about who was getting what money, I found myself more focused on the buy back price than actually using my textbook, highlighting in it, marking in it etc.

As opposed to the textbook serving me, I was serving the textbook, making certain it didn’t get damaged so I could get the most back at resale.

Sharing textbooks? Don’t we look at the inner city kids who have to share books and shake our heads? Why am I sharing books in college?

Buying old editions, figuring out which page is actually what, having to wonder if my book has what it is supposed to have, hoping I can buy the computer code online — look my time is the most valuable, non renewable asset I have.

Okay textbooks, can cost $500-$800 per semester. Yeah that’s a lot so I advocate getting the book as cheap as you can and not worrying about resale. Mark in it, bend the pages, make notes in the margin.

You are in college to pass the class not to spend time in textbook conversion.

I think a better solution would be to cut back on something TRULY unimportant like weekend beer drinking to make up for the cost of the books!!

Adam Bertram says:

As the author of the blog at sellyourbooksonline.com that talks about selling books online, I get questions from college students about selling their books online. I always recommend Amazon to get started on as it’s pretty easy to do. I can see how textbookpublishers are getting screwed over, but if a student HAS to pay the new price for a book, I think it’s adequate to be able to at least get back the used market price for that book. In my opinion though, if the book can be bought online for the used market price, prices can be marked down as much as 90% from the new price.

Seth says:

As a current college student I found this to be obviously very applicable. There are some options that you have to keep costs down, however.

At my school bookstore (U. of Connecticut) they have a buyback system–this may be popular at other schools as well, I have no idea.
lets say a new textbook costs 100 dollars. you have the option of buying it on the spot for 100 dollars, or you can buy a used copy for 70% of new cost (so 70 dollars). At the end of the semester you can sell it back to the bookstore for half of face value (aka, 50 dollars). Therefore your net expense was 20 dollars.

But wait…theres more!
Many students have found that they can get used copies of textbooks off of sites like amazon and half.com for less than even the used prices at the bookstore. For example last semester I took financial accounting. I got the textbook off of half.com for 45 dollars, the original price was 120 dollars, so when I sold it “back” to the school bookstore, I received 60 dollars cash. 15 dollars PROFIT!

Another possibility is book editions. You touched upon this in your article, however you didnt mention how this can actually act as a double-edged sword. Because in many cases book editions are so close in content, a lot of teachers dont CARE if you have the previous edition. For example, in my communication class we were asked to get the 11th edition of a textbook which had a staggaring pricetag of 104 dollars USED! However when directly asked on the first day of class, the professor admitted that the 10th edition would be acceptable. 10th edition on half.com? 99 cents + 3.50 s/h.

Another trick that you will see pulled is the combination “online access” and book package. In many cases this makes the used book worthless since the code will have been already used. A savvy student will then buy that used textbook for a couple dollars, and then pay…say 20 dollars for a fresh access code direct from the publisher. Much better option than buying the package for 100 dollars, or sometimes the “ebook” package for 60.

It doesnt always work, but if you put in the effort you can save some major cash. It never hurts to ask. Of course there are always those times when you just have no alternative but to bite the bullet.

I hope this helps some of you!

Thanks for sharing your inside story, David. As a publisher and author myself, I also appreciate Funny About Money’s comments. (Disclosure: my book isn’t a textbook per se, although it’s been used to teach some college courses).

My two cents: where there is too much greed (and I believe there is in the textbook publishing world), the economics of the alternatives, by definition, become more attractive. As such, by playing these games, the textbook publishers will accelerate the speed at which competing sources of information (which is what a textbook is), replace it.

Would you rather sell 10 books at $100 a pop (while 40 people find a way to get by without or find a used book), or sell 50 copies new, at $25 each?

As a textbook author, I’d add that the reason new editions come out every time you turn around is that publishers (and ultimately authors) make nothing on resales of used books. Buying textbooks back from students for pennies on the dollar and then reselling them at near-new prices is a lucrative business for college bookstores and middlemen, but it leaves the people who created the books with nothing. The way publishers combat those practices is by revising texts regularly and producing new editions.

That said, as a college instructor the cost of textbooks makes me livid. The freshman comp texts I’m required to use this fall, both in new editions, are ordinary $20 paperbacks. Nothing special about these things. Not a lot of four-color illustration…none, as a matter of fact. No exotic layouts, no mathematical formulae (which are cheap to typeset in LaTex, anyway). Cost to the student: $80.

That’s inexcusable.

The result, however, sooner or later will be bankruptcy for textbook publishers but for bookstores and the middlemen who feed of the whole industry. The community college I’m teaching at is talking about switching to a 100 percent open-access system and eliminating textbooks altogether.

What goes around comes around, eh?

Stu says:

While in college, several of my best friends were amazon.com and half.com. I could literally get a book on half.com for half the price.
A few notes to savy students:
-The early bird gets the worm. If you wait until class starts, you’ve missed out on the cheaper books. Also it can take up to 2 weeks for the books to arrive. Order early (and online!).
-Visit your bookstore and look at the actual books listed for that class. I made a costly mistake of ordering a wrong book (online) when the teacher’s syllabus had a typo on the ISBN. Wrong edition changed the Chapter order and the homework problem order… Ensure you’re getting the right book and edition the first time.
-look into your schools buy-back policy. My school would rebuy books for pennies on the dollar, but a nearby school gave back almost the entire cost of the used book. ($120 new, $70 used, $60 buy-back). Or you could (re-)post them for sale online.
-borrow books from friends/upperclassmen. I had multiple classes with several friends all 4 years of Engineering school…why do we all need the same book? I buy this one, you buy that one…

Very interesting article on the niche market of college text books. Who would have thought this lucrative business could have a dark side.

P.S. Take time to enjoy your wedding day. After all the time, effort, and planning of a wedding, its amazing how quickly it passes. I’ve been married for 2 years, and it seeams like it all happened in the blink of an eye.