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Published On: Sun, Nov 18th, 2018

Why do textbooks cost so much and how can you spend less on them?

There are several reasons why the cost of college textbooks continues to climb rapidly. One important factor is that professors are free to choose the textbook they want for their class. When making this selection, they generally review content and choose the book that they feel will best follow the teaching program and philosophy of the teacher. The cost of the textbook is, unfortunately, rarely considered.

Since the professor is free to make his or her own selection, and book sales are highly competitive, many professors find themselves receiving visits from textbook publishers. These sales representatives may give out sample textbooks and urge the professor to use the latest edition of a textbook. Because the person selecting the book, the professor, is not the person buying the book, which is the student, publishers do not have to cater to price, but rather features and quality.

photo/ Ulrike Mai

College textbook prices earn their high price tag due to the expense of production. Creating a college textbook is much more involved than a trade paperback or other type of book. Many subjects require complicated illustrations or expansive math sets to go along with the text. Due to the need for error-free copy, all college textbooks go through extensive rounds of editing. The people involved, from authors to editors to illustrators, are highly trained professionals who require compensation for their work.

Another reason for the high price of college textbooks is the lack of competition. There are few textbook publishers printing textbooks, which reduces competition in the marketplace. The lack of competition means that established textbook publishers can charge a higher price for their products.

College students are, by design, a captive audience. They are told which book to buy and there are limits to how much of a price difference there are among vendors. College students have also learned that college is expensive, and the cost of textbooks is just one of those things you need to pay for. This means many students will buy what they are required to buy from the school bookstore without seeking better options.

Probably the most difficult to swallow aspect of college textbook pricing is when the professor has his own textbook. This becomes the required textbook for class, boosting sales and lining the pockets of the professor assigned to teach the class.

Requiring new editions is another factor in sky-high book prices. Students in scientific and medical fields, in particular, are susceptible to this issue. These books are constantly updated and revised, making it nearly impossible to find the required book used.

Software bundles are often included in college textbooks. These software packages are often just the textbook in CD form or something similar that adds little if anything to the value of the textbook but drives the price up.

There are some rules in place to help students and professors navigate the expensive world of textbook acquisition. The price of any necessary textbook must be included in the course description. The cost of the textbook must also be made available to the professor.

While these are steps in the right direction, it doesn’t seem to have made much difference in easing financial burdens on students. At best, it prevents uncomfortable surprises for the student when they visit the bookstore at the start of the semester. It may also help professors think outside the box in some classes. For example, a literature class may require several novels, available as trade paperbacks, instead of a hardcover anthology. Some professors are becoming more comfortable with using open source materials in lieu of traditional textbooks.

While it is easy to see why prices are as high as they are for college textbooks, that doesn’t make it any easier to pay. There are ways to lessen the impact of textbook purchases on your bottom line.

Renting textbooks is one way to save money. You can also buy used books or access digital copies of the textbook for a lower price.

Renting textbooks is probably the simplest way to keep your costs under control. In the past, it wasn’t unusual for a bookstore to buy back books at the end of the semester. This process wasn’t ideal. You still had to have the money up front to buy the textbooks in the first place, and if a book wasn’t going to be used in the future, it had no resale value. Also, the price offered by many bookstores was very low compared to what they sold the books for.

Renting allows you to get the benefit of paying a much lower price for a book that you only need for a limited amount of time. You pay the smaller fee up-front and turn the book in at the end of the semester. You know the exact amount you need to pay, and as long as you don’t damage the book, there are no surprises later.

You can also purchase books used. This is a great resource for books that you may want to hang onto and use as a reference in the future. While in the past you were limited to only the used books carried by your college’s bookstore, you can now find books online, at places like booksrun. Using these resources, you are sure to find exactly what you are looking for, at a greatly discounted price.

You can also use these same websites to sell your own books. If you have college textbooks you don’t plan to use for reference, selling them online is a great way to help subsidize the price of your books for the coming semester. These websites make listing and shipping your books easy and quick.

As you can see, there are several reasons why college textbooks are so expensive. Fortunately, there are more ways than ever to save money on your textbooks. If you give yourself time to search online, you may be surprised at how much money you can save by selling books you are not using and purchasing used books for the upcoming semester.

Author: Evelina Brown

About the Author

- Outside contributors to the Dispatch are always welcome to offer their unique voices, contradictory opinions or presentation of information not included on the site.

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