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Why Are Textbooks So Expensive?

CampusBooks.com is here to save you money on textbooks so we are doing a three-part blog on the real reasons why textbooks cost so much—from three different points of view: a college professor and textbook author, the textbook publishers and the college bookstores. We hope this information will help you understand the reasons textbooks are so expensive.

From an Author's Standpoint

Henry L. Roediger III, a professor of psychology at Washington University in St. Louis and a textbook author, wrote an article on high textbook prices for the Academic Observer. According to Roediger, textbooks are more expensive because of the recent popularity of the used textbook market. He cited the used textbook market as a problem not due to students selling to each other, but to the massive buying of textbooks by used book wholesalers who then ship the book to another campus where it will be used next year. The textbook wholesalers, some of which own the bookstore, buy textbooks from students at a small fraction of the price that the students pay and then sell the books back to the next batch of students at an inflated "used book" price. This cycle results in publishers and authors not getting fair payments for their work in producing the textbooks. Roediger compared the practice to vendors who sell pirated music and do not pay royalties to record labels or artists. The only difference, he pointed out, is that the used textbook industry is legal and music pirating is not.

Here is a concrete example that he provided:

His book, Experimental Psychology: Understanding Psychological Research, was published by Wadsworth Publishing Company. The bookstore pays the company $73.50 for the new book. The authors receive 15 percent royalties on the book, so the three authors split the $11 royalty, and the publisher gets the rest. However, at the Washington University bookstore, the list price of the book is $99.75, a markup of $26.25 (or 35.7 percent). The authors get $11.02 for their work whereas the bookstore makes $26.25 gross profit per book.

When a student sells his or her textbook at buyback, the bookstore buys it back at a greatly marked down price, somewhere between 25 and 50 percent. Let’s assume that Experimental Psychology is bought back for 40 percent of the new book price (which is a generous assumption). That buyback price would be $39.90. After buying it, the bookstore will mark it up dramatically and resell the book. Suppose the used book is sold by the store for $75, which sounds like a bargain relative to the new book price of $99.75. The profit markup for the bookstore on this used book would be $35.10, which is even higher than the (still very large) profit made on the new book ($26.25). So on the second (and third and fourth, etc.) sales of the same book, the bookstore and used book company make large cumulative profits while the publishers and authors get no additional revenue.

According to Roediger, textbook publishers have little options when dealing with the loss in profits. They are forced to raise the prices of textbooks in an attempt to recuperate their initial investment. Publishers revise books often because they want to make sure book profits will accrue to the publisher and author, not the bookstores.

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Source:

Roediger III, H (January 2005). Why are textbooks so expensive. Observer, 18, Retrieved July 23, 2007, from http://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/getArticle.cfm?id=1712

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