(or, evidence that textbooks have gotten way WAY too expensive)

Way back in the day, when I was in college 20 years ago, textbooks were expensive (relatively speaking, of course), but it was still reasonably common for me and my peers to keep the books we used for classes. That might have been more normal for me as an English major than it was for people who majored in things like chemistry, since most of my “textbooks” were paperback novels and books of poetry and stuff like that. I certainly never paid over $50 for a textbook.

Nowadays of course, it is common– too common, if you ask me– for students to sell their books back to the book store at the end of the term. Inevitably, the return most students get is not enough but better than nothing. Again, English major-types are still better off than science oriented majors, where it’s pretty easy to find new textbooks priced at $150+. That’s too expensive of course, but I did once have a textbook sales rep tell me that for publishers, these uber-expensive books are actually a “break even” proposition because of all the detailed color printing in these books. Maybe, maybe not.

Anyway, now for those who cannot afford to own comes the opportunity to rent from, which I found via DigitalKoans. It is what it is: basically, there are various options where students can rent their books. I didn’t look through the site long enough to see what was or wasn’t available and it’s clearly a new enterprise– in fact, they are inviting current students to design their college culture page.

There’s an analogy with home ownership, of course: years ago, people bought into the market at prices that were expensive at the time but which seems cheap now. A few years ago, people who wanted to be home owners ended up paying more both in terms of actual dollars and as a percentage of their income/overall expenses. And now, renting is presented as a viable option for those who can’t afford to own.

Given that when students sell their books back they tend to get pennies on the dollar, renting is probably a pretty reasonable choice. But I wonder if the next thing we’re going to see is some sort of “collapse” of the textbook industry along the lines of what we’re seeing now with real estate? Will things like open source textbooks, electronic textbooks, and now textbook rental disrupt the business model of the industry and causes prices to drop?

3 thoughts on “ (or, evidence that textbooks have gotten way WAY too expensive)”

  1. Well, sort of.

    As a “seasoned” student, I’ve finally mastered my book buying and buyback habits. Feel free to share this with your students.

    First, if classes are just about to start, and the campus bookstore has a reasonable return policy, I buy my books directly through the bookstore. But then…

    …I get home, plug the ISBN’s into, and let it find the cheapest places to buy the books online. I buy those books (too), and then return the campus-purchased books when the others show up in the mail.

    This semester, purchases directly from the bookstore were just under $488. Combined with BigWords, I was able to bring it down to $330, saving about $160.

    Then what do you do at the end of the semester? I don’t keep all of my books, but there are actually some GOOD BOOKS that I want to keep for future reference. Books I don’t want are sold back (also through BigWords). I typically recover anywhere from 75%-90% of the original purchase price.

    Whatever you (or your students) do, don’t buy OR sell back through the campus bookstore. It’s a scam.

  2. I ordered books last week from and it was so convenient. And it’s so nice not to have to worry about selling them back at the end. Why didn’t anyone think of this sooner?

  3. is Netflix for textbooks. Usually, students only keep books in their majors. And during the first two years, when there are a lot of gen. ed. requirements, lots of books get moved to the used market.

    I noticed a few things on Bookrenter. When I searched for new editions of books, they only listed a purchase price, not a rental price. So I wonder if they have to wait for a semester before new editions have used copies floating around. Which means they likely work with used book buyers to get their stock.

    Also, the rental price at 125 days is about what textbook publishers for one year of rental for e-books. Most publishers for their biggest selling books offer e-book editions that sell at roughly 50 – 60% of a new print book and access to the e-book is generally good for a full calendar year.

    So in terms of length of access to a book, an e-book hosted by the publisher is better than a print book rented from the site above. That said, however, I know for many e-books aren’t useful or possible.

    Meanwhile, there’s an interesting take on all this in the New York Times at “Knowledge Is Priceless but Textbooks Are Not,” by Michele Slatalla. The set up is about a mom “helping” her daughter pack for college and urging her daughter to save money on textbooks buying used when she can. The article links to sites that help students find used books.

    I gave it to my daughter to read. And I work for a textbook publisher. But in the humanities, where prices aren’t so bad.

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