College textbooks are an essential but increasingly expensive part of obtaining a higher education. Major publishers have done little to provide adequate lower-cost versions of most textbooks and advertise them to professors ordering books for their classes. In response, alternative and online publishers are offering lower-cost and even free versions of some textbooks. Although these alternatives have the potential to compete with the traditional publishers, they have not yet secured a significant part of the textbook market. As a result, the responsibility for making textbooks more affordable still falls on the major publishers.

Students spend about $900 each year on textbooks, a high price tag that can pose a financial obstacle for students already facing rising tuition and dwindling financial aid. Textbook publishers are the primary reason textbook prices are so high; they often add expensive “bells and whistles” such as CDROMs to their textbooks and frequently issue new but substantively similar editions that make older editions obsolete.

In response to growing student concern about the high price of college textbooks, the major publishers have developed lower-cost versions of a few of their textbooks. In addition, alternative and online publishers have emerged on the market, offering free or lower-cost versions of some textbooks to students and professors.

In order to provide a snapshot of the lower-cost textbook market, we examined the lower-cost options offered by the major publishers in their online catalogues and identified several alternative publishers offering textbooks for a lower price or for free.

Report Findings

Major publishers have not created lower-cost versions of the majority of their textbooks and do not always properly advertise the lower-cost options that do exist.

Four major textbook publishers—Thomson Learning, Pearson Education, Houghton- Mifflin, and McGraw Hill—offer some form of lower-cost textbooks, including low-frills paper or online textbooks. Unfortunately, these publishers do not offer lower-cost versions of most of their titles. When the lower-cost options are available, the publishers at times do not prominently advertise them or make it easy for professors to find the information they need about the books online.

A growing number of alternative publishers and faculty are offering lower-cost and free textbooks.

The rising price of college textbooks has created a growing market for lower-cost and free textbooks. Several alternative and online publishers are now offering low-frills textbooks or online versions of textbooks. These books offer the same educational value as traditional textbooks; faculty members we surveyed who have used these alternative textbooks in a classroom setting said they are satisfied with the books’ educational content.

Unfortunately, at this time these alternative publishers offer only a limited number of titles. In addition, some faculty members have raised concerns about online textbooks since not all students have convenient access to the Internet.

Although these alternative publishers could provide much needed competition in the textbook market, they currently only serve a small percentage of the students who need more affordable textbooks. As such, we renew our call to the publishing industry to reform its practices.


Textbooks should be priced and sold at a reasonable cost to students.

  • Publishers should provide a lower-cost printed alternative to every traditional textbook in their catalogues.
  • Universities and policy-makers can help by offering incentives for faculty members to create and promote Creative Commons licensed and open source textbooks.
  • Publishers should provide faculty and the public with up front information about all possible textbook options and prices. Faculty can help by adopting campus and system wide purchasing guidelines to build a greater market for lower-cost books. At the same time, policy-makers should require publishers to disclose all textbook options to professors.

Publishers, universities, and faculty should encourage a vibrant used book market.

  • Publishers should keep each textbook edition on the market as long as possible without sacrificing educational content.
  • Faculty should be made aware of how their textbook choices affect the used book market.
  • Universities should promote a variety of forums to trade or rent used books

Released August 2006

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