Over the last three years, research conducted by the Student Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs) and others have shown that textbooks are a growing cost of going to college. These studies also have found that the textbook industry is using a host of practices that drive up the price of college textbooks. As a result, the overall cost of textbooks has risen at four times the rate of inflation since 1994.

In past reports, the Student PIRGs outlined how the textbook industry pushes prices higher by issuing new editions without much new content and adding expensive bells and whistles such as CD-ROMs to textbooks. Building on this work, the Student PIRGs conducted a new survey to identify textbooks that exemplify the textbook industry’s tactics. In the fall of 2006, we interviewed faculty members, walked through bookstores and interviewed bookstore staff to uncover textbooks that reveal six types of textbook industry gimmicks.

Report Findings

Increased Prices, Same Product

Our previous research found that publishers increase the price of textbooks from one edition to the next at twice the rate of inflation. For this study, we found an example of a textbook increasing in price within the same edition at twice the rate of inflation. Pearson’s Conceptual Physics 10th edition increased 13 percent over one year, from $112.40 in 2005 to $126.65 in 2006.  Many of the bookstore managers interviewed claimed that the wholesale list price of any given textbook edition routinely increases every six months to a year, regardless of whether or not the product has undergone any changes. This claim needs further investigation.

Costly Bundles

Our previous research found that half of all textbooks now come bundled or shrinkwrapped with supplementary materials such as workbooks and CD-ROMS. As of 2004, bundled textbooks cost 10 percent more on average than their unbundled counterparts. We found examples of bundled books, however, that are considerably more expensive, costing 46 to 48 percent more than the standard edition. For example, the bundled version of Pearson’s International Economics costs 48 percent more than the unbundled version.

New Covers, Old Content, Zero Used Books

Publishers frequently issue new editions of textbooks, often with few substantive changes and even in subject areas like calculus and introductory physics that have not changed significantly in years. Once a new edition is issued, faculty and bookstores have little choice but to stop using the old edition. The result is that the previous edition disappears from bookstore shelves almost overnight, limiting the used textbook market. We found two examples of new editions that faculty reviewers say lack substantive changes: Thomson’s Western Civilization 6th edition and Houghton Mifflin’s Calculus with Analytic Geometry 7th edition.

Modern Bundles: Resell Sabotage 

Bundling not only can increase the price of a textbook, but also can undermine the used book market. Textbooks increasingly come wrapped with one-time use components – such as one-time passwords to websites with problem sets – that prevent the entire book package from being resold at the end of a semester. Pearson’s bundled version of General Chemistry 9th edition is one example of a book with packaged components that eliminate buyback potential.

“Low Cost” Options that are Anything But Low Cost

Publishers often claim that they offer lower cost options that are cheaper than the standard hardcover text. McGraw-Hill’s Organic Chemistry 6th edition is one example of an allegedly low cost textbook that upon further examination actually has a higher net cost than the standard edition.

Customized to Limit the Used Book Market

Publishers increasingly promote “custom books,” which allow a professor to pick and choose the content he or she wishes to include in the class text. While customization can potentially lower the cost of a textbook and create a more focused curriculum, custom books also can undermine the used book market. At the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, one professor tailored Houghton Mifflin’s Psychology 7th edition so specifically for his course that his students will not be able to sell the book back.

Policy Recommendations

Textbooks Should Be Priced and Sold at a Reasonable Cost to Students

  • Publishers should work to keep the cost of producing their books and ancillary items as low as possible without sacrificing educational content.
  • Low-cost alternatives should be true equivalents of their standard counterparts, having equal usability, completeness, and quality of content.
  • When publishers sell textbooks bundled, they should sell the same textbooks separately.
  • Faculty should give preference to the lowest cost option when the educational content is comparable.

Publishers, Faculty and Universities Should Build a Vibrant Used Textbook Market

  • Publishers should keep each textbook edition and related ancillary items on the market as long as possible without sacrificing educational content.
  • Publishers should give preference to print or online supplements to current editions over producing entirely new editions. Faculty should give preference to the textbooks that have the most longevity in the used book market when the educational content is comparable.
  • Colleges and universities should provide many forums for students to purchase or rent used books.
  • Colleges and universities should encourage students to use online book-swaps so that students can buy and sell used books and set their own prices.

Released October 2006