Now They Tell Us: Finding Cheaper College Textbooks

The New York Times informs us that Bush-era legislation will help make it cheaper to find college textbooks:

You might call it the college student’s first lesson in exploitation: paying $100 for a textbook, then getting a mere $12 when reselling to the campus bookstore at the end of the semester.

College textbook prices rose about 6 percent, on average, every year — that’s twice the rate of inflation — from 1986 to 2004.  And there’s nothing more infuriating then paying the sticker price on textbooks (well, with the exception of tuition itself), when many other books are available at a discount. The cost of buying the textbooks can easily add up to $1,000 a year or more.

Thankfully, federal rules that went into effect in July may help ease the pain. Publishers can no longer bundle their textbooks with accompanying materials like workbooks, and they must reveal their prices to professors when making a sales pitch. Colleges, meanwhile, are now required to provide students with a list of assigned textbooks during course registration, which allows for more time for shopping before classes begin.

This isn’t the novelty it looks like it is.

I’ve been hosting free textbooks and reference materials on my website vulcanhammer.net since at least 2004, and the reference materials for several years before that.  Some of them I’ve put in print as well.  That’s a relief since the courses I teach at UTC have textbook prices that range from $150-$200 each.  (I only require one for each course I teach; the rest are free downloads.)

I have found two things that still surprise me in this digital age: the students, as the NYT article notes, still prefer a paper book (UTC’s problematic printing facilities are a part of that) and still prefer to stick with a structured textbook.  Part of the appeal of paper, for engineers at least, is that they can study a textbook on one side while trying to solve the problem either on their computer (spreadsheet is the weapon of choice these days) or on another sheet of paper.

Many textbooks are going to publishing on demand (especially in the higher course levels) which eliminates the dead inventory when the publishers make their obligatory changes every few years to kill the used textbook market.  I know the one I co-authored is probably done that way.

I believe that, with textbooks, the labourer is worth his (or her) hire, but I also think the students need a break, and that’s one reason why I’ve put so much material up for free download.

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