The Textbook Scam: How a $14 Billion Industry Robs Students and Professors


I used to be rich. But then I went to bookstore. Two textbooks and one notebook later, I was standing in the soup line.

The bookstore is a cash black hole. You may think the bookstore is a good place to pick up supplies in between classes. But the bookstore is a great place to buy supplies the same way a prison is a good place to make friends.

I mainly visit the bookstore to buy textbooks, which has become my once a semester mugging. Mainly because every semester professors assign textbooks that may or may not be necessary, inadvertently sustaining a $14 billion scam.

Four publishers control 80 percent of the $14 billion textbook market. They are Pearson, Cengage, Wiley and McGraw-Hill. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, textbook prices have risen 800 percent since 1978, which is way beyond inflation. For comparison, health care has inflated 575 percent and home prices have gone up 325 percent. From 2002 to 2012 the cost of textbooks rose 82 percent. The textbook market is a $14 billion industry.

Someone is getting rich off of $14 billion, and it is not the professors who write these things.

Professors and others who write textbooks put in a massive amount of work in writing a textbook, but they too are getting gouged by the textbook oligopoly. According to the National Association of College Stores, out of every dollar spent on a textbook, about 77 cents goes back to the publisher. Publishers make 18 cents in pure profit. The writer takes home about 12 cents. This does not consider the gravy bookstores take in on buying and selling used books, where they keep all the difference, and can sell a used book for $30 until the binding falls apart. Then, they can sell it for $25 as a loose-leaf edition.

Open textbooks are one solution to the overpriced textbook problem. An open textbook is a textbook with no copyright. These books are flexible in a way that traditional textbooks are not. Open textbooks allow instructors to take pieces from different titles and mix them all together. Another positive is that any title can be used indefinitely, so editions only need to be changed when the instructor wants to, not when a textbook executive wants to put new tires on their car. One fine professor in electrical engineering does this now and it works well for him.

Ideally, there is a middle place between free books and books I can only afford if I sell an organ. I would like to see professors and textbook authors make more money while cutting out the textbook companies. This may involve professors selling cheaper digital copies directly, or licensing their material to smaller publishers.

In the internet age, all content has been devalued. Music went from $10 a CD to $10 a month for all the albums you can stomach. News went from 10 cents a day to zero. Textbooks have only gone up, yet professors really are not making much money from them.

Students know the risk that comes with not buying the textbook. You may save $100, but you could fail the class. This a decision that a student should never have to make.

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