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Fewer Students Buying Textbooks Does Not Make a Bright Future for Publishers

I came across a survey today from the University of California-Riverside (PDF). Like most colleges, UC Riverside has a survey every year where they ask their students any number of questions about their experiences at the school.

In this case, I’m really only interested in the results that show a growing number of students who are avoiding buying textbooks. A full 73% have reported delaying a purchase, and even more have reported not buying one of the required textbooks.

Now, these stats on textbook avoidance aren’t all that new. I’ve seen similar numbers from a couple of sources, including the yearly survey by Xplana, the digital textbook arm of MBS, a textbook distributor. (Also, my several sources generally agree that this is a growing trend.)

But while I was waiting to get these numbers today I got to thinking about how these stats would affect the other growing trend in textbook publishing. Textbook publishers are pushing more and more into digital textbooks and digital textbook rentals. They’re doing it for the obvious reason; there’s no used digital market so there’s no competition from former customers selling off old books.

Let’s put the trends together. Students are buying fewer textbooks, while publishers are investing more and more in digital textbooks. This means that the publishers are making capital investments in a market that is shrinking every year.

You have to wonder where the publishers expect to get the money from, don’t you? Well, I think this might explain the rise in site licenses for digital textbooks.

A number of schools have signed with companies like FlatWorld Knowledge or Courseload, 2 digital textbook providers who offer volume license agreements (for some textbook titles). The college negotiates a lower price for a given digital textbook by guaranteeing a certain number will be sold.  The cost of the textbook is then bundled into a course fee that students are required to pay (along with the tuition) if they attend a given course.

I personally don’t like the idea of being forced to buy something, but I’ve spoken to someone who did like it. She relied on a fair amount of student aid, and her textbook funds were never enough. Had her textbook costs been bundled into her tuition costs she would likely have been able to get more funds to cover them.

But while publishers are happy about the steady income, this isn’t going to be a long term solution. Students are buying fewer textbooks because the cost have grown to the point where they cannot be born. That is a simple fact. Bundling the textbook might lower the cost in the short term, but in the long term it will lead to students picking classes based on which ones do not have that extra cost.

In the long run I expect these 2 colliding trend to cause a rise in the use of open source digital textbooks (like the initiative California recently started). In fact, UC Riverside follows up the survey results with a number of resources that instructors can use to distribute course material to students.

But I also wonder if we’re going to see reorganizations and bankruptcies among textbook publishers as the market contracts. I don’t have any proof that this will happen, but if both trends continue then it might.

image by Sarah Ross photography

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Julie December 29, 2011 um 8:26 pm

I have a kid in college. (Oh, my aching bank account!) One thing I’ve noticed as his studies have advanced is that more and more of his books are mainstream books. Now, this may be a side-effect of his major. He’s studying game design, and the best books for programming and design are available at most brick-and-mortar stores (and by extension, online). We’ve gone from $100 POD books that can only be used once (No used market at all. Don’t get me started on that one!) to books in the $30-50 range that have some use beyond the coursework.

So yeah, the textbook publishers aren’t getting much of our money right now.

One other interesting thing about the open source textbook movement – and digital textbooks in general – is that the stranglehold on content for K-12 books by Texas may get broken. That would be a good thing. Oh, and I live in Texas. 😉

cookie December 29, 2011 um 9:29 pm

I wonder how many students are buying fewer textbooks because they are acquiring pirated textbooks from Pirate Bay or elsewhere?

I wonder if someday universities will just add a textbook fee to the cost of the class.

I wonder if someday publishers will make textbooks available only for online viewing.

MikeB December 30, 2011 um 9:50 am

A big problem with the cost of textbooks is the frequency with which they are updated. Some subjects do change quickly, but those are more typically at the junior and senior learning levels anyway. Seriously, how much has literature changed in the last century? I’m sure the students are reading the same classics that I read 20 years ago. English, algebra, trigonometry, basic accounting, history (we never made it past WW2 in either American or World history), biology, chemistry, and almost all the core classes just don’t change enough to warrant a new edition every three years.

However, it does explain how my nephew’s college professor has a new Lamborghini Gallardo Balboni. He actually told my nephew he makes almost all his money from textbook royalties and only keeps working as a professor so he can continue to release revised editions.

Textbooks have been a huge moneymaker for publishers and colleges alike. I did a quick check on Amazon and there are at many versions of College Algebra that range from $110 – $150 each. The schools demand which version their students use and there is no competition to encourage lower prices. It is to their advantage to prevent enough current edition used textbooks to be available and cut into the profits from selling new textbooks.

With the advent of e-textbooks it is possible for the colleges to have the versions simply tweaked a little from year-to-year to keep them current and update the file students use for the semester. However I am very doubtful than any cost saving measures will result in lower prices for the students given the recent history of publishers and the agency model for general ebooks.

bluskreem December 30, 2011 um 10:13 am

I recently graduated, and I can tell you i was definitely in the wait to see if the book was needed crowd. Most of my books were in the 150-200 dollar range, and often times the teacher would never refer to them. When your working part time and trying to make tuition, it was difficult to justify that price when teachers would often state that the book wasn’t technically needed, or an older edition would do.

Christian January 29, 2012 um 8:15 pm

I have found that the best way for students to save money on their textbooks is to buy and sell their textbooks to each other. (A.K.A Students buying textbooks from students, and students selling textbooks to other students in their same school.)

The most popular website that I’ve found that offers students the ability to do this for free is

– They are doing tremendously well, and have a LOT of students using it. Props to them. Two thumbs up.

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