The revolution will be hard-bound and highlighted
July 24, 2007 8:00 PM   Subscribe

"The [textbook] industry charges outrageous prices for new textbooks while simultaneously doing everything it can to make older versions unusable or obsolete. There is simply no reason that a new calulus textbook should cost $157. The study of calculus, at least the type of calculus that most of us need to study in high school or undergraduate programs, has not changed significantly in decades." - Textbook Revolution.
posted by Blazecock Pileon (76 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
why do you hate America education?
posted by Avenger at 8:04 PM on July 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

The prices are definitely ridiculous... on the other hand, I've always wondered how much it costs them to print a 1000-page text with almost every page being multicolor.
posted by antipasta_explosion at 8:07 PM on July 24, 2007

Tip: Hunt online for the "low-cost" edition - I got the exact same book that was sold in the university bookstore in hardback and full color - for less than half the price, in paperback and in grayscale. The content, pagination, and everything else was identical.

Now, the book does have a little box printed on the back: "This book is illegal to sell outside of India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Nepal" or something like that. If you can live with your illegal textbook - which has already been purchased once anyway - then you might save some serious money.
posted by mdonley at 8:13 PM on July 24, 2007 [5 favorites]

Tennessee: New law tackles high textbook costs.
posted by ericb at 8:26 PM on July 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

This is cool, I can only hope all the professors and teachers feel the same way.
posted by carsonb at 8:27 PM on July 24, 2007

I just spent $150 on a set text this morning. Sucks. This might help, thanks.
posted by teststrip at 8:28 PM on July 24, 2007

on the other hand, I've always wondered how much it costs them to print a 1000-page text with almost every page being multicolor.

I remember an Intro to Physics class when I was just a wee pup...the "book" we had was about 300 pages comb-bound at the local Kinko's with a cheap cardstock cover and hand-drawn stick figures in the "illustrations". Cost: $85. Writer and illustrator: surprise, surprise! The professor of that physics class. Textbooks are a scam often perpetrated by the professors and schools themselves.
posted by zardoz at 8:29 PM on July 24, 2007

The prices are definitely ridiculous... on the other hand, I've always wondered how much it costs them to print a 1000-page text with almost every page being multicolor.

Those concerns don't apply to all books, however. Consider law textbooks, which are certainly not printed every year and (in many subjects) rarely change anyway. Those books are all black & white text with no figures, no pictures, and no color. Yet they routinely cost upwards of $100. Paying the authors doesn't figure into, either. Law professors are hardly above using research assistant labor to do much of the work, and what work there is is mostly selecting and editing cases rather than writing original material.
posted by jedicus at 8:32 PM on July 24, 2007

One of the benefits of being an English major is that, instead of textbooks, you just have to buy a fuckton of novels. Much cheaper, and with any luck they'll be good books that you want to have around anyway.
posted by danb at 8:32 PM on July 24, 2007 [2 favorites]

When the printing is limited, as with textbooks, it is not surprising that the cost is high.
posted by caddis at 8:33 PM on July 24, 2007

In my college career I've noticed more and more professors opting out of requiring a textbook and relying instead on electronic articles and handouts to the extent that they can get away with it. Granted, this approach isn't feasible for every subject, but it's nice to see some faculty acknowledging the problem and doing what they can about it. This site looks like a pretty nice resource for materials to potentially design a course around or at least use as supplements, and nice for those who are just learning on their own, too.

Education should be as open as possible: open-access journals ($35 to read a ten page journal article? WTF) wherever possible, reasonable textbook prices, etc. I realize that the publishers need to make money, but the level of cynical maneuvering on their part with these constant and frequently unnecessary "new editions" with their fancy printing, associated websites, pack-in CDs/DVDs that no one ever uses (all inflating the prices)... it's just too much. It's detrimental to education, especially since it raises yet another financial barrier to learning for students and families of students--who have a tough enough time already with ever-rising tuition and fees--and thus detrimental to us as a society as a whole.
posted by Kosh at 8:34 PM on July 24, 2007

I'm starting college in the fall, and I'm screwed, because I find the idea of buying a used textbook extremely distressing. I couldn't handle using a book someone else had used. But I'm glad to know textbook revolution has relaunched; there's good stuff there.
posted by silby at 8:35 PM on July 24, 2007

It's all a fucking sham, kids. Enjoy debt.
posted by rhizome23 at 8:40 PM on July 24, 2007 [4 favorites]

I liked this textbook in particular: "Outline of US History: A short book on US History from the first Native Americans through the 2004 elections, brought to you by the US State Department."

Chapter 1, A Destiny Manifested

America was founded in 1776 by George Washington and Jesus Christ after we declared independence from Old Europe. The US Constitution was written by a group of devout Christians whose dual goal was to limit the power of the People and create a strong Executive who can decide what is best for everyone. The Constitution also made God the official backer of our currency.

America and our ally, France (they were less surrenderful back then) created the first Coalition of the Willing which is still in existence today. The war against Old Europe was long and difficult but was eventually won because President Washington had a free hand to silence dissent and forced the back-stabbing defeatists to flee to Canada, where they remain to this day.

America itself was previously uninhabited except for a handful of Indians (whom -- and we cannot stress this enough -- were treated very well). The Indians sold us this country (in the very real and legally binding sense) for the sum of one (1) chain of beads. Sadly, some Indians grew resentful of American generosity and had to be relocated to the West.

Chapter 2, Africans Are Invited to America...
posted by Avenger at 8:41 PM on July 24, 2007 [30 favorites]

Use Add-All.

It's a site that aggregates used and international edition book sales from around the web.

It's really only the American editions that are grossly overpriced. Many times, you can get the exact same book in an international edition for about 1/3 of the price. The page numbering, illustrations, etc are all identical. Usually, the only difference in the international edition is the cover (usually paperback) and the quality/color of the pages (international editions seem to be printed on cheaper paper and have more b&w pages).

My last couple of years in college, Add-All was a life saver. If you do it right, getting older editions where you can, and internationals where you can, you can save a **lot** of cash. Plus, you can turn around and sell a lot of these back to the school textbook stores. I think my personal record was a semester's worth of books for $30 (after end-of-semester buyback). I
posted by kaseijin at 8:41 PM on July 24, 2007 [2 favorites]

This can be pretty ridiculous, and moreso when your professors require books they wrote or edited. I definitely bought used whenever I could and then sold off as many as I could that I didn't feel like keeping.

silby: You'd be surprised how many used textbooks are in almost-new condition at the end of the semester or year.
posted by cmgonzalez at 8:43 PM on July 24, 2007

A calculus text that I used in my university course in australia was on its 15th+ edition, and every edition would introduce randomisation of question numbers, would reorder sections, but leave the information presented alone.

It resulted in the need for lecturers to either a) mandate an edition or b) cite question numbers and section numbers for both the most recent editions. I saw both occur.

These tactics by textbook publishers are blatant combat against the doctrine of first sale.
posted by Jerub at 8:44 PM on July 24, 2007

I'm starting college in the fall, and I'm screwed, because I find the idea of buying a used textbook extremely distressing. I couldn't handle using a book someone else had used. But I'm glad to know textbook revolution has relaunched; there's good stuff there.

The same way I felt. After spending 500 bucks on new books first semester, I bought my second semester books used. You'll get over it.
posted by daninnj at 8:46 PM on July 24, 2007

Many of my college courses required expensive textbooks that weren't even necessary to pass the class. All the pertinent info was covered by the professor, so if your notes were adequate, you didn't need the text. After a while, I stopped buying anything until a few weeks into the semester so I could make sure I really needed it and couldn't just get away with using the copy in the library. I saved a TON of money and still graduated with honors.
posted by jrossi4r at 8:49 PM on July 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'm surprised textbook filesharing hasn't caught on more among university students. But I suppose photographing and uploading a calculus textbook doesn't generate the same enthusiasm that a torrent of the latest Harry Potter does.
posted by anticlock at 8:49 PM on July 24, 2007

It's the gratuitous "new editions" that get me, the ones with new covers and *maybe* a little bit of new material in the introduction. Add profs who require the latest edition and/or school bookstores that only stock it - after refusing to buy back perfectly good "old editions" with the old covers - and you have a major scam in the works.
posted by mediareport at 8:50 PM on July 24, 2007

I'm rocking community college for the summer, and my textbooks cost more than my tuition and fees, which is absurd. Fortunately, at my regular university, more and more of my professors are opting for either online textbooks (last semester, I spent 20USD for a downloadable copy of the 250USD print chem book) or just requiring only a set of notes from the school copy shop for 15 to 30USD. Still, practices of the textbook companies, and university bookstores is deplorable*. The cost of a secondary education in the States is prohibitive enough as it stands.

*My university bookstore has a bad habit of changing your order from "used copies ONLY" to "new copies ONLY", which can double the price. Usually, by the time the change is discovered, the used copies have sold out. They also run a "buy-back" racket where you can sell back your 200USD book for about 40USD, which they will sell for 150USD. Needless to say, I've gotten in the habit of just trading books with classmates, though this doesn't help with lab manuals.
posted by internet!Hannah at 8:50 PM on July 24, 2007

I forgot to mention I bought a used book first semester for $60 and got back 3! Stupid new editions.
posted by daninnj at 8:53 PM on July 24, 2007

As an educator, I despise the American textbook sellers almost as much as I despise NCLB and the SATs. The scams pulled on students and parents in the name of better education are appalling.

Despise is a strong word. That is how I feel. I always tell parents that they should consider looking online for their kids textbooks. All they needs is an ISDN number and they can track it down.

I also spend a lot of time advocating ditching textbooks entirely, but I'm nuts that way.
posted by Joey Michaels at 8:54 PM on July 24, 2007

It's all a fucking sham, kids. Enjoy debt.
posted by rhizome23 at 8:40 PM on July 24 [+] [!]

ok children, as a graduate student I've taught Calculus at a major U.S. public university for far too long. every semester I give a little talk about the textbook:

it's a scam, but what's the scam?

the $150 is essentially a lab fee, as is typical of most U.S. universities, Calculus is taught from a book. It is more often than not taught by a graduate student, or post-doc or adjunct instructor of some sort. Since the course is so often taught by someone with little experience or interest it is in your interest that they read a script which is reasonable and assign problems which are doable...

of the thousands of dollars you have spent for this course, the $150 on the textbook wasn't where you got ripped off.
posted by geos at 8:56 PM on July 24, 2007 [8 favorites]

Some lecturers which require you to buy their book are doing you a service. One of mine produced an inch-thick tome with a price of about $30 - basically the bare-bones printing costs. He saw it as more valuable to ensure his course wasn't one of the ones where students decide to skip buying the textbook.
posted by -harlequin- at 9:00 PM on July 24, 2007


I've both been a student and taught college classes as well. The bullshit in this system as has been mentioned above is when textbook companies simply change the problems around in each edition to force kids each year to spend 100-200 on new text books every year. that's fucking ridiculous
posted by slapshot57 at 9:03 PM on July 24, 2007

silby - what's your problem with used textbooks? Weren't the majority of your textbooks in highschool used?

Check early and frequently - some course instructors are on the ball and make known early which textbooks are required. If you get to the bookstore (the University one, which usuallysells used books - or other bookstores around campus which sells used textbooks) early enough, you should have multiple copies to choose from. Usually, if you get there early enough, you can find pristine or near-pristine textbooks (like, from people who bought the book but dropped the class and resold the book).
posted by porpoise at 9:13 PM on July 24, 2007

I loved my computer science classes - half the day staring at the computer anyway, so why not download the book for free from a shady source?

That said, my days in the community college system were shockingly filled with latest editions. (As opposed to my four-year college, where the 6th edition was required when the latest edition was the 11th.) If there was a new edition out, the community college teachers would use it. Sometimes I think the textbook companies pimp out their textbooks the way drug reps give out free dinners to doctors.
posted by Xere at 9:14 PM on July 24, 2007

then sold off as many as I could that I didn't feel like keeping

The costs are unreasonably high, but if you've already bought them, selling them is a bad idea. Passing the class is not the ultimate object. Whatever else you might say about them, college textbooks are packed with information you can't find easily elsewhere. At least that's been my experience. I sold nearly all my textbooks out of economic necessity. Ten years later, I regret selling every single one.
posted by BinGregory at 9:16 PM on July 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

Yeah, the industry is sick.

However, I went to a small private liberal arts school; the edition of a biochem text that was required (since that edition was incepted and for a few years afterwards) was stocked by the bookstore for those 5 or so years.

I've also seen that same edition in my colleagues' collection who took that equivalent biochem class +/- 4 years of me.

Same for an intro neurology text.

In my grad studies classes, the textbooks were all made available at the library and most of us used our advisor's copy-machine-funds to make copies (much the times, of copies of textbooks).

In my experience, good professors choose certain textbooks/editions due to those editions being good ones (many teaching professors get "complimentary copies") being useful as basic references even ten years or more down the line.

But, yeah, when I spent a semester at a 'state school, the textbook rippoff really pissed me off, ie., for a physics class there was a $130 USD physics text that was immaterially different than a prior edition - the only difference was that the question set was rearranged; and grades depended on those question sets.
posted by porpoise at 9:28 PM on July 24, 2007

Have to agree with zardoz about some professors being a part of the problem. My statics professor required a 200 page hardbound 4-color book that cost $130 he had written. At the second class he passed out 30 photocopied pages of errata. Every subsequent class included at least three corrections to both text and errata.
posted by arruns at 9:31 PM on July 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

Oh, wow, Xere - That said, my days in the community college system were shockingly filled with latest editions.

Community college professors don't get paid that much. I wonder how much the textbook publishers "donate" if said lecturers demand that their students buy the latest edition of a textbook?
posted by porpoise at 9:32 PM on July 24, 2007

4 or so years...
posted by porpoise at 9:32 PM on July 24, 2007

After my first year in college, I rarely bought text books. In some classes it would be really obvious that you weren't going to pass without it, so I would go out and pick up a used copy a couple of weeks in (usually sold by someone who had dropped in the first week or so).

I'd have to play a bit of catch up, but it wasn't too bad. I found that about 80% of everything on tests was directly taken from the lectures, and the other 20% could be found in the schools library.

Though, in a few classes, I bought the book just because I knew I would want to keep it as a reference source long after I had left school. I still have a couple of my philosophy and interpersonal communication texts around here somewhere.
posted by quin at 9:39 PM on July 24, 2007

Textbooks made me furious at NYU. I had to buy an $80 paperback for my French class, and the university bookstore offered to buy it back for 5 cents, 'or you can donate it if you like.' I was both ripped off and insulted. Adding to what arruns said, I also had an adjuct professor for a freshman writing class and the theme of her course (personal tragedy) just so happened to coincide with the book about 9/11 she had edited, and we were expected to spend $40 on a copy to bring to class (I didn't) so we could talk about her work.
posted by bukharin at 9:49 PM on July 24, 2007

of the thousands of dollars you have spent for this course, the $150 on the textbook wasn't where you got ripped off.
posted by geos at 11:56 PM on July 24 [+] [!]

how true
posted by caddis at 9:56 PM on July 24, 2007

As an instructor (not yet a full prof) who has taught courses at a large American university, I've chosen a few course textbooks from major textbook publishers and this is my understanding of the professor's part in the "conspiracy". Keep in mind this was for beginning and intermediate composition courses. I estimate the most expensive texts to be in the $30 to $40 range.

1.) Publishers have book fairs where where book reps give faculty donuts and free review copies. No mention of the retail price of the books is made.

2.) Instructor reviews review copies and chooses what they feel is the best text for the class.

3.) Instructor tells bookstore what text he/she has chosen and bookstore orders it. Bookstore sells book to students.

4.) If the instructor decides to use the book again next term, the bookstore orders more books. If the chosen text was popular among composition instructors at various colleges and universities, chances are the publisher will have asked the author to put out a new edition that has since come out. If so, then that is the book that has to be ordered.

In scenario 4, the instructor has the option of allowing the use of old editions. Many instructors require the new edition so that they don't have to put up with the hassle of figuring out the pagination of one edition compared to another or risking that there may be significant variations in content between editions. If it was up to me, I'd require the edition I used the first time I taught the class. It makes lesson plans a lot easier.

In short, I think the only conspiracy involves the bookstores and the publishers. The only possible exception is when the prof is the author of the book. But, then again, why wouldn't the prof teach the course based on the textbook he/she wrote? And, why wouldn't he/she consider the changes made in a new edition he/she wrote not important enough to be required? In my experience, the only real compensation textbook authors receive is the line on their CV.
posted by Dr. Lurker at 10:00 PM on July 24, 2007

I wonder how much the textbook publishers "donate" if said lecturers demand that their students buy the latest edition of a textbook?

Answer: Nothing. Sheesh.
posted by raysmj at 10:03 PM on July 24, 2007

Does the very high new price correlate with cheaper used prices - particularly for titles that are "updated" annually? A recent chemistry course's textbook would have been over $100 new; a used copy of the previous year's edition was maybe $30. Still older versions cost even less - this seems like a great bargain for a cheap autodidact dissatisfied with what's available in the public domain.

Alsso: don't teachers get - basically - bribed to use a given book, similar to how doctors are given free junkets to prescribe certain drugs?
posted by unmake at 10:07 PM on July 24, 2007

Well since we are talking about violating the law in order to obtain a cheaper version of the text:

(1) Scanning a textbook requires about 30 minutes once the advanced functions of an officer scanner are discovered

(2) Printing out the chapters you need as/if you need them is easier to deal with than an awkwardly sized 500 page textbook

I read about 1-3 textbooks a month (out of a library of about 400 textbooks). A good professor, and my best professors did, create their own ad-hoc textbook. Giving me printouts of the fundamental points and journal articles that detail the developments.
posted by geoff. at 10:10 PM on July 24, 2007


I was always really happy to get a lecturer who had written the book - a) they actually knew the material, b) they usually said something along the lines of 'as the copyright holder, i hereby give you permission to photocopy at will' - which was a lot cheaper than buying the stupid thing.

I've always looked at the price of american texts with out-and-out envy. They are so damn *cheap* over there. The same book I paid well over 100AUD for was barely 40USD, often less. Those texts quoted at 150USD above? Well, you do the maths, and work out what they cost here. Since the advent of amazon .. well, I haven't been buying locally for my reference material, because priority shipping is often much cheaper (and about a month faster) than buying a book locally.

It sucks. Really, really sucks.
posted by ysabet at 10:13 PM on July 24, 2007

And, why wouldn't he/she consider the changes made in a new edition he/she wrote not important enough to be required?

er, i mean why wouldn't he she consider the changes made ... import enough.

< a double negative, i'm going to get my composition teacher's license revoked.>
posted by Dr. Lurker at 10:17 PM on July 24, 2007

I am baffled that there are people who don't want to buy used textbooks. Did the person who read it first somehow drain the useful information out of it? Or are they afraid of cooties? I can't understand why anyone would want to buy a new book.
posted by goatdog at 10:24 PM on July 24, 2007

At my uni (in Australia) I'm involved in a Society that runs a second hand bookshop. I am amazed by how often the editions of books change. The most common change in the majority of books between editions is simply a reordering in chapters. In fact, I've got two books sitting in front of me - one first edition, the other 3rd and they are 99% the same. Another one is a Physics text I had to buy in my first year at uni - it was an 11th edition - at home in the garage I found a 4th edition in with n\my dad's old uni textbooks and I was amazed at how similar those books are.

Two of the first year Maths books that have been introduced in the last year are written by the person teaching the course - these $40-50 texts are exactly the same (word for word in one case) as the reader I bought when I did the course a couple of years ago for $10 from the university copy centre.

In a field that is constantly changing like economics or commerce, this may be justified as markets and details change from year to year - but in a field like Science, the core material stays the same from year to year, it is not like they make discoveries that change the way that such a subject is taught constantly. Something needs to be done about it, but it isn't going to happen anytime soon. Maybe Textbook Revolution can help - but it isn't going to change that institutions require students to purchase texts - and I'm not sure if this is going to be easily changed in the forseeable future.
posted by cholly at 10:26 PM on July 24, 2007

The fun part is when everybody is in on the game.

After teaching my first semester, I realized that as a student and an instructor, I had much more in common with my students than not, and from that point on, had at least one class day where I would expound on the benefits of 'guerilla scholarship': how to truly maximize your copy dollar (4-up is friend of your pocketbook, if not your eyes), how to work the guys at Kinko's for bindings, using social engineering on librarians for more interlibrary loan allowances, that sort of thing.

I put more and more of my lecture notes and bibliographies online, and (the holy grail, in my opinion), I went through the last six editions of the main text and made a table of pagination so that everybody was, forgive the pun, on the same page. So little had changed in the text that only the pagination needed to be put in accord. Every semester I had a number of students that thanked me profusely for my efforts, and even had a number of my colleagues pick up some of my practices.

I agree with geos, above: there are many ways that kids get screwed at school now, and I made the decision that neither I nor the text from which I taught would be one of them. I just didn't want to add to the problem.
posted by eclectist at 10:28 PM on July 24, 2007 [4 favorites]

This is cool, I can only hope all the professors and teachers feel the same way.

Most of us do. The most egregious textbook scam I have seen recently was a mass-mailed offer from a publisher to include any professor as a co-author of a special printing of their American history text and to pay you $5000 if you assigned their shitty textbook to a certain number of students. Tenure and payola in a single corrupt package!

This was the only outright bribe I have ever seen. But the textbook company reps are always underfoot, hawking their wares. They are very attractive women who flirt with the codgers and flatter them and get the old bastards all dizzy. I of course remain unruffled by such an obvious ploy.

I have been approached a couple of times to write a legitimate textbook. It is tempting because I think I could do a good job and the money is lucrative. What always turns me off the project is the endless and unnecessary revisions. To kill off the used book market publishers have gone from a four-year cycle on new editions to three and now two years. It is part of your contract when you agree to write the book--if it takes off you rewrite major sections every two years. A friend of mine has a moderately successful supplementary reader for U.S. history surveys and he has to change 25% of the chapters on a rotating basis or his publisher will drop him. It becomes your life.

Yet we professors are mostly trapped by the system as well. I need a textbook for my classes. I teach big classes online and I need the supplementary websites and the practice quizzes and the test banks. And so I assign a textbook, at least in my intro classes. I do provide ISBN numbers on my syllabi so students may shop around, and I do tell them that older editions are probably OK.
posted by LarryC at 10:29 PM on July 24, 2007 [2 favorites]

Consider it welfare, for professors. I've never heard anyone declare these folks were making good incomes. Maybe at some schools, I wouldn't know.

I had a friend who co-wrote a middle-school literature text. He taught at a private school, and didn't make a lot of money teaching. However, that textbook was popular, and the royalty checks were fabulous. He lived rather well as a result.

That isn't to say students aren't being ripped-off. Especially on the math and science material. It amazes me how much the price of textbooks has soared since my college days, back a few decades.
posted by Goofyy at 11:26 PM on July 24, 2007

Rockin' post, thanks BP.
posted by nickyskye at 11:27 PM on July 24, 2007

Re: New books, I have to admit I'd prefer new books to used. When I was doing my undergrad and grad, there was just something about getting the new books with the crisp, flat pages, lovely gloss on the covers etc., that made the course I was about to take seem that much more interesting. Nothing to do with cooties.

Then again, I like browsing office supply and stationary store catalogues.

Yes, I've been called a nerd.

Meanwhile, I'm surprised no one else has asked for a definition of fuckton. Is this metric or Imperial? Is it scalable (millifucktons? nanofucktons?) Is there an exemplar stored at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures? Inquiring minds want to know.
posted by Zinger at 11:54 PM on July 24, 2007

I work a seasonal job at a not-for-profit student-run textbook shop. They sell books under suggested retail. I love that store.

But most of my profs have been good about textbooks. They try to send us to the cheaper shops around (including the one I work for -- I've never even set foot in the university bookstore yet), or give us handouts. One even forced the publishing company to send out their last copies of the cheaper, older edition so she could save us money. Another orders these cheap 'select the list of short stories you want, and we'll print it out for you' books. There's a few profs who are really blatant about forcing you to buy their own books, but the most obvious cases I've seen were because there was no other comprehensive book about their topic.

Another benefit of working there is that I always know how to get textbooks cheap (like when they have the 'everything must go' sale that sells new, surplus textbooks for a pittance). Woo.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 12:36 AM on July 25, 2007

I always refer to things in quantities of metric fucktons, if that helps.

God I hate american measurements.
posted by Stunt at 12:45 AM on July 25, 2007

Sometimes I think the textbook companies pimp out their textbooks the way drug reps give out free dinners to doctors.

That's certainly the case; I've done some work within education, in an admin role, and I was being sent textbooks.

But now the worm has turned, and I've shelled out $600 this year. Times that by the life of my degree...
posted by oxford blue at 2:14 AM on July 25, 2007

I always bought used, unless all the used copies were gone or the only ones left had pages falling out. And I kept almost all my textbooks, mainly because the prices the bookstore offered to buy them back at were pitiful. Some I gave away or sold to other students, but all the books for my major and minor are still here, and still bearing their little yellow "USED SAVES" stickers.
posted by emmastory at 3:49 AM on July 25, 2007

Isn't this the sort of thing the market is supposed to sort out? For example, a couple of years ago I considered selling some old textbooks on the net, and the 2nd hand prices were so low I decided to just hang on to them. Though I'm in the UK, I can't understand how efficient channels for reselling haven't materialised state-side.
posted by MetaMonkey at 3:54 AM on July 25, 2007

I couldn't handle using a book someone else had used.

Is this just textbooks or all used books? Super weird. I love the used books, including textbooks. As long as they're not absurdly highlighted.
posted by miss tea at 4:03 AM on July 25, 2007

I work for an academic bookshop and I'm slowly seeing a trend away from texts as the new crop of more technology-savvy lecturers starts to percolate up the ivory tower.

A large percentage of lecturers at my particular institution produce their own notes which are printed and bound pretty much at cost via the Uni Printery. People don't mind paying between $10 and $40 for a bound collection of photocopies when the alternative is a $150 text. Even here, some lecturers aren't bothering to print the notes but are putting them online for the students.

Granted, there are at least two schools (Accounting and Law) where there absolutely has to be a text that's updated every year (tax and legistlation) but - as others have pointed out - there really isn't enough change within most mathematics subjects to warrent new editions.

Publishers are fighting back with "added content" which is code for "we're too cheap to do a new edition so we'll put small but strategic portions online and then bundle the book with a single-use password". Another up and coming trick is the dreaded "Custom Publication", where a publisher takes chunks out of an assortment of their own publications according to the whim of the lecturer and throws it together in a quickie paperback with the lecturer's name on it. These sit somewhere between printed notes and texts with the added dis/advantage that the content can change randomly from one semester to the next.

The best advise has already been given: wait until some classmates drop out and buy their books, get the textlists and see what can be purchased secondhand, compare editions and photocopy any changes from the correct edition that most libraries keep on closed reserve etc etc.

One last note: most universities have provision for hardship cases. It's been my experience that the truly needy rarely apply and a lot of our "hardship vouchers" seem to end up with friends of the issuing organisation.
posted by ninazer0 at 4:49 AM on July 25, 2007

I frequently find new textbooks on Amazon (from Marketplace sellers, generally) cheaper than the used textbooks in the bookstore. The used ones on Amazon are even cheaper, sometimes to the tune of a third of the MSRP or less.

Purchasing all of my textbooks new at the campus bookstore would have cost me about $610 US for the five courses that require textbooks this fall.
posted by musicinmybrain at 5:10 AM on July 25, 2007

Alsso: don't teachers get - basically - bribed to use a given book, similar to how doctors are given free junkets to prescribe certain drugs?

Not really, except for LarryC's example (which I've never seen).

The closest you get are related goodies. Some texts come with test bank software, so that you don't have to write all of your own test questions. Some come with different sorts of online materials for students. Some come with free overheads, or with yet other kinds of labor-saving devices.

The thing that might really piss off students is that publishers also mail unprompted, unrequested free books to us perfessers. That $150 book? I got one in the mail one day without asking for it, or evincing any interest whatsoever. I get a bunch of unrequested books every semester, and of course most of them suck ass. So I put them in a pile on the floor, still in their shrinkwrap, and once or twice a semester a dude from a used book company comes around and buys them from me. So through a long chain of wossname, some of your $150 ends up buying me dinner, or a trip to the dvd store.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:01 AM on July 25, 2007

I used to work for Major College Publisher You Have Heard Of. LarryC nails it.

The worse part? Most of us working there were paid shit wages....our company was repeatedly sued by hourly employees who were pressured to work overtime with no extra pay, and contract workers who were also being screwed over. Wherever that money was going, it wasn't to us.

The sales guys were gods there, and they wanted new editions every year. Our department made all the useless "ancillaries" i.e., CD-ROMs that no one used, to go with the textbooks, and it was a real ass-pain to do QC on a new CD-ROM just because the chapters got reshuffled.

I don't recall any meeting, ever, where concern for the costs of books to students was ever raised. The company figured, hell, that's what loans were for.
posted by emjaybee at 6:08 AM on July 25, 2007

I'm in Australia - many of my textbooks are used in two or three courses, which makes them worth buying. I usually have the previous edition, and have to figure out that chapter 25 is now chapter 11, but that's worth $100 easily. This semester I needed three books, selling for $270 at the campus bookstore. I ordered them online from, from India and the UK, new for $100 all up and free shipping - I could have bought them second hand on Amazon, but it would have been closer to the campus price (plus shipping).
posted by jacalata at 6:08 AM on July 25, 2007

They are very attractive women who flirt with the codgers and flatter them and get the old bastards all dizzy. I of course remain unruffled by such an obvious ploy.

BA HA HA HA HA HAAAAAAAAAAA!. As someone who spends two weeks a year in some hotel in some cheap city with our national sales force, I would like to ask which company it is that has this League Of Publishing Rep Sirens wandering the states, because I will absolutely quit this company to go work for that one. Also, I have spent time with our reps on campus and I can ASSURE you, particularly in the sciences, that most of these 'codgers' would rather teach a freshman bio course at a community college for the rest of their lives than spend 15 minutes talking to a publishing rep.
posted by spicynuts at 6:16 AM on July 25, 2007

I've worked on a couple of "Custom Publishing" engines (from the technology side) and the idea is certainly sound. A professor who might normally require 3 textbooks can now pick out the relevant chapters from each and publish a single print-on-demand text for the class. Usually the pricing model is a flat entry fee plus a per-page cost, which probably comes in under the price of a $150 shiny full-color hardback.

Personally, my experience was that professors are too lazy to make use of such a system, but when I went to college teachers were still requiring their TAs to print out all their emails. Younger professors (who are themselves more sympathetic to textbook cost inflation) could really make use of them if they tried.
posted by nev at 6:51 AM on July 25, 2007

Seconding miss tea's comments about highlighting. I always bought used books, unless the only one I could find was highlighted to hell and back.

I will never understand how it is beneficial to highlight every single sentence, perhaps leaving out the articles. People who do this should be punished by never being allowed to sell their books back.

I went to a large state school, and the only classes in which you got burnt for not buying the latest edition of the text were the physical sciences. Lots of professors would put older editions outside their doors at the end of the semester, to be picked up for free. This was great in situations where you could use an previous edition, but cruel mockery for the classes that punished you for not being completely up to date.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 7:03 AM on July 25, 2007

Let's band together and start a cheap university that uses dover thrift editions to teach things like calculus and logic. Who's with me?
posted by drezdn at 7:59 AM on July 25, 2007

After years of not ordering and having textbooks on the shelves because of issues with theft, our library has started providing copies of all the general requirement courses textbooks on reserve. And of course, the students seem to love it. You can check it out for 24 hours, copy the sections you need and it's way cheaper than actually buying the book.
posted by teleri025 at 8:23 AM on July 25, 2007

Here's the thing. I would love to be able to use the 5th edition of when I teach calculus. But the bookstore can't order me copies of the 5th edition, and at my small liberal arts college, there aren't enough used copies to go around. So if I want all my students to have the same textbook (which is definitely preferable!), I need to use a text that the bookstore can order, which means I have to switch to the 6th edition myself.

It's even more frustrating when textbook publishers pull the thing that they did to my linear algebra text, and issue a "third edition update". I still don't know how it differs from the third edition---but when I requested to use the third edition (not the update), all the bookstore could get in was the update, because that was all the publisher was willing to send.

posted by leahwrenn at 9:27 AM on July 25, 2007

Seconding leahwrenn - the profs at the (Canadian) university I attend can't even opt to use older editions, because the bookstore can't or won't order in anything older than the most recent edition. Sometimes they'll tell you that it's alright if you happen to find an older edition, but they say it in a whisper and warn you not to spread it around or they could get in trouble for suggesting it.
posted by arcticwoman at 10:06 AM on July 25, 2007

Textbooks? Pah! Wait until you have to spend $500+ bucks on brushes and oil paints, or buy powdered cobalt and cadmium by the pound. I used to think books were a racket until I had to buy art supplies. Of course I'm still using this stuff five years on, so it's not totally lost, but the initial sticker shock made the university bookstore seem like a walk in the park.
posted by 1f2frfbf at 10:16 AM on July 25, 2007

Apparently one professor agrees:
Professor Says Textbooks Are Too Expensive, Quits Using Them
posted by daHIFI at 11:33 AM on July 25, 2007

I, too, worked for several years for Major College Publisher. They were well aware that their business model was outdated and their prices unsupportable, and their response to this was basically to have a meeting in which they all stuck their fingers in their ears and went "LA LA LA LA LA", and then to have a meeting to discuss the events of the previous meeting. The biggest market for textbooks is community colleges where the students absolutely cannot afford to pay for their books, and they know this, but they don't care. There was an institutional sense of outrage that the students would be "going behind their backs" and buying books used, downloading them, borrowing them, etc. How DARE they threaten our way of life?
The thing is, they are well aware that they are becoming an obsolete industry, and directly contributing to their downfall by exorbitantly overcharging, but they absolutely refuse to do anything about it. Their typical response is to chuck more unecessary features into a book to justify the prices and the constant "new" editions. A DVD with paid actors basically doing nothing but reciting chapters of the book. A new full-color insert of some guy's MRI. We spent thousands and thousands of dollars on "supplemental media" solely in order to give the sales reps (who were, almost across the board, bubbleheaded idiots) a new talking point.
Also...these books are not that expensive. We outsourced almost all of the printing and binding to China and used inferior paper whenever possible. A physiology text with full four-color art, that retails for $150, cost us roughly $1.83 per copy, for a print run of $50,000. Not that anyone at the company below the level of VP ever saw any of the resulting profits.
Sorry for the length of this comment, but honestly, that place was horrible. It was staffed, on every level and in every department, by mediocre bureaucrats whose sole goal was to squeeze every possible dollar out of kids who were just trying to learn. Fuck them.
posted by Dormant Gorilla at 11:52 AM on July 25, 2007

Sorry, print run of 50,000 copies, not dollars. And I'm a proofreader. Oh, dear.
posted by Dormant Gorilla at 11:54 AM on July 25, 2007

Three words: Library course reserves.
posted by jdotglenn at 1:54 PM on July 25, 2007

In addition to Textbook Revolution's good work, here are a few more seminal projects that have set out to change the face textbook publishing.

The Connexions Project (mostly post-K-12 textbooks)
The Connections Project

K-12 texbooks
The California Open Source Textbook Project: Advisory Summary
The California Open Source Textbook Project

Open Source Textbooks: a Wikipedia project (all levels)
posted by MetaMan at 4:51 PM on July 25, 2007

I am baffled that there are people who don't want to buy used textbooks. Did the person who read it first somehow drain the useful information out of it? Or are they afraid of cooties? I can't understand why anyone would want to buy a new book.

Well, you do run a slight risk that the last person to use it highlighted/otherwise marked it up heavily. Some consider that a bonus, but I find it obnoxious. Or there could be spills or weird smells (cigarette smoke), things like that. That's only really a concern if you're buying online, though, and can't flip through it to check.
posted by Many bubbles at 6:41 PM on July 25, 2007

« Older Welcome To The Top of Europe   |   Kiiiiiii for any occasion, or just for fun! Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments