March 22, 2014

College Textbook Prices: Out of Control

It is a rare day when I agree with a Seattle Times editorial about an education subject, but today is that day.

The ST editorial is about out of control college textbook prices and how they are harming students.  And it's true.  In fact, even more disturbing than they describe.

Let me tell you a story.

A few years ago, I was scheduled to teach Atmospheric Sciences 101, with an expected enrollment of around 240.   Traditionally, my department had used the latest version of what we considered the best introductory textbook, one with a list price of around $130.   The U Book store planned to order a large number of  new books (which they sold at list) and have a modest number of used books at 30% off, around 95 dollars.  So perhaps they would order 150 new books.

I would inevitably get a call from a representative of  the company that distributed the book we generally used...and often several competitors.   Now keep in mind there was quite a bit of money at stake (130 x 150 = $19,500).

The book company representative called and told me about the many benefits of the latest edition.  But then it got seedy.   The representative offered to take me out to dinner...and yes, my wife was included.  And I could pick any restaurant in town.   I never accepted such offers--completely unethical.

I told the book representative that I planned to ask the University Book Store to only order  used books, acquiring additional copies on the market to get enough.  That a $130 textbook was a poor value. He said he would get back to me.

Then the next day the book company's rep called.  He said he had a special deal for me.  He would provide NEW books at a price less than the U Book Store's used price.   But to do so, I would have to either add or take away something from the book.  Add a few pages of my own or take away a chapter.  And they would change the title. In short, the same new book, but at a price just under the University Book Store used price.  A little surprising.

I agree to this deal..thinking I could save my student's some money.  But I played into the reps hands in one way:  my discount books would not be attractive to others on the used book market later and the students would have a harder time selling them back to the U Book Store...those book folks are clever!

And part of their corrupt little game is to produce new editions every year or so, even though 95+% of the books are the same.  So the "new and improved" book being pushed was hardly different than previous editions (I checked page by page).  But it would help undermine the used book market.

Smartening up a bit, my next time teaching the class I insisted on using only used books and told students to purchase any edition of the book of the past ten years.  And I told them to do their shopping online, since Amazon and others often sold $150 list books for $20-30 used.  Much cheaper than the used book price at the University Book Store. Parenthetically, my son, who was going to college at the time, bought all his books online, saving me a lot of money.

Now let me make the case that many of these textbooks are poor values.   Take a very popular book that we have used for Atmos. Sc. 101:  Ahren's Meteorology Today.  640 pages, lots of color. And     $ 161.48.   The electronic (Kindle) Version is $ 125.00.   Hard to believe.

Compare this book to another good weather book, one I am kind of fond up (see below).   Just as good color graphics and quality. 281 pages. List price of $ 29.95 but available new for $22.00 (until recently 19.95).  Used books for 5-10 dollars.  Yes, my book.   And the University of Washington Press, the publisher, must have been selling the book to Amazon at substantially less than $20.00

So using the costs per page of my book, Ahrens should list for $ 68.00 and available on Amazon for around $50.00   But Ahrens is one of the most popular 101 books in the U.S. and has huge volumes...and thus should be cheaper. And virtually all the material is found in past (and FAR cheaper) editions.

How many ways can one spell R-I-P O-F-F?   To get faculty hooked,  Ahrens offers all kinds of extras for the instructor, like test questions, visuals, and homework questions.   Not much use for the student's though.

There are a number of other introductory atmospheric sciences book with crazy high prices, like this one at $135.00

As described in the Seattle Times editorial and in many other places, textbook prices have gone up much faster than inflation.   It has become a significant proportion of student education costs.  Many students are NOT purchasing required textbooks, something I confirmed last time I taught 101.   I try to ensure there are few copies in the UW library under short-term loan, but those are always checked out.

Why has the current system continued to exist?  There is certainly a lot of self-interest going on. Textbook companies make a killing.  Professors who write textbooks make a lot more royalties for expensive books.  And college book stores, which get a percentage of the transactions, bring in much more with high-priced books.   And book publishers play up to faculty with exam/hw materials, prepared powerpoints, and a lot more.  Everyone does well except the debt-laden student.

Fortunately, technology offers a way to deal with the problematic publishers.  Professors such as myself need to create books that are in the public domain and available electronically.  There are a number of groups working for free or inexpensive online college textbooks.

 I am trying to get my department to create an introductory meteorology  textbook.  We have experts in all major areas of atmospheric sciences.  Each of us could write a chapter on our specialty area, which would be easy for us since we know the material.   A pretty decent online book could be written is a few weeks that way, certainly at least as good, if not better, than the expensive ones shown above.  Perhaps we could charge $30 for it and use the money for an undergraduate scholarship.  I really hope my colleagues will work with me on this project.

And, if you think college textbook prices are a problem, K-12 text prices are just as bad.


  1. Preaching to the choir, but I would argue it is almost worse for business college books (especially the accounting courses). Yes, GAAP and FASB, etc may change/be updated every now and then, but these could be handled with an addendum, a PDF, etc. But NO, NEW accounting book. Each Year. Starting at $130. And this was in the early 90s.

    Big time scam.

    And used buy-back - maybe 10-$17.

  2. I think you're idea is great! Perhaps the Open Education Resources (OER) movement can succeed by offering not free, but lower cost textbooks by using the model you suggest in your blog. Google is attempting to help students by offering digital textbooks for rent in the Google Play for Education store.

  3. UW Student Here,

    Thanks for being one professor that exposes the textbook industry and wants to save students money. I'm in my freshman year and just finished my second quarter and have realized all the ways that the textbook industry is working against the student.

    I've had a love-hate relation with custom editions, my chemistry book was great when I only had to take one quarter and not the entire series. But if I had to take the entire series, it would be better to buy the entire book from a competitive source like Amazon and just not the chapters covered in each quarter. But it took my money in a composition class when the English department makes a new compilation of readily available essays and short stories and has the bookstore sell for $80. Bonus: had the book the whole quarter because we were told we would use it a bunch, but only had to open it twice. $40/assignment that was turned it.

    I've taken a Solidworks class on campus and will being taking a MATLAB class next quarter. Being programs that are widely used outside of academia, the books are way more affordable coming from a regular publisher and not a textbook division and are also written for people in the industry and not just for students.

    There's also the reliance on online homework sites like ALEKS and WebAssign. Each quarter, students have to pay to complete the homework on poorly designed, difficult to use websites.

    After two quarters, I'm over $700 and will probably be close to $900 by the time I get everything for Spring. I've recovered around $200 selling unneeded books and other items.

    The physics series is worse with all the online subscriptions the class takes and the consumable books that you have to buy each quarter and can't sell to anyone once you've written in them. They purposefully designed everything to keep the publishers in business and money flowing the professors who authored it. It's the opposite of your admirable goal.

    The $1200 estimated textbooks and supplies amount listed in the admitted student brochure is unfortunately true.

    I do like the idea of having a course pack produced that would be both reasonable priced and always up-to-date, perhaps even available online too.

    The bookstore is very disconnected from the economic reality, I know people that have gotten their books off Amazon and made a profit when selling them back.

    Thanks again for being reasonable and looking to help students.

  4. Man, I remember - back in the early 1980s - when I thought it was an expensive quarter if the total for ALL my books was much over $100!

  5. Trying to something similar in the world of Computer Science. Check out this blog post if you are interested in the experience thus far:

    Long story short: Make material available for free. Charge for printed copies, self published through a site such as

  6. In my view, this is another contribution to a broken HE market. Students should not have to pay for anything other than tuition in order to learn the subject. Maybe a laptop (and of course living costs). In the UK there is much less demand on textbooks, because we don't have the same pushy publishers. Academics and institutions play on this in the US and someone is profiting niclely from it. Luckily, movements like OER help, although they are not that widely adopted. Another space for growth is flipped classrooms, blended and online learning. If academics realise that they are the subject matter expert and can be captured, design good learning activities and consider the use of library and OER materials then surely these shitty textbooks disappear? It would be a much richer learning experience for students too.

    Secondly, they have to realise this before the publishers do, otherwise it's cat and mouse all over again.

  7. Amazon has Ahrens 2008 Meterology Today for rent for 23.43, the 2014 version rents at $47.75. The UC Davis bookstore rents texts walk-in such that one does not need to do the mailing part. Talk to the UW bookstore about textbook rental, it does not look like they offer the service.

  8. And this problem is bigger than higher education! Public schools, especially high schools, suffer in exactly the same way. But in this case, it is the taxpayers who pick up the tab since schools have to provide the books. There are several important open source initiatives that will hopefully change this game of self interest.

  9. My university (Appalachian State) had a book rental program that saved me and my family tons of money. We didn't always have the most up-to-date textbooks, but that's what supplemental reading (@$20/book) was for.

  10. Can you explain the conditions when you say "K-12 text prices are just as bad"


  11. Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Google, or Wikipedia would have ability and resources to do this. I do not see any reason not to charge $15-30 for a good text, and use much of the money for revisions and additions.

    Son, physics and math at UW managed to get through four years without buying any expensive texts.

  12. Awesome post---especially the idea about the department-press whose profits go to scholarships.

    I remember reading in a business book about the extensive sales budgets that textbook publishers have---some part of this surely went for dinners with Profs!

    I too recognized this scam so I started a textbook company to make affordable textbooks for undergraduates. With LaTeX typesetting and for printing, anyone can be Gutenberg!

    As someone who spent the last five years writing and editing science texts, I can say that the time requirements of finalizing, editing and copy editing a textbook are not to be underestimated. Will the initial authors have time to maintain the book? If Profs could elicit the help of their students for editing tasks and fixes, this could totally work though...

    On subject of high school textbooks, there is some good news because the new common core math state standards are forcing textbook publishers to rewrite all their books. For the next three years they'll be scrambling to produce adequate content which will loosen their choke hold on the market.

    If I were in the stock market, I'd be shorting the textbook companies...

  13. @ryamkajr,

    The engineering fundamentals books are also incredibly expensive. Starting at $200 for a new copy with the online access code included. I'm not sure how much the study of statics and dynamics could change year-to-year.

  14. And despite years and years of escalating costs, you still pay them.
    Believe me, I've wanted books I couldn't afford, but that doesn't mean I was forced to support the publishing effort. Thanks to not attending a university(I'm neither proud nor ashamed), nobody ever told me to buy an esoteric book as necessary reading for a course I was already paying thousands of dollars for. So I would just read alternative material, and formulate my own coursework.

    You guys should have pivoted to writing common materials ages ago.

    If you really wanted to save money for college students, you would have written an equivalent book and sell it with O'Reilly or some other non-crackpot publisher, and done this at least a half decade ago. This way you can sell hard copies /and/ release it under a free license(such as a Creative Commons license).

    It's easy enough to blame your dog for biting you, but then again, why do you keep a dog?

  15. In the meantime, make sure that a list of required texts (with ISBNs) is available to students weeks before the start of class so that they can shop around. At the very least, they can order or rent from Amazon or other online merchant and save (in my experience)30% on purchasing new books.

  16. Shameless plug: I built a textbook search engine in college that looks up prices on Amazon, Chegg,, and 35 others at the same time. Amazon usually doesn't have the best price, and you can save an additional ~40% getting the same book somewhere else:

  17. For a number of courses, other professors and I provided lecture notes for graduate courses which were designed to become books but never did. New findings and interpretations, partly based on classroom experiences, kept the subject too fluid to ever be set in concrete. That was back in the copier era.

    The content for introductory courses dosen't change that fast and one edition in paperback privately published wouldn't make any money for a professor and wouldn't bankrupt students. And it would be ethical.

  18. Free and online sounds fantastic - kudos to you. In a world where information is more available than ever before, why should it cost so much for college students?

  19. Cliff, as a current UW student and a former 101 student with you this past autumn... I completely agree with you and tell me friends to buy through amazon in almost all circumstances.

    For instance I recently bought a book on amazon is great shape for $ my amazement, the university bookstore gave me $22 for that same book! Talk about a big profit

  20. Are the royalties that great? I had assumed that (as is the case with conference papers) professors were essentially providing this material for next to nothing and it was just pure profit for the publishers. Their incentive for writing the book is to add to their portfolio for tenure review or (if they already have tenure) to help expand the corpus of human knowledge.

    I did have a few professors (in the pre-Internet days) whose textbooks consisted of photocopies of books they and others were working on, sometimes interspersed with old lecture notes when a chapter hadn't been written yet. Those were some of the best books I had, and they were naturally quite cheap.

    Primary and secondary education have lower prices per book, but that's purely because the publishers can sell vast quantities since the book is often mandated by a school board or even larger entity. That brings an entirely separate issue: the folks reviewing the textbooks have little or no knowledge of the subject or practice in education, so they don't really know what to look for. (And, if you've read Richard Feynman's Surely You're Joking book, they usually don't even read the books they're reviewing.)

  21. Thanks for this article! One suggestion: professors who write textbooks don't have to choose between traditional publishers and the public domain. There are flexible licenses that balance the interests of readers and writers, including those from Creative Commons. I release most of my books under CC licenses, and publish some of them with publishers who "get it". Anyone can use the free versions, but I also make some money.

  22. I served as a parent volunteer on the textbook committee for my child's middle school. Unbelievably, we were expected to evaluate the texts and supporting materials without knowing the prices. I had to research the prices on line. They were buried on a state education website.

    Today, I received an email from William Trench, a math professor and textbook author. He has teamed up with other faculty to make their textbooks available for free through their digital commons project.

    Perhaps UW can do the same?

  23. I struggled with this when I taught a business writing course at UW-Bothell. When I took the class over, the prior quarter's books were nearly $200. I kept a grammar reference book ($50), added a cheap book on persuasion ($30), and created a bunch of reference material from online sources.

    The next quarter, I did only the grammar reference book.

    What the Times article glossed over was the cottage industry of professors requiring their own books. I strongly believe it is flat-out unethical and if universities keep allowing it, they should institute two safeguards

    (1) The professor receives no royalties for books sold to his/her students
    (2) The publisher should offer strong discounts on texts to students taugh by the book's author.

    This would remove the strong conflicts of interest.

  24. Cliff, good on you for highlighting this. Better on you if you can actually do something about it. What an outrage.

  25. Absolutely spot on! I've started collecting older additions of Ahren's text to loan to my meteorology students. Looking forward to using your low cost text if/when you recruit a forum to produce a low cost option. Keep up the great work!

    Meteorology Professor
    WBU - Anchorage Campus

  26. Senior Lecturer here,
    I know this post is about a year old but it still rings true for me. I hate assigning textbooks that are so expensive. A colleague of mine and some others have been developing this site; We have started using it in class. They are still adding subject areas but so far I can teach most of my introductory geology courses for the most with out a text if I use this site. Thanks for your post.


Please make sure your comments are civil. Name calling and personal attacks are not appropriate.

Is Global Warming Causing Aircraft Turbulence to Increase?

 After the turbulence encounter by a Singapore Airlines aircraft,  there has been a slew of articles claiming that severe turbulence inciden...