Why do textbooks cost so much? Could it be...a conspiracy?

I used to be an English teacher at what Penthouse forum would call "a major mid-Atlantic university." One of the things about teaching English is that it's impossible to escape the high cost of books. Unlike PE teachers, art professors, or the guys who teach underwater basket weaving, English instructors have to assign texts, which means that our students end up having to lay out a lot of dough.

I fought against this by carefully choosing my books. Whenever I assigned a text, I would look at all the available editions and consider the benefits versus the costs of each one. I often used xeroxed copies of stories or placed reserve copies in the library to reduce my students' textbook burden, and prided myself on the relatively cheap cost of supplies for my classes.

One year, attempting to standardize its introductory classes, my department developed an in-house textbook. Initially, using the book was a voluntary choice, but over the years, the department textbook became required for every freshman English class. For a while, this wasn't too much of a problem; the textbook was pretty decent, and I can honestly say that it helped my students. In my final year, however, the department came out with a completely worthless edition of the damned thing. It cost $90, and I was required to assign it in my classes. In my last semester, I decided against using it, which earned me some stink-eye from a few colleagues, but little else. On the other hand, I had already announced my decision to leave teaching.

One of the reasons that my bosses were so adamant about the textbook was the fact that the publisher kicked back a percentage of the profits from every copy sold. This money ended up funding department grants, small scholarships, and other worthwhile programs. At least, that's what we were told; I never saw any numbers on the actual disbursement of these impressive funds.

I was somewhat disgusted about all of this, seeing it as a major sell-out. While I appreciated that the money generated from the textbook made it possible for the department to do all sorts of wonderful things, I also am a strong believer in the freedom of choice and an open market. By giving the department textbook a monopoly, my bosses were discouraging competition; this became particularly troubling when the new, miserable edition was released.

When I told my wife about this, I received a major wake-up call. As a textbook buyer for the university, she had seen deals that made my department's collusion look like child's play. For example, one program required that all its students buy a textbook that had been written by the department head. Every year, the head wrote a short teaching insert, which meant that previous editions of the book were useless. This, in turn, minimized textbook buyback and the loss of revenue caused by used books. The head of the department was paid more than $200,000 for writing the original book and received a significant sum for every insert that he authored. This deal was far from uncommon; in fact, academics and publishers had made devil's bargains throughout the university.

As my colleague Zac Bissonnette mentioned in an earlier post, one solution to this scuzzy little process is to rent textbooks. As he pointed out, renting books significantly reduces the cost of texts; the trouble is that, in spite of the excesses of the publishing industry and academia, textbooks can be outstanding resources. Even now, years after I left school, I still have some of my undergraduate textbooks and use them for reference. Returning textbooks at the end of the semester may be a fiscally-sound solution, but it seems a little short-sighted.

One solution that I proposed to my students was sharing textbooks. Not only did this encourage them to get to know each other, but it also helped offset an almost back-breaking expense. At the end of the semester, the textbook pair could negotiate over who got to keep the book. One partner would get a textbook, while the other would get a little bit of money. Many of my students followed this suggestion and found that it worked well.

Another solution that I suggested was that they use ABE books, a site that allows users to search the stocks of over 19,000 independent booksellers. ABE's textbook prices are often comparable to the cost of book rental, with the added benefit of allowing the buyer to keep the book.

Textbook collusion is a major problem and it's only getting worse. For publishers, students represent a huge captive market, and the lure of filthy money is an irresistible temptation for many underpaid academics. Until Universities enact ethics rules for textbook selection (and, by the way, I wouldn't hold your breath), it will be the responsibility of savvy students to ensure that they don't get screwed.

Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and all-around cheapskate. He never pays retail for his books.

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