An Analysis of the Post-Secondary Textbook System

Book Burning

The absurd price of university textbooks is as much a part of post-secondary culture as frat parties and sleep deprivation. For generations, students of all disciplines are forced to shell out as much as 300 dollars for one textbook for a single course. Students will spend from 1000-1500 dollars for a year of study on textbooks alone! The truth of this scenario is more bizarre than one would imagine.

In the general market, paper in bulk is sold at around 70 dollars per ton and laser printer toner is sold at 120 dollars per Liter. This makes the printing of a 1200 page hard cover, color text book be at most 10-15% of the cost. The industry standard dividend towards authors is around 8-12% and transportation being 5%, with another 10 % of the cost going towards book marketing. This brings the mark up on textbooks to be an astonishing 58% – 67%!

Now before you march into the Western book store with pitchforks and torches for stealing your money, keep this in mind: publishers make most of the profits from the textbooks. The general profit from the sales of books at a bookstore is 40%, however in the case of textbooks many bookstores drop the margin to 25%. It is what is required to make a profit off of the operations of opening a bookstore and cannot really be helped. The remainder is sent to the publishing company, for the mere facilitation of the book making operations. Companies like Pearson, McGraw, Oxford and Nelson hold almost the entire textbook market. They can make outrageous margins like this because they lack viable alternatives. Even if you buy a used textbook or rent a textbook, these companies use add-ons like e-learning software to pocket another 60-80 dollars from your wallet. No matter what you do, there is no way to completely stay away from these monsters during your post- secondary experience.

With that doom and gloom paragraph out of the way, alternatives do exist that will save you a relevant amount of money on textbooks. All of you should be aware of alternative book sellers like Amazon and Slugbooks for cheap alternatives or to buy used books from higher year students, but other alternatives are out there. E-books are a great option, as they provide a portable and cheap alternative to the old ink and paper model. They can even be found for free, but that per say isn’t exactly “legal” hint hint wink wink. Renting a textbook is now a new and popular alternative on book selling websites. For around 15% of the price of your textbooks, you can rent your textbook for the year! Sharing a textbook can also work well depending on your roommates. This option is especially viable with half year courses with roommates in the same discipline. Finally alternatives for textbooks do exist online as well although they could never completely replace the text book, some come very close. Almost all of them are free and two I would recommend you to make use of are Khan Academy and Crash Course, both provide incredible lectures and lessons and both have an unbeatable price point of zero dollars.

This brings my article to an end. Although the western book store is far from blameless, publishing giants like Pearson, Nelson, Oxford and McGraw are the ones mostly at fault. Although, I wish the book store could throw us a bone by putting lab manuals and Western specific content online, they are but a small evil compared to the textbook publishers. The problem is very hard to solve because of the lack of alternatives. Collective bargaining and government intervention are two viable tools but both have their downsides. Collective bargaining by buying the textbooks in bulk and adding the cost to tuition, therefore cutting the middleman may save money compared to new book purchases, but are cost inefficient compared to eBooks and used textbooks. Similarly, collectively buying eBooks would anger those who dislike using them. Government intervention, would be a good idea, but generally unnecessary government intervention never leads to anything good. The list of reasons why the government should stay out of this mess is worthy of another article. The textbook system is incredibly broken but offer little in alternatives or fixes. In conclusion, why does the price of textbooks keep climbing up?  Because it can.


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