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Why college textbooks are a rip off

November 3, 2007

My freshman year of college, I believe I spent about $500 on college text books. Looking back, it was a foolish mistake, but I didn’t know better at the time.

My first mistake was that I assumed that when a class said a text was required, they meant it. This turned out to be not true. Sometimes it was, sometimes it wasn’t. Second, I bought books too late and there were no used ones left. Third, I didn’t check the internet to compare prices.

Really, I think the college textbook industry is a huge rip off. If you’ve ever taken a class that recently switched from, say, edition 5 to edition 6, you may have noticed that the differences in the editions was primarily in the problem sets. Some texts may have major updates, but for the most part, the facts stay the same. Often times, the problems aren’t even completely different, just altered in a minor way. How frustrating.

Not all professors played the game. One professor said that a text was required, but we could get any standard text relating to Control Systems we wanted. He pointed us to Amazon. He taught primarily from his lecture notes (and a text wasn’t truly necessary), saving me about $100 that semester.

Also, why are we only given the option of hardcover texts? My boyfriend insists he loves hardcovers because they last longer (whatever). Shouldn’t I have the option to easily purchase softcover to save some money? I did a semester in Hong Kong, and their book store didn’t contain a single hardcover text for class. Not only that, but many of the students didn’t buy the text anyway, as the professor often scanned the necessary material for the students. While that may violate some sort of copyright laws, not offering the softcover versions to US students seems unfair. In fact, I brought the two texts I bought (for a reasonable price!) in Hong Kong and sold them on Amazon in the US. I probably made a small profit, even though I priced them lower than the similar hardcover versions. Abebooks.com often offers softcover “international” versions of college texts. I used one from there for one of my graduate classes last semester.

At the end of the semester, the college bookstore offers to buy back your textbooks from you. This is another rip off. They try to tell you that buying and selling your books through the book store is “good for the college” because they donate money to various student groups. I’d much rather that they offer me a fair price for my books! If I can sell it for $70 on Amazon, and the bookstore will sell it for $90 in the store next fall, why on earth would I give it to them for $45?

I would speculate that this scam of the textbook industry trickles down to high school and elementary school, but since the books are provided for “free” (with tax money), people aren’t as aware of it. I went to a private school and we had to buy our own textbooks. Rather than the bookstore running a scam to make profits off of used books, each family would put an envelop with a price inside the book they were offering to sell. The students formed a big line (I think you got a place according to a raffle number) and you would pick the books you wanted to buy. You’d pay the amount listed on the envelope, which was later given to the parent. Unless a class was switching editions, you could come out about even every year.

In later years of college, you could sometimes do a similar thing with classmates a semester ahead of you. These days, with facebook and other social networking sites hooking up buyers and sellers more easily, I wonder if anyone still shops at the bookstore.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. Nivek permalink
    November 9, 2007 3:55 am

    I hardly open my books and can still pull down A’s. I keep buying them thinking that this time, I’ll actually need them. They are almost as big of a rip off as the over-priced tuition.

  2. Anonymous permalink
    January 31, 2008 6:06 pm

    this is my first year of college. I bought books from a bookstore near the campus and sold them back and I got ripped off. I then bought my books from the school for spring semester. At the end of this semester I plan to sell them all online to get more money, and I will also buy online! I feel so stupid, but I am glad I figured this out early.

  3. Christo permalink
    May 9, 2010 10:24 am

    Yeah, biggest scam going. I even try to prod professors to see if they’re the type that professes their knowledge or the type that lets a publisher do the teaching for them. In one class, I had to buy the book just so I could get some lousy code off the inside cover so I could do my homework online and let a server grade it for the professor. Makes you wonder why we even get professors. If I do buy a book, which is rare, I buy it off Amazon and usually make a gleeful announcement in class that I only paid $13 for it on Amazon. It’s my money and I’m not letting some for-profit organization dictate how I give it to them based on some cleverly orchestrated curriculum and 55th edition of an unchanged book. Maybe I should change my major to allow me to get in on the ultimate college scam; seems to be where the money is at.

  4. June 15, 2010 8:33 am

    I think when it comes to criminal activity, the textbook industry comes in at a photo finish with the banking and oil industry. I would pay $97 for a USED 100 course book. Geography. I finish the term and call the book stores around campus to see how much each one is offering to buy back or IF they’re even buying it back because the publishing companies, apparently, somehow manage to convince the Health and Sciences department that “YOU NEED TO USE THE MOST UP TO DATE VERSION.” So the used 4th edition I bought in the Spring is useless as tits on a rooster to someone else by Summer or Fall. One of the book stores I called, the girl says, “Oh, I’m like, not sure about that onnnne. We have to like, wait until the falllll because that class isn’t going on for the summerrr and you’ll like, probably get next to nothing for iiiit.”….. sigh. Thanks.
    My favorite part of the term is when the publishing companies send out their minions to collect data by coming into my classroom, handing out a survey about the book we used that term… and to add insult to injury, the rep puts out a bowl of Hershey’s chocolates to bribe us! HA! I don’t fill out those surveys the way they “intend”. I normally write “Your textbooks are a rip-off” on the survey. On my way out, I grab a handful of candy and mutter “Thanks bitch” under my breath.

  5. someone permalink
    January 17, 2011 11:26 pm

    I recently rented books at my campus bookstore, this is another huge rip off too. Because i come back, and they claim to have no record of me returning my books, and claimed to have sent numourous emails. Not only did I return both books, but the emails were never sent by then, only 2, and one was that they received it!! They expceted me to pay 100+ for that book, that I don’t have, then called me a liar after I spent 2 hours dealing with them. I’m dealing online from now on

  6. Jay permalink
    December 11, 2011 3:51 pm

    sorry to say, I never purchased a text book after my freshman year.

    torrents, usenet, just do a search, yourbookhere pdf in google see what happens

    thank you to all the authors who didnt get paid

  7. August 24, 2012 10:23 am

    We had a professor that wrote the book for the class and then made the book a requirement. It was never used, but if you didn’t have it then you lost some points. Then other professors would say “The book is required” on their syllabus, but the first day of class they would state “we HAVE to put that on there thanks to agreements with the publisher, but you don’t have to buy it, I won’t be using it.” How do they get away with scamming people like this? A regular book that could have taken years to write will be MAYBE 10 bucks, but a college textbook skyrockets into the 150+ range? Wtf? Now they are including online codes too, so if you do manage to save money buying it used or renting it, the publisher will still make money since you are forced to buy the 50 dollar code….Tuition is so high, I don’t see why that can’t just be used for college books? Heck why not an ebook version for those that can’t afford the book? Never had to pay tuition for high school, and all those classes had books…..

  8. Eileen permalink
    January 17, 2014 4:04 am

    It’s been about eighteen years since I was in college. I made the same mistake the first semester of buying the ‘required’ book, only to discover with one class that I never opened it even once to complete the course with an A minus. Second point that still makes me mad because it is still going on is a continuation of one of the issues you brought up. Not only was there maybe some new information in the ‘new updated’ book version, but often I don’t think there was any new information at all. What the publisher would do was rearrange the chapters, mix up some paragraphs, and move pictures around. This way it was nearly impossible for a student to follow along in class with the book. If the instructor said to go to page 317 for example. The information in the old edition would be on page 284. By the time I found the info, we were already onto something else.

    The other obvious thing that comes out of this is it made it impossible to sell the old edition book to scrape at least some money out of it. Of course this also obviously denies a broke first year student the chance to save 50% or more on the cost of a book that becomes useless in three months. So a perfectly good text book gets held onto, and lugged around for five years, and three apartment moves before finally getting thrown into a garbage can, and off to a landfill site. I wandered into a University bookstore a while ago, and the equivalent of a book I paid $72.00 for in 1995 is now $195.00. Talk about inflation, and total scam.

  9. Gabe permalink
    September 19, 2014 6:56 am

    ” the bookstore will sell it for $90 in the store next fall, why on earth would I give it to them for $45″

    Back then (24 years ago), I would have gladly given it back for $45…the problem is I only saw that ratio once, or maybe twice. Usually for a new, $90 book, it was getting replaced by another version next year (that’s what they said about nearly every book, every semester) and the would only offer between $3 and $10 to buy back. I usually held on to it because (before the internet) that wasn’t a good deal as I just might need it again, though I don’t recall EVER opening any of them again. As Eileen stated, “a perfectly good text book gets held onto, and lugged around for five years, and three apartment moves before finally getting thrown into a garbage can”.

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