Why Do Textbooks Cost So Much?

Tuition isn’t the only thing you have to worry about when it comes to college expenses. On average, students spend about $900 a year on textbooks, and that was an estimate made nearly 10 years ago. In the past 15 years, costs for college textbooks have increased by 142%, ballooning past the  44% increase of general consumer goods. It’s not uncommon now to walk into your campus’ bookstore to pick up a textbook for a “reasonable” price of $150; sometimes it’s higher. So why are textbooks so expensive?

It has to do with the major crutch of our free market system: intellectual property. Its been an issue for centuries, but within the past 20 years,  the internet had become a practical means of sharing books, movies, games, and music, inflaming the issue even more. Publishers have been trying desperately to take control back away from the consumer by applying restriction to what consumers can and can’t do with their products. If you’re at all familiar with DRM (Digital Rights Management), then you know what I’m talking about.

For textbooks, the issue is the resale of used books. Since publishers don’t make a profit off books that have previously been purchased, the authors don’t get their cut, and nobody gets paid– except for the bookstore, of course. Publishers have tried countering against this by raising prices and by releasing newer editions every 3-4 years, making older ones obsolete.

So are we the cause of the problem? If we were to begin buying textbooks new, would that help bring prices back down? Unlikely. Publishers have been following a business model that’s been working for years: set a price that everyone is willing to pay and raise it from there. As long as demand stays the same, costs will continue to rise. And since students have no control over the textbooks their professors decide to use, and since publishers almost never disclose the prices to professors, they can set their prices however high they want.