Overcome the supply and demand problem
As you probably know, textbooks in the United States are outrageously expensive. Since 2002 the average cost of new textbooks has risen 40%, and the average student spends about $1000 per semester on textbooks alone.
There are a number of reasons for this, but the primary one is obvious once you stop to think about it: supply and demand.
Who controls textbook demand?
In an ideal economy, demand is controlled by the consumers. Lots of people want microwaves, demand for microwaves goes up, and microwave salesmen can afford to take a family vacation to Walt Disney World.
When it comes to textbooks though, students don’t control demand: professors do. Publishing companies know this, so they send free editions or instructor editions to the profs as free evaluation samples, so professors don’t have to see the huge prices that students will pay. To add insult to injury, students don’t have an alternate option. You can’t say: “I’m not going to pay that outrageous price for a microwave, I’ll just use a stove to heat my food!” because there’s not really a “stove” equivalent in the textbook world.
Since the professors are the ones who create demand, publishing companies try to court them. They send free Instructor Editions and offer “supplemental“ resources like online videos or homework that automatically scores and grades for professors, an understandably appealing feature that can save the profs a lot of time and effort. Your professors are more likely to choose a book they’ve been given for free, and the professors don’t have to worry about the cost because it doesn’t affect them. Professors are happy and so are publishers, but the students who actually have to pay are not.
So, how do students regain power in this supply/demand situation?
Fighting for control
Students do have a few "stove options" when it comes to textbooks. There are used textbook sellers like Bookbyte that can offer an alternative. However, textbook publishers don’t make any money when you buy a textbook used from us, so they try to convince your professors to assign textbooks that must be bought new.
For example, many textbooks now come with "supplemental required materials" like CDs, or one-time-use codes that are required to let you access a homework website or read “exclusive” chapters only available online. If you don’t have the CD or the code, you can't do the homework, so your hand is forced. Granted, many of these supplements do have value, but often they are only included to make you to buy a new textbook. If you’re determined, you can go to the publisher’s site and buy the code by itself, but for many students that’s too inconvenient.
So we've established that the professors control the demand, not students, and we've also established that "stove options" like Bookbyte are being edged out by "one time use only" codes and other required supplemental materials. That makes it seem like you don't have much of an option.
Fortunately, there are two ways you can overcome this supply/demand problem in the textbook industry.
Regulation - Germany has fixed pricing on both new and used textbooks (as well as free college tuition) which helps them keep costs down for students. When a textbook is made, a price is set for the new version of the book and the used version of the book, with a few lower used price tiers determined based on wear. Then, no matter where you go in Germany, whether it’s the campus bookstore or Amazon or the mom and pop bookstore down the street, you pay the exact same price.
If you’re politically minded, you could also reach out to your congressional representatives and ask them to consider the rampant price increases textbooks have had in the last 10 years. This solution is more long term, but you’ve got to start somewhere, and regulation is a strategy that could help a lot of students.
Unfortunately in the US, there’s not really any current regulation to protect students from rampant price increases. Professors don’t feel the squeeze of high prices because they get their books for free, and students have no other options but to buy the textbook. Of course you can get a used copy or rent it for less money, but sourcing textbooks in those ways can still be expensive.
Because professors control most of the demand for textbooks, students can get the short end of the stick. Fortunately though, you can take the more direct route and talk to your professors.
Professors - As we’ve established, the professors are the ones who control demand. That gives them the power in this equation, if they will use it. If professors collectively refuse to assign textbooks that have outrageous price tags or require “supplemental” material that costs more than the book itself, the industry will change in response to it. That’s how supply and demand is supposed to work.
Professors aren’t evil, and they aren’t trying to make you pay as much as possible for textbooks. They’re people just like you, and they take free textbooks from the publisher because they hate paying for textbooks. If you understand this, talking to your prof is a lot easier. Bring the price to their attention and explain how burdensome it is.
Explain that being forced to buy a new textbook instead of a much cheaper used version is making it hard to afford the rest of your textbooks. Hopefully, they start making time to do a little price shopping when they consider the textbooks for the courses they teach. If nothing else, it shows that you’re an engaged student who is trying to work with them to solve a problem, instead of just complaining about it on social media.
The only way to overcome the supply/demand conundrum is for students to work with their professors to choose the cheaper, but still informational, textbooks.
And if talking to the professor or contacting a legislator isn’t something you’re willing to commit to, you can always rely on our tips to getting cheap textbooks.