How Your Textbook Dollars Are Divvied Up

New editions and high-tech supplements help drive up the cost of textbooks.

College students in the aisles of the Georgetown University bookstore.
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For this reason, e-textbooks that are gaining prominence in the marketplace may not be much cheaper than their physical counterparts. Content, not paper, is the key cost in producing a book, says Rich Hershman, director of government relations at NACS. And the cost of bringing textbooks into the digital age may even push book costs higher.

"Investment in technology has been a major, major driver of where they've been putting their investments," says Hershman.

Will Ethridge, chief executive of Pearson North America, told the New York Times earlier this month that over the past decade his company has invested $9.3 billion in new digital educational tools.

It's not just high-tech add-ons that are pushing the price of the books. Publishers claim that old-fashioned reselling adds to the cost.

"The single greatest contributor to the price of a textbook is a used textbook," says Hildebrand. As students use these as substitutes for new books, in other words, it creates fiscal pressures on publishers.

Of course, telling that to a the line of students at the GWU checkout counter may not inspire them to trade their books in for the new versions. (Just as a crowd of students suddenly willing to pay full price may not inspire publishers to pull their prices downward.)

Hildebrand also raises another point that might be lost on a student standing in the biology aisle: Higher education costs are also rising. For a student who will eventually accrue tens (or hundreds) of thousands in student debt, he points out, textbooks are just a small part of the large cost puzzle.

While students may be taking on more and more debt that they will largely deal with after graduation, Allen says that high textbook prices mean students become much more cash-strapped while they are still pursuing their degrees.

[See how to find textbooks cheap.]

"Especially at community colleges and institutions where there's much lower tuition, textbooks really can be one of the largest expenses students face," she adds.

According to Student Monitor data, students buy only around 77 percent of all required textbooks. Not all of this is cost-related: 23 percent of students report that their professors don't use all of the "required" books. But 22 percent of students say they didn't buy all of their books because they couldn't afford a new book and 10 percent said they couldn't afford a used copy.

Students cut costs by skipping some of their books, says Weil, but other more recent phenomena—textbook rentals and Amazon, for example—have made for a counterintuitive pattern: "The cost of textbooks is going up, but what students spend for textbooks has declined," he says. While students spend around $535 now, he says, that is down from $669 in 2005-2006.

Students who don't like their textbook costs may not be able to influence the publishers, but they could maybe go to the middleman—the professor that picks the books. Not that the professors can always do much about it.

"If I need to have the book, the difference between one book versus another book in terms of price tends not to be that great," says David Reibstein, professor of marketing at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

As both a textbook author and assigner, Reibstein has a unique perspective on the matter of what goes into a textbook. He says that even though many basic concepts do not change, regular updates to textbooks, in his field at least, are necessary, if only to make sure that examples are current and relatable.

As for all of those high-tech supplements, he says, it's simply a matter of what professors (and publishers) prefer.

"Publishers tell me that many people who do use the textbooks do use those exercises, and therefore it's going to make it more useful if I share my approach to it with others," he says.

That may work for some professors, but not him.

"I've been teaching for a long time, and I've never used any of that," he says, which may save his students some time in front of the computer. Then again, use it or not, it's something they're all still paying for.