Are "Customized" Textbooks A Scam?

NPR takes a look at the growing popularity of “customized” college textbooks—textbooks that have pieces from different books sewn together, usually with a chapter or two by the professor teaching the class.

The books generally can’t be sold back to the college bookstore, nor can the student choose to buy them at another store. Professors who contribute chapters to the books are paid royalties. Is this a conflict of interest?

NPR interviewed one instructor who was in favor of “customized” textbooks. She said she had no problem requiring students to keep their textbooks, even after graduation. “Students have to trust us, they have to trust us that when we say, um, keep this textbook on your shelf, you’re going to need it. I have no problem requiring students to keep those textbooks,” she said.

That reminds us, we totally needed to go back and consult Architecture Theory since 1968, the other day. Oh wait, no. We did not.

Book Buying Among College Practices Under Scrutiny [NPR]


Edit Your Comment

  1. SOhp101 says:


  2. fluiddruid says:

    It should be against university codes to profit from royalties on required texts. It’s a complete conflict of interest, and one that is frequently abused. When that happens, these custom books will disappear.

  3. c26nyc says:

    It’s a scam now how some college textbooks release “new edition” books every year, forcing the student to buy them for 100 bucks (or more) instead of the cheaper, used version.

  4. j-o-h-n says:

    Perhaps I am odd, but I still have every one of my college texts. True, after 25 years some of them are rather amusingly outdated, but in another 25 they’ll make an interesting comparison, I’ll wager.

  5. Lin-Z [linguist on duty] says:

    I don’t mind when professors make packets because they tend to run $10-$30 which is much cheaper than a lot of other books that I need. I just recycle them after.

  6. deeness says:

    “I have no problem requiring students to keep those textbooks,”

    In the meantime, I once lived ten days off of free cereal samples a company recruiting on campus gave away.

    This lady needs to trust US that the $30 made from resale can be a big friggin deal.

  7. Yes, because textbooks are already a scam. For the custom textbooks the professors are paid royalties but for the regular textbooks professors are paid “consulting fees” for the research on the books in exchange for making the new editions required.

    That these custom textbooks forces the students to buy from one store and prevents them from selling the books later takes it beyond the level of “scam”.

    Someone ought to make a site documenting the various scammy practices that specific colleges and their employees engage it. I bet people would like to know how much a college or university hates their students before applying.

  8. elangomatt says:

    I have used customized textbooks at a “for profit” technical school that frequently advertises on TV that I won’t name. I actually would have liked to keep the textbooks after graduation for reference materials if they were actually accurate. We usually found mistakes and conflicting information in them on a weekly basis. Also the textbooks were usually so general that they would not have actually done any good as a reference material anyway.

    In all fairness to the school, towards the end of my time there, they were beginning to switch to regular books that would have been great reference materials after class. Too bad it didn’t do me much good after using the customized books for a year and a half.

  9. Shadowman615 says:

    Ugh. Even regular textbooks are a scam.

    I remember spending > $500/semester just on books when I was in college, and that was a few years back. It’s really quite a racket. Some books are more than $100 new, and new editions come out pretty much every year so no used books are available.

    What’s even worse is the newer editions are almost exactly the same — except the exercises and questions have all changed. So you still need to buy the new editions or risk not being able to complete assignments.

    One thing that helped was some of the “textbook warehouse” resellers on amazon who had identical “international” versions of the books (not supposed to be for sale in the US). Usually these were for about half price or less. Perhaps this is ethically questionable, but whatever — I certainly never felt guilty about it.

  10. adrock75 says:

    Short answer: Yes
    Long answer: Hell Yes.

  11. adrock75 says:

    I keep my textbooks because I don’t want the college to get any more money from it. I paid $90 for it, sell it back to them for $5, and they resell it for $70. Racket.

    • Cant_stop_the_rock says:


      Sell to other students, and buy from other students. You get more money than if you sell to the book store, and you pay less than if you buy from the book store. Win-win! And it’d work with customized books too, unless they change them every year (which may be the case). Students are often willing to buy your older edition too.

      At least that was the case at my small college.

  12. jaredharley says:

    It wasn’t until my last two years of college, but I gave up on buying new textbooks. If the brand-new edition was $125, I’d go to Amazon and buy a used copy last year’s edition for $10. Most teachers didn’t really care, and if there was a new chapter, you could always borrow someone’s book to make a copy (our library carried the textbooks too). This, of course, doesn’t work well for any texts that have assignments in them (think math books).

    I even had a few professors that would say “get either edition” and then when talking about a particular subject, he would say “New edition, page 126, old edition page 142.”

    I never had the pleasure of a customized textbook.

  13. jaredharley says:

    @adrock75: I always resold mine through Amazon – look up the book by ISBN and click “I have one I would like to sell” – and then I always listed it about 20 cents cheaper (when reasonable) that the cheapest used book listed. Mine always ended up selling….

  14. Tristan Smith says:

    I believe that at least a few teachers jump on the Customized textbook bandwagon because they think that it will end up saving their students money. I over heard a textbook salesman pitching customized text books to a teacher last year. I just had to laugh, “not only will you be cutting cost for your students by removing topics not covered in your class, but you’ll also be generating revenue for the school because this book will be exclusively sold through the college.

    Luckily none of my teachers have gone the customized textbook route yet. I buy most of my books off of . between buying used books and getting the previous years edition for subjects like early american history, I only ended up spending $45 for all my books last semester(including shipping). The bookstore wanted over $400 for they used books they were trying to sell!

  15. LiC says:

    Lets see. I won’t be using my Calculus textbook again, but I will probably need my GIS/ArcGIS books for references when I grow up and get a real job. My history textbooks are biographies, primary text collections, and cliff-note histories which form the basis of my professional library.

    I have had to buy an economics textbook which was written by the head of the department, yes very suspicious, but the guy was an authority in the field. So teachers/colleagues of teachers profiting off my required textbook purchases doesn’t bug me too much.

    On the other hand, if this textbook “has pieces from different books sewn together” then hurray! The prof is saving me a ton of money by not making me buy all these “different books.” Some profs have tried to save us some money by using older editions or by, ahem, being quite liberal with the copier; I appreciate the effort.

  16. hubris says:

    Ugh. We had “course packets” where I went, and they could easily be 100-200 dollars. Granted, maybe cheaper than buying the books individually, but also maybe not with used prices being pretty damn cheap.

    Course, none of my professors ever had their own writing in them (hell, I don’t think I ever had a prof. use their own textbook), so less of a conflict of interest.

    I so hated buying textbooks. I’m sure it will be so much more fun in law school.

  17. monkey33 says:

    I’m a textbook buyer for a college, and I hate custom editions. They do end up costing students more because all the reasons pointed out before: there’s no buyback at the store, there’s no used copies available, there’s no way to buy it from other sources. Most custom books have production delays so we get them the day before classes start and the price usually changes at the last second. As a student, I would much rather pay a hundred dollars for a book that has some value somewhere rather than a cheaply produced custom book that’s only good for recycling after four months.

    I do know that where I work at, the professors are state employees are aren’t allowed to directly profit from the books that they write for their own classes. They typically give the profits either to the department or university endowment.

  18. Xerloq says:

    My university did these, but they were in packets that were sold for the cost of printing. The real scam was the Econ 110 professor who required his students to buy his own book ($180!). He didn’t use the university press (which would have required him to print the book as a $5 packet), and put a “unique” code to a website with additional content. Because of the electronic access, none of the books were eligible for exchange. All the “unique” codes were identical, by the way.

    So, $175 profit per packet times 1,000 Econ 110 Students = $175K profit (on top of his salary).

  19. Jesus On A Pogo Stick says:

    I would first like to say, fuck you lady. Customized text books are ridiculous. Am I not learning if I’m not reading a text that my teacher created? Half the time these specialized text books are not even written by a single professor at my school. And why, on God’s green earth, would I want to keep these books? Do you not realize that I have to pay for rent, groceries, utilities, tuition, and your fucking precious specialized text books?

    @c26nyc: Try just a couple of months. For an intro Microbiology class we had to buy a brand new book for $175. Well, I figured I would get at least $50 back. I was very wrong. They publishers forgot to add a chapter. So, not only was one entire chapter missing, I couldn’t return the book. This was about 6 months ago and I’m still pissed about it. Eating cup of noodles for weeks on end isn’t my idea of “healthy nutrition” that my school is trying to push on us.

    @Rectilinear Propagation: If you’d like to hear about a scammy practice, my Into to Art teacher told us the first day of class that we needed the 7th edition for our book. Two weeks later he started telling us that we needed the 8th edition or we basically wouldn’t be able to pass the class. The return policy for my school is 14 days. So, he was basically trying to tell us to pay another $100+ for a book or we “wouldn’t pass.” One lady went to the dean and complained (thank god) so we wouldn’t have to do that.

    @deeness: Preaching to the choir.

    Sorry for such a long post.

  20. I’m taking a class that’s using customized textbooks. It’s a department-wide decision for the intro class to the curriculum. It IS a subject where the information changes fairly frequently so textbooks do require updating. However, the customized text is $30 cheaper than the full text. The bookstore DOES buy them back at the end of the semester and DOES resell them used. And the professors encourage students to buy used (either full text or customized) and take the 30 necessary seconds to help people with other editions get on the same page, as it were.

    In this case, I LOVE the customized textbook, and it’s awesome to have a text that goes right along with class.

    I wish that I could create a customized text for the business ethics class I teach; the text we use is CRAP and I haven’t found a better one. On the other hand, the intro course I’m TAKING is taken by 300 students a semester or so; the business ethics class I’m TEACHING only maybe 50-100 students a semester take it. That obviously makes a difference in reselling and in how many used book will be available.

    I think for customized textbooks NOT to be a scam, you DO have to have department-wide commitment that ALL 101 classes will use this book, etc., so there will be a healthy resale market.

  21. @Jesus On A Pogo Stick: Oh, that was complete and utter bullshit! Good on that lady for complaining.

  22. lihtox says:

    (Young) physics professor here. Using your own textbook means the textbook supports the sequence and the notation you are going to use in class. If I taught things in a very different order from the textbook I was using, I would confuse some students, and their reading would be made more complicated by references to material we hadn’t covered yet. I haven’t written a textbook myself, but I have had to say “Well, the book says this, but we’re doing it this way instead” many times.

    If the textbook in question is not any more expensive than equivalent textbooks in the field, and if the textbook gets ample use during the semester, why should it be an ethical problem?

    (Now personally, if I ever write a textbook, I’ll probably try to avoid the major publishers to save my students some dough…although you do get the nice hardcover binding that means the book will last beyond a semester.)

  23. JustAGuy2 says:

    Interesting – when I was in college, the professors were prohibited from receiving any royalties on sales of their own textbooks to students.

  24. GS_Lyons says:

    It’s not just students that dislike customized textbooks; college bookstores do, too. I worked at the on-campus bookstore during my college years and I remember the textbook manager hated when professors would order custom titles because that meant there would be no possibility of having used copies.

    Used textbooks are the cash cows of the college bookstore industry. The profit margins on new textbooks are suprisingly slim.

    The new trend is including on-line access codes with textbooks that are one-time use only. The codes are used to access additional notes and exercises that most students never even bother looking at. It’s planned obsolescence, but in an exciting, “Web 2.0″ way.

  25. Beerad says:

    I think it totally depends on the class. If you’re taking a philosophy class, it’s a lot nicer (and cheaper) to buy a cobbled together packet of essays and excerpts from other full works rather than buying every single original source (I mean, do you really want to buy five essay compilations because you need one essay from each book?)

    As for the professor being an author, well, they’re professors – writing textbooks is actually part of what they do anyway, and there’s a lot to be said for taking a class from the guy who literally wrote the book on the subject. Several of my law professors were distinguished enough to have popular textbooks in their subjects (meaning widely-used; these weren’t vanity publications) and they weren’t priced any worse than other textbooks.

    This isn’t to say that there aren’t bad professors (or universities) who screw the students and crappy situations involving new editions so you can’t return the old one, but that’s been happening ever since schools and textbooks have been around I imagine.

    Again, depends on the course – for something like cultural studies or literature a customized design makes a lot of sense. Chemistry or biology 101? Not so much.

  26. says:

    the only time textbooks are necessary are for classes like accounting and economics, where the teachers usually assigns problems from the book, and the chapters that the problems come from teach you the logic in solving those problems and what not.

    everything else you can just google in my opinion.

  27. Nick says:

    @Rectilinear Propagation: I’ve never heard of these “consulting fees,” and I teach at a university. Sure, textbook publishers try various tactics to get me to require the latest books (which I don’t, by the way), but AFAIK, money doesn’t change hands.

  28. full.tang.halo says:

    My personal favorite was the Networking + cert book that I needed for a class that was 39.95 printed on the bloody book and the college bookstore was selling it for the amazing price of 59.95. When questioned about the 20.00 difference I was told to a retail bookstore if I didn’t want to pay their prices…

  29. Moneypenny says:

    I think it depends a lot on what course you’re taking….I majored in art history, and the books I had to buy every semester would probably add up to the value of a small economy car by the time I graduated. One of my professors put together booklets for his classes using color plates (we still had to buy them from our bookstore) but they only contained the images we used, and no text. It kept us from buying a book that honestly, most people have sitting on their coffee tables – and it kept us all on task. That was almost 15 years ago, and now he’s doing all his work online. Saving his students even more money. (Bear in mind, these booklets had no text, and he was technically not an author. Simply an editor, and they were only used for one class at one college.)

    Later I took a psych class at a larger university, and the prof used his own text for the class. $200!! And that was a undergrad – freshman level class. Highway robbery.

  30. Christovir says:

    I can see how customized textbooks can be a scam or a good deal, depending on the context. For the most part, two things are certainly true: 1) textbooks in the US are hideously overpriced and 2) textbooks are often frighteningly wrong. I started teaching at a university last year, and it is amazing how many textbooks (which seemed insightful when I was an undergrad) are just wrong, or only portray a very superficial representation of the field. Prime examples are neuroscience textbooks that make no mention of neurogenesis and clinical psych books that make no mention of the Rosenhan study (see []). A good teacher/professor can make an excellent course without the need for any textbooks. I always try to use as many peer-reviewed journal articles and self-made resources for students as possible.

    For those who are students in the US, try shopping around at – you can sometimes get the same new books for much cheaper, even after the extra shipping – though the exchange rate is not exactly at its best right now.

  31. JohnMc says:

    Meg, other posters! Please, get real! I took my first undergrad class in 1971, that’s how old I am. Then as now, teacher-authors requiring students to buy THEIR ENTIRE BOOK has been going on at least that long if not more. Some of you are squirming that you have a teacher-publisher require you to buy a loose bound cheapie? In my Diff-II class, circa 1982 (second degree) I paid $115 for a 80 page book. Of which we used exactly 1 chapter out of it. It had me so mad then, I still have the book to this day. So you guys are getting off light with what they publish now.

    But I do agree that books cost too much. I teach now and I do respect my students financial resources. In today’s environment, a book should be on a CD and the total cost should not be more than $10. The teacher-author can self publish and the big print houses are out of the picture. In fact several instructors could collaborate online to author it and split the effort for even greater effect.

    But be respectful willya? There many of us who have gone before and paid much more for a lot less.

  32. Starfury says:

    College textbooks: too expensive.

    Back in 1984 (when I was at a JC) I took a music appreciation class. $25 for a spiral bound book. Teacher raved about how great the book was….and at the end of the semester the bookstore was paying $1 for it since the teacher was switching books.

    Most of the “new” editions are the same as the old; I’ve gotten away with using previous editions for a few classes and saved big $$.

  33. MrEvil says:

    Not all custom school edition books are bad. For a speech class I took the book cost $90 new and $57 used. You had to have the book to complete assignments. The next semester my friend took the same class, had a custom College edtion book for our school. The custom book was the same as last semester’s only on cheaper paper and no color and was $35…cheaper than what I gave for my used copy. Some school’s do care about their students rather than cutting a fat hog in the ass.

  34. @schwnj: I didn’t mean to imply that this always happens. It was the topic of an investigative report I saw a few years back.

  35. endlessendres says:

    I just had to purchase a custom book for my Marketing class for this semester. Had to buy it from the bookstore, and they only had used copies for $69. So… not sure what is up with that.

  36. shaunirving says:

    …or, you could just do what I did and become an English major.

    Checked out out most of my required texts from the library and saved a few hundred bucks a semester!

  37. Egakino says:

    @JohnMc: Yes but the cost for actual tuition has skyrocketed adjusted for inflation since then. That is not including other expenses. If you look at total cost for college adjusted for inflation the difference is nuts. So if textbooks have stay relatively the same they will eat into the rent/food/textbook fund way more especially when 2/3 of the time they are unnessesary. Hell most of the time I never bought the book until i ran into a situation that I needed it, saved tons that way.

    I am sorry but i do not have a link to back up these claims maybe a later poster can back me up. I believe I came across these facts in another NPR story which also briefly covered textbooks. In fact I believe the story spent decent amount of the time addressing the fact that professors will make the same claim you made and not realize this fact.

  38. Raanne says:

    hmmm…. doesn’t seem like that big a deal – i had classes where i had to buy 3 text books at 75 – 100 each – it might have been nice if they could have made it one text book. And why wouldn’t you be able to sell it back? Unless the professor isn’t teaching the course anymore, they would be just as likely to reuse this, as they woudl to reuse a different text book…

  39. groupie says:

    Textbooks are definitely a scam, but there are many ways to get around it. I graduated two years ago from a college in a metropolitan city and 80% of the textbooks we were assigned were at the library, either at my school or at one the city’s public libraries.

    Also, many people share. As in 3 or 4 people chip in for the cost and since you’re generally assigned numerous books for one course (as a history student, I was generally assigned 5-8 books per course), you really only use each individual book for 2-3 tops. So sharing is not inconvenient at all if you do your cards right.

    I only bought a customized book once. I had no option. Sometimes my professors went out of the way to help us not use the campus bookstore (only freshman do that) and find cheap prices on Amazon, Half, or any of the many book swapping sites. One even photocopied the book for us…for FREE. That was sweet.

  40. groupie says:

    *Oh that’s 2-3 “weeks” tops.

  41. supra606 says:

    I always went in expecting to be raped in every way possible when it came to textbooks. In a typical semester, I’d end up buying about five books for about $500. At the end of the semester, I’d be lucky to get $50 back from selling them. One thing that does help that I believe has been mentioned here is going on ebay or other sites like that and buying those international versions. I did that whenever I could towards the end of school and usually saved about 50%. Whether or not it’s ethically wrong, we’re not talking about an ethical situation here – we’re talking about doing what you can to afford to go to school AND eat.

  42. Islingtonian says:

    one of my favorite things about doing a grad degree in the UK was that all of the books i needed were in the library. i bought a couple for my latin course, so i could write notes in them and do homework easily. otherwise, all our readings were on reserve in multiple copies at the library. i had to change my study habits (i was used to working at home), but working at the library actually made me more efficient.

    i wish more US programs would adopt this method – especially liberal arts courses that require a number of books to be read. it would be hard (but not impossible) to do for maths, languages or sciences.

  43. realjen01 says:

    I hated these kinds of textboks in college. After the semester ended, they were really only good for bonfires.

    College textbooks are a scam anyways….save money, buy online.

  44. clarient says:

    Textbooks are the biggest ripoff to students that exists.

    I took an anthropology course this summer for one month. I bought the book brand new for $92 dollars and when I went to sell it back, they offered me $40 for it. I had essentially paid the school $50 to RENT A FUCKING TEXTBOOK FOR ONE MONTH. It’s absurd. I have at least six or seven books at home that I couldn’t sell back because they had a new edition, and it’s shit I don’t need like calculus or speech and communications.

    School isn’t a place of higher learning anymore, it’s a business. The more money they can squeeze out of their students the better.

  45. revmatty says:

    Just to give an alternative viewpoint on professor published books: Many tenured professors are required to publish regularly, either x number of magazine articles per year or a book every y number of years.

    My dad was one such professor, and he felt that the time expended going through the tedious peer review process and competing with everyone else trying to meet their publishing quota detracted from time he could spend actually teaching students. So he opted to publish the textbook for two of his classes (circuit design and Professional Engineering Exam coursebooks) and require them for his courses.

    The books sold for about $200 per, out of which he got less than five dollars per unit. Your professors are generally not getting rich off the book unless they are a big name professor. He also gave extra credit to students who found errors in the books (be they spelling errors or factual errors).

    As a testament to the quality of his books, they are still required for EE courses at colleges he never had any affiliation with even though the last edition was published 10 years ago right before he died.

  46. axiomatic says:

    Textbook manufactures are screwing themselves actually. My daughters high school school just went textbook-less.

    They are offering a cheap laptop and the teachers will release the study material digitally.

    Hey Barnes and Noble textbook division. Thats the US school system “handing you your hat. Goodbye.”

  47. MoCo says:

    @jaredharley: What college did you go to? They deserve to be near the top of my list for my kids.

  48. Jim Kosmicki says:

    textbook publishers are like major music labels, their standard way of doing business is dying, and they are maximizing what profit they can before it collapses entirely. There has been so much conglomeration in textbook publishers that anymore, there’s only 4 or 5 companies left — lots of imprint names, but only a select few companies.

    The need for cheaper texts has been heard. they are out there in larger and larger numbers, but the faculty member has to really search to find them. because they are cheaper, the representatives don’t push them and the faculty don’t tend to get free copies of them for review. but they are out there. One of my colleagues (in Speech) just cut his students’ textbook costs by something like $100 a semester by really searching out lower cost texts that still had the content that he needed.

    oh, and those “consulting fees” mentioned earlier are the stipend that you get paid as a faculty member to “review” the textbook for the publisher. They aren’t large — in my experience you have to fill out about 30 pages of comments on various aspects of the text for somewhere between $100 and $200, but it’s good pay for a few hours’ work. They don’t typically require you to then use the textbook once the revised version comes out, but there is typically some pressure to do so.

  49. Nick986 says:

    I just dropped $97 and change today on a textbook for my speech class. I couldn’t buy an old version because I needed a “code” for some internet BS program I have to use that’s inside the book. The book is “…A Custom Edition for the University of South Carolina”. The book will be worth about $0 when I’m done with the course. Can’t resell it on Amazon or either.

  50. Gopher bond says:

    heh, I worked in the library at school and never had to buy a textbook in my four years there. I’d just sneak the book out of the library for the semester and return it when the semester was over. Saved me some sweet drug money.

  51. iBananaPhone says:

    For the books that are binded rather cheaply, just cut off the binding, make copies for other kids in your class, and split the cost evenly for one purchase. Just punch holes in it and throw it in a three-ring binder. This way, you can tell the professor it is less likely to be damaged, and he won’t know who bought the originial book.

  52. Frankieblackjack says:

    The school I’m going to actually has their own “editions” of textbooks printed for them. This makes it virtually impossible to buy or resell online because ISBN numbers don’t match. They’ll take a book from the publisher and request “selected chapters” for printing. They will then charge you full price for the book. My most recent purchase was for a small business class. The book was soft-bound, specifically printed for my school with select chapters and cost 145 bucks. I looked up the whole book online… yeah… 140. Rip Off.

    Then I took another class (Business Professionalism) where the school did “select chapters” and professor contributed chapters as well. This was basically a soft-bound collection of photocopies. You can actually see where notes were written in to include certain pages and such. There were even a few pages where you could see PostIt notes left in placed over the text when they copied the pages for printing. Sad. Very, very sad.

    I wish there was something that could be done to at least purchase the full books online, but you never know if you’re going to be missing something.

  53. drjayphd says:

    I just waded through my alma mater’s bookstore with my editor (we were there on company bidness) and she wanted to see what books they used for the journalism program. If I read the tea leaves right, she was not impressed and, dare I say, considered them basically useless after graduation. Either that or things are going to be really veiny.

  54. LibidinousSlut says:

    I get every textbook possible off of dudes who sell them from India. For 30 bucks I get a 150 dollar textbook,that at the beginning of the next year/semester I resell for 35 bucks. Nobody cares that the pages aren’t as glossy or that there’s a big ass illegal in the US logo printed on the front.

  55. delicatedisarray says:

    Customized text books do feel like a scam to me. It is frustrating to spend $90 on a book, which I just did for this semester, that I will never use again and will not be able to sell back. The book was for a core class that has nothing to do with my major. So keeping this book would benefit me in no way. I attempted to find my books online for this semester. But since they were all either new editions or customized by the university I attend they would end up costing more online because of the shipping fees.

    I wish there was something that could be done or that someone would step in and help all of us poor college students. I’m already paying thousands of dollars to go to school, how am I suppose to have the money to buy books too?

  56. SybilDisobedience says:

    Blecch. This is a problem I’m all too familiar with. Every semester, without fail, at least one of my professors will insist that we NEED the new edition of such-and-such book (always customized to my particular campus of the university, so it’s un-resellable). Almost without fail, we never crack the book at all, or maybe once or twice for one specific chart or definition that the professor could easily just have photocopied and handed out.

  57. MMD says:

    I’m reading these posts with interest because I’m a professor who’d really like to save my students some money. But I’m stuck – I have to teach a really broad Humanities class about music and the visual arts. The textbooks that try to cover both do so badly, so I have a music text and an art text. But it’s only a one-semester course, so I’m not doing every chapter in both books. In this case, a custom text taking chapters from each book seems to make sense. No, a student won’t be able to resell on eBay, but if I keep the same chapters from semester to semester, they should be able to resell at the college bookstore if they want to.

    As for generating more revenue for the college bookstore…I think in my case I would be taking revenue away. At my school, most students come in underprepared for college and they’re not computer savvy, so they’re not buying books online. (Before I get flamed for this, please know that I have to teach about half of my students how to use their email and when I’ve mentioned online purchasing to some students, they tell me they’ve never bought anything online because they don’t have credit or debit cards). So if most of them are stuck buying at the campus bookstore anyway, I might as well save them a few bucks. Right?

  58. Marks_Nathan says:

    I teach at a local college, and while I understand the university’s reasoning for using custom publications (a custom text can draw from many different texts which lowers the total amount the student spends on texts for the class), I have to admit that I think these books are a scam. Many of the custom texts that I have to teach from are rife with spelling and formatting errors. They are also a way for the school to receive a higher percentage for textbook sales than they do by selling traditional texts. Still, this whole custom publication is kind of missing the point, as the textbook publishing industry in general is a scam. If you really want to save your money and avoid being scammed, either use the school’s library copy of the text or ask the professor if they have any additional copies of the texts. Many professors do have additional copies. Some would rather die a slow death than give away a copy of the text (this is generally against the university’s policy), but others, including myself, would happily give a copy of the text to an eager student in need.

  59. Nogudnik says:

    I am returning to school after a 7 year hiatus to get a MBA, and right off the bat they hit us with a $90 custom book/reader… just for orientation!!!!!! Luckily they distribute it as a PDF, so I just went in on it with some other students. Everyone got an emailed copy of it to print out. I recommend going the shared route. If you can’t get an electronic file, be enterprising: buy the book, photocopy it and sell it at a discount to other students.

  60. 3drage says:

    I just enrolled in a Masters program that has book prices included with the cost of tuition. From the research that I’ve done, the course is actually on par price-wise with other programs that require the students to purchase books on top of tuition. In one way you are shoehorned into all the materials, on the other hand if you do your research, you can save money and feel guilt-free in keeping your books.

  61. 3drage says:

    @MMD: Is there a way that you could purchase books that span multiple semesters? There were a few rare times when I took classes such as Math 50 and Math 52, where the instructors worked together to teach the first and second half of the book so that we weren’t purchasing multiple books as we progressed. Perhaps the art book you teach out of, could be used for another art class if you were to converse with your colleagues. This might also help to increase enrollment in usually low student yield courses. i.e. “Since you already have this book, this other class also works off of the book, and you’ll be getting more units for your money.”

  62. says:

    @fluiddruid: So what happens when you’re “stuck” with the world-acclaimed expert on the subjcet as your professor? You have to use a book by some other guy? What if nobody else has written a textbook on the subject?

    This is not to say that the system does not get abused, and there are lots of bad textbooks by bad that are assigned only to support the prof’s ego and bank account. But a blanket ban could cause problems.

  63. ThatCollegeKid says:

    This is my first year of college and the books aren’t too expensive this semester. Most are about $50 either through the bookstore or online. I got my list of books, went into the bookstore and then wrote down their prices. Then I looked online, Amazon, Half, Ebay, and a nice Google search. I weighed the price differences versus shipping and when I’d get the books and made my decision. Most were cheaper online with my trial Amazon Prime membership, but one was cheaper at the campus bookstore so I got that one there. I suggest trying that. It wasn’t really much work at all. In total, it took about an hour.

  64. biggyfred says:

    The ones that really burn me are the required “bundles” of textbooks along with “web access” (or even worse, e-textbooks) that costs between $15 and $50 more than just the text. The web access can vary from a terrible site featuring a few practice problems to a full fledged teacher-in-a-box in which all homework, quizzes, and exams are administered through the site.

    I’m being forced to pay for a computer to effectively do all of the teaching PLUS a lazy scumbag that’s making me pay them twice to do their job. And then they have the nerve to demand that I screen my work with

    I accidentally bought an old version of an Official My School Office 2003 book that had been updated this year (no less). My teacher and I didn’t notice until the 5th week (right before the midterms) because all my homework matched up. It took until the midterm to find a change. It was a blank page inserted, of course.

    Thieves, every single one of them.

  65. NinaHagen says:

    @c26nyc: It’s because they change the pictures – let’s not even talk about where the used books go – there must be millions but they never seem to have them in any bookstore. On the other side of the coin, a friend works in a big bookstore’s medical text dept. & people actually want the used/outdated text…Somehow in medicine I don’t think this is a good idea…

  66. hoo_foot says:

    My favorite professor assigned these customized textbooks–then told us to borrow it for free from the school library and photocopy it to save money. The reason for assigning a customized textbook was because it included essays and short articles that are difficult to obtain and would have cost students much more money to buy on their own.

  67. kromelizard says:

    This is fundamentally an entirely ignorant analysis. Customized textbooks reliably save students money. They are uniformly cheaper than full editions and that price break is always about as much as you would get back on the sale of the book. A resale value that is also completely unreliable.

  68. MMD says:

    @3DRAGE: That’s a great idea – I really wish I could. Unfortunately, my department doesn’t offer any subsequent courses that connect to what I’m doing, despite my efforts to expand course offerings. Which is why I’m looking for another job – but that’s another story…

    @BIGGYFRED: If you’d read as many blatantly plagiarized papers as I have, you’d understand why Turnitin exists. I usually don’t need Turnitin to spot these papers, but using it gives me the official backing I need to confidently bust the offenders.

  69. kable2 says:

    When I was doing engineering, some of the professors would tell us not to bother with the text book because they are a rip off. They would give out photocopies of ‘notes’ and they would cover everything needed.

    Other profs would tell you to buy the old one if you could find it and would reference both editions page numbers.

    I had one prof who wrote a book (piece of poorly written crap) and it was a required text. So I did what i usually did with overpriced texts that I didnt want to keep for reference(very few)……….

    My solution to the $100 – $250 texts was to buy the text or borrow a copy, then load up a copy card and set the page to legal size and about 10% reduction. It usually took under one hour to copy a full book cover to cover. Then I would go to staples and they would bind it for me. Instant text for under $20.

    I saved thousands doing that.

    /cant stand getting ripped off

  70. lucidpsyche says:

    Sounds like my school’s course packs. They’re basically 100+ pages xeroxed together. Oh, and they cost $97. Huge ripoff.

    Another ripoff are the “clickers” that you use to digitally answer questions in class. They cost $50, and you can’t sell them back to the store.

  71. phobs says:

    How is it fundamentally ignorant to conclude that forcing students to buy from only one source saves them money? This may be true if you want to compare extremes (new full edition, undiscounted vs a “custom” textbook), however most internet savvy students should be smart enough to get it significantly cheaper. People are stating that requiring “custom” textbooks effectively removes all possibility of competition. That doesn’t sound like such a great deal to me.

  72. delicatedisarray says:

    @KROMELIZARD: I do hope you are being scarcastic! The customized book I had to buy for this semester cost me $30 more than it would have cost me to just buy the two books that the professor/department lovingly ripped chapters out of. But, of course, I NEEDED the customized book. Which, by the way, has the worlds worst index. Also I will not be able to sell this book back as they will release a new edition of it next year.

  73. Jesse in Japan says:

    When I was in college a couple of years ago, a lot of my professors would just put all the articles we needed to read on Blackboard in .PDF format and have us print them out.

  74. lizzybee says:

    Ugh, course packs were the bane of my college existence! $50 for a bunch of really, really crappy xerox copies of ancient articles and odd pages of random textbooks that were barely legible… I’d get eyestrain with every assignment! I have an instructor now who makes up his own custom lab books that he charges $20.00 each half-semester for, in addition to the overly expensive and somewhat outdated textbook he uses (this is in a Linux class). The lab book is mostly crappy screenshots + exhortations to do exercises out of the textbook, and features special “turn in” checklists that you have to give to him in order to get credit for the labs. AND to make it even more painful, half of his custom-designed labs are out of date as we’re using updated versions of the distro, and he hasn’t taken the five minutes to update the lab books even though he runs them off his own laser printer!

  75. fleur-de-lys says:

    I’m teaching in a program that is using one of those “teacher-in-a-box” websites as a workbook for the students. The benefits are twofold: one, it saves paper; and two, it frees up time that graduate students would have spent grading workbooks.

    I still have to grade tests, quizzes and papers; plan all my lessons out; and actually do the teaching.

    And generally, it’s not the person doing the grading who picked the textbook, either.

    I understand it’s frustrating and expensive, and I’m not defending it unequivocally. I just prefer not to be called a lazy scumbag.

  76. embean says:

    Umm. I live in Canada and this is very common. “Customized” textbook makes it sound way too fancy. It’s just a bunch of photocopied pages bound together from different places. The royalities ARE paid and this makes up much of the cost. Coursepacks, they are called, are difficult to sell because sometimes they change every year. They ARE frequently cheaper than a textbook, but less worth it, because at least textbooks can be sold. And often, you need to purchase a coursepack along with another textbook. They are just a way for a professor to compile sources they feel are useful, for a very obscure class, for example. Or obscure sources for a not obscure class.

  77. jamar0303 says:

    @MMD: About those students who don’t purchase online because they don’t hace credit/debit cards- have you suggested that they buy an AmEx/Visa/Mastercard gift card to use online? It’s essentially a prepaid credit card.

  78. freeisgood says:

    I teach at a very large university, and worse than the highly customized texts you mention are the textbooks that are customized only minimally, but still segment the new and used book markets. For the intro psych course I taught, a single textbook was chosen by committee every two years, and publishers would compete to “add value” by allowing customization. The only thing: the customization was only a few low-quality photocopied appendices at the end. No actual content pages changed. But despite the fact that those appendices never were incorporated into our curriculum, most teachers saw it as a great deal because now our customized book has the school colors on the cover (Hurrah!). Meanwhile, our customized texts can only be resold within the university system, and only for the two years we use that book. A complete waste in every way, but many teachers were convinced that it added value.

  79. kromelizard says:


    Because I know my busines better than you do. Really, textbook whining is hilarious, because it’s clearly motivated by the belief that people should be getting the books for free like in high school.

  80. delicatedisarray says:

    @KROMELIZARD: I have no problem with having to purchase my text books. Usually what I am getting in college is an up to date book, written by a person who is an expert in the area. There are also some books I don’t mind paying the big bucks for, I know there are only so many printed making the amount to go around minimal, plus when the book could be used as a weight and I’ll need it for years to come- it becomes an investment. But, a sophomore level core course’s book shouldn’t cost me an arm and a leg. And, when I will not need said book ever again, but am stuck with it because the professor insists on adding a new blank page to the book every year… well that is a waste of money.

  81. azntg says:

    @kromelizard: As of quality and price: the textbook industry is a monster — the good kind! Evidence shows that two-year rotations of editions, subtle changes in the text and photos, and ever increasing prices are met with unwavering enthusiasm by the consumers. Ask any informed college student across the United States.

    In my opinion, if the textbook industry isn’t willing to play it fair, then they might as well be forced give the books to us for free. Why are US students expected to pay “full price” whereas international students given substantial subsidies (relatively speaking)? I don’t buy the “local economy” argument for many reasons. It’s unbelievable!

  82. welsey says:

    I just bought all of my books online, some old editions and some new, and saved about $150 or so. I would have saved a lot more if one of my classes hadn’t required a book that I couldn’t find for more than $20 off its list price…but oh well. Textbooks are a HUGE scam, and the school bookstores are too. I just decided to say fuck it about having books on time and try my luck with the internet. I’m definitely glad not to have any course packs this year, those are absurdly overpriced.

  83. XTC46 says:

    I agree completely. Right now im in a class that requires you buy a text book that includes an online code to access the required assignments. They sell the book used, but then you have to go buy a code for like 40 more dollars, its complete bullshit. I had a book one semester that cost 187 dollars and couldn’t be sold back because the professor used the newest edition each year the course was only offered 1 semester each year. the only books I have ever kept that were required we for my philosophy classes (7 separate books for one class, each cost between 4 and 15 dollars from any book store) and some writing reference books that wasn’t required, but very helpful. Ive gone semesters without even opening the “required reading” and still getting B’s but couldn’t return the book because I didn’t want to rick needing it one day.

    The one class I really hated was an English class where the professor made a deal with some stand alone book store to carry the books she required for the course (there were 5 of them).The book store was highly political (and I was firmly against their beliefs) but the books couldn’t be purchased anywhere else (2 were special edition texts not available online)so I got caught between funding a group of people who I morally was against, or taking a huge hit on my grade. I bought one from them (the project related to that book was worth about 15 percent of my grade) and the other I just took a hit for. I just couldn’t believe the teacher was forcing her political beliefs on the students by making them shop at the store. (and yes, it was forcing her beliefs as you couldn’t leave the store without being handed a flier for some rally, and they would stuff you bag with fliers and garbage propaganda writings as they rang you up.

  84. KidUterus says:

    From my experience the only times I saw custom textbooks were for English courses. In those cases they worked as an alternative to an anthology, 80% of which would never be used. The custom book on the other hand, had only the content needed for the course and was much cheaper than the anthology. In the end they still cost less than the anthology even after resale. I do see however, how the conflict of interest is present. In that scenario couldn’t the teacher leave their own work out of the anthology and distribute it as paper handout during class?

  85. Jesus On A Pogo Stick says:

    @kromelizard: as DELICATEDISARRAY stated, I do not mind buying my textbooks. What I do mind is paying $90 for 8 paged. 8 PAGES! The book in question was for orientation.

    Are you seriously trying to justify student’s paying upwards of $200 for a “custom”? Last quarter I had to buy a customized developmental psychology book for $175 because it was a new edition. Would you like to know the substantial changes? The editor wrote a letter to her deceases mother and changed 4 pictures. My psych teacher admitted this to us and told us to try and find the older copy online.

    Or what about the customized statistics book that I had to buy for $150? The only difference between the customized book and the original, widely used book was one chapter. The original book was only $70. Oh, and guess what? I can’t sell it back because there are so many errors in the new chapter that they are making a new edition.

    If you can logically explain to me how this is saving me money, I will stop “textbook whining” and shout to the world about how customized textbooks are the way to go.

  86. JohnMc says:

    EGAKINO, I don’t doubt you and other students are paying more in tuition. But as for the book, per the example I cited, you guys are paying less. Take the value I paid in 1982 dollars and add the inflation rate to it. That would be a $300-350 book today. None of you are paying those rates for textbooks that are custom made.

    I do have one suggestion — This is a book sharing site. Give a book, receive a book. Offerer pays the postage to ship it. The receiver gets the book for free. Were college students to put every book they did not need up there the impact to the publishers would be pretty dramatic. As an instructor I end up with extra copies that I put up on the site.

    Axiomatic really has the future of what textbooks will be about. No publishers. Its on a CD. You buy it for $10-15 the author(s) get the lionshare and the students save their money. My fall semester course will be on CD, no books.

  87. gordonkid says:

    Here’s something from the other side:
    First off, I am Canadian, so my situation is a little different, but I did work for the largest Canadian producers of these coursepacks until 4 months ago.
    Here are some of the nuts and bolts from the other side:
    Cost: the largest cost to produce these kits was the copyright. We cleared the copyright on everything, unlike some shadier places that would just photocopy out of text books and resell. for a typical 200 page kit (about average) it would cost between $7 and $10. Printing and binding would be about the same, let’s say $7 for a 200 pager.
    Kickbacks: this was a very shady deal with some profs. I only saw this in a few cases, but it was almost exclusively with the law and business school, where the professor would publish custom articles, and have seperate payment than the regular channels (cancopy provides a royalty payment service) This increased the price to the student considerably, usually by $5 or $10.
    Markup: this was usually done through administration fees and pure markup, so something that would cost between $15 and $20 for printing and copyright would have a $40 price tag.
    Resale: was not done through our bookstore, but there was a resale market through flyers and private sale. About 70% of these packs remained unchanged from year to year.
    Piracy: we budgeted about 70% of the class enrolement would buy the coursekit, and about 30% would share or photocopy another copy.
    I hope this helped.

  88. Her Grace says:

    A coursepack is different than a custom textbook, though, which I think a lot of people are confusing. To me, a coursepack is a collection of photocopied selections from a wide variety of sources–usually single chapters from books, journal articles, and the like. They are things that would be difficult for the students to access otherwise (subscription journals, out of print books) and usually under $50 for a semester’s worth of materials, or put online on Blackboard. Coursepacks are awesome and really do get used in classes. A custom textbook is when the department/professor chooses to have the publisher print a version with only selected chapters. These are generally a rip-off, as they are priced the same as, or only marginally less than, the full book.

    For the past year (but sadly no more), my university’s position was that, as graduate students, we were paying enough as it was. Coursepacks were free in the Arts faculty. It was so good. Now, though, they cost, but at $35 for the semester, I’m happy to pay.

    For the Aussies, is pretty good. It’s still smallish, so the selection isn’t great if you’re doing a highly specialized subject, but I’ve sold a few books and bought a few books, and overall saved myself a couple hundred. was my favourite in the US.

  89. FLConsumer says:

    @NinaHagen: You might be surprised by this, but one of my most treasured medical texts is William Ossler’s The Principles and Practice of Medicine, printed in 1892. Ironically, I find myself referring back to it on the more difficult cases when doing a differential dx, particularly when “modern” medicine has failed. Some of the suggestions are purely laughable, while others are quite insightful, and I’ve found some of them to be more effective and less costly than popular treatments today.

    @kromelizard: NO, it has nothing to do with the desire of textbooks to be free, rather it has a desire for the textbooks to be reasonable in cost. Is it really necessary for every single page of a textbook to be printed on 28 lb semigloss paper with 4-color press? Absolutely not. I’ve done enough publishing in my days to know the shortcuts to keeping costs down while still producing a quality product. There’s no need for half the extra crap they’re throwing in textbooks these days. CD-ROMs, internet websites w/accounts tied to the individual book, “course packs” of figures from the book with lines next to them to “take notes” during lectures — all useless junk. Often, the “value added” services and content distracts students from the material they’re attempting to learn. I have a biochemistry book which has 1/8 to 1/4 page photos of various chemists on every other page. Guess what? I could give a shit less. I’m trying to learn biochemistry, not the history of chemistry. If I’m interested in who discovered what, I’ll go to the end-of-the-chapter citations & references and go look them up.

    I did have one class where the prof had made a customized textbook, but was a nice guy and actually had the entire book in a .PDF we could download. It was a full 800+page textbook, just in .PDF form. Very useful and we all appreciated their efforts and thoughfulness.

  90. FLConsumer says:

    One other comment which I forgot to make was that there is one critical problem with the professors putting in their own content into textbooks — accuracy & peer review. Most textbooks are written by a couple of authors and reviewed/revised by many others. When a professor inserts their own content into a textbook, it doesn’t go through the same scrutiny that other material in the same book must undergo.

  91. DFir7 says:

    Yes ABSOLUTE SCAM! I bought a $145 accounting book customized to my schools course (for a one quarter class), had the school name and art on front and only had selected chapters in it so that they eliminated selling it to someone not at that school. Then this book had the working papers after each chapter to do the problems in it. Then TO MAKE ALL THINGS WORSE it came with a keycode to do the online problem that only came with a new book and could not be purchased on the side, also the keycode could only be used one quarter. Therefore the only acceptable book for the course was to buy it new from the school bookstore and eat 100% of the cost at the end. Big ripoff….especially for a community college, my textbook cost has sometimes been near the tuition cost.

    I’ve now had at least 3 courses similar to this situation, and probably 5 or 6 textbooks in two years of college I can’t sell because they are “outdated”. Textbook costs is a scam. We’ll just see how things go at the University this year…

  92. TechnoDestructo says:

    I had a customized textbook for my communication class back in 1996. The book store said I couldn’t sell it back, so a friend of mine and I kicked it to pieces. The instructor from that class saw us doing this and said that they could in fact be sold back, and that what I was doing was really disrespectful.

    Well, hell, that isn’t what they told me at the book store where I was just a few minutes before, and fuck, NO ONE respected that guy. I had two campus jobs with two supervisors who rarely if ever spoke with one another. Both had occasion to meet this guy on a semi-regular basis, and both, when his name came up, said the exact same thing. “What an asshole.”

    So I didn’t feel bad about it. Also it was only 18 bucks.

    Also, in a marketing class I took via correspondence (due to scheduling conflicts) I had to watch a propaganda video for the textbook industry. They went on and on about all the costs of producing a textbook, like the costs of graphics and photographs. They showed a few examples on screen.

    The problem was, at least some of the things they showed were not from textbooks. They showed some images of the 1991 issue of Popular Science, from the article about the YF-22 vs YF-23 competition.

    And that magazine only cost 2 bucks!

    Oh, and I think this may have been posted in the last text book thread, but what the hell:


  93. lincolnparadox says:

    I teach college courses, and I really dislike the textbook racket. Publishers typically put out new editions every 3 years. They also do ad-ons, like errata or magazines, that allow them to bundle a textbook in-between editions as a “2007 edition.” Finally, in case you were hoping to buy used books, the publishers will buy up as many used books as they can, to insure that everyone is buying new books.

    The professor-written texts, or the university press books have their place. I’m not saying that it sucks that a professor is making royalties off of his students, but at least the content is directed for the course. Good professors will try to get away with Kinko’s packets, if they can. Bad professors will make everyone buy a book they wrote, ten years ago, every semester.

    My advice, hit the internet and buy used. That way, your professor doesn’t see any royalties, and you get the book for at least 50% cover. Win-win, all around.

    And, you avoid the 25% mark-up that all university bookstores add to the cover price.

  94. TechnoDestructo says:


    “the publishers will buy up as many used books as they can, to insure that everyone is buying new books.”

    And then they can claim that as part of the OMG UNBELIEVABLY HIGH cost of producing textbooks.

  95. raybury says:

    My favorite textbook was a $30 custom job. The professor worked with the publisher to extract the 20% he wanted from a $90 book, so it was a win for the published too. Oh, and it was about a centimeter thick, instead of a 5-kilo dead weight.

    Meanwhile this year I paid $90 for a used book, which was all the bookstore cared to display. The book is $120 new, and they bought them back for $30 last semester.

  96. Omri says:

    There’s a decent argument for course readers: they’re often filled with canonical, field-defining articles that are hard to get in one place. So if the student is going to pursue postgrad education in that specific field, they can be helpful.

    But: they’re still a total scam. There’s no reason that the PDFs of the articles can’t just be put online for downloading. That’s what I do for all of my courses, and it seems to work fine – students can print them out or not, download them or not, etc.