Busting the College Textbook Monopoly

Why wasn’t Web 2.0 around when we were in school? We may go back just for the cheap books. From BuisnessWeek:

    Consider: How often does someone have the authority to order consumers to purchase a product with a limited number of vendors? University professors have just that power, requiring students to purchase particular books for their courses. The often obscure titles must typically be purchased from the college bookstore, which obtains them through special order. With limited competition, at best, prices for new textbooks can easily climb to $100, and have tripled since the mid 1980s

Oh man, stop. We’re having flashbacks.

    Now a group of small Web sites is trying to provide students with a cheaper alternative for textbooks and other school supplies, such as computers. The largest of the sites, http://www.chegg.com, has just received $2.2 million in funding, BusinessWeek.com has learned.

This sounds promising. Chegg lets students with university email addresses buy or sell their goods through “personal, face-to-face interactions–eliminating the hassle and costs of shipping and other fees that plague most used textbook-finding services.” Watch out evil campus bookstore.—MEGHANN MARCO

Web Sites Challenge the Textbook Goliaths [Business Week]
About Us [Chegg]


Edit Your Comment

  1. bluegus32 says:

    You should see how expensive they get in grad school. I still hold on to my criminal procedure book. Not because it remains all that helpful but because it cost me over $200.

  2. rbf2000 says:

    It’s a monopoly of convenience. If you try, you can easily find most books online for much cheaper, but it’s sooooo much easier just to walk to the campus book store. Especially when mom and dad are paying for it.

    I used amazon.com for a bunch of books, even with shipping it was substantially cheaper. I also looked for international editions of books, which are the exact same, except they are not hardbacks.

    Also, teachers don’t make any money from the bookstore, even if they do encourage the use of obscure books. Most teachers apologize when students tell them how expensive their books are, and I’ve had a few teachers go so far as to list alternative book stores than the campus one.

  3. rbf2000 says:

    Sorry for the double post, but I’ve also had good luck with abebooks.com for the international editions.

  4. drrew says:

    I’ve bought a couple books for business school directly from the publisher as a PDF file in the past year for about 1/2 of the list price.

  5. Fuzzy_duffel_bag says:

    don’t forget, you can sell them back at the end of the year for $5.

  6. bluegus32 says:

    jcase757: You said, “Also, teachers don’t make any money from the bookstore,”

    I’ve had plenty of classes where the prof actually wrote his/her own book and then made that required reading.

    Course, the cost of the textbook is the least of your worries when you’re being taught by that kind of ego-maniac.

    And God forbid you get taught by THE GUY who is considered the expert on real property law.

  7. wikkit says:

    My wife is going back to school for an RN nursing certification. Her anatomy and physiology book w/ atlas (???) came in at $260 through the school bookstore. Half.com price—>$80.

    bluegus32, I went through the same thing for an engineering degree. A number of the professors assigned books they’d authored as required texts, sweet racket.

  8. infinitysnake says:

    “Also, teachers don’t make any money from the bookstore, even if they do encourage the use of obscure books. “

    That depends- I’ve had to buy a fair number that were authored or co-authored by my instructors.

  9. Smoking Pope says:

    @Fuzzy: At U of I (Illinois), you typically got 50% of the cost when you sold back the book. And since the cost of the book was added to your tuition (at the official campus bookstore), but the refund was given to you in cash, there was a lot of partying on the parents’ dime at the end of the semester.

  10. “I still hold on to my criminal procedure book. Not because it remains all that helpful but because it cost me over $200.”

    Hell, I’m FRAMING my constitutional law book, but that’s because I never took the shrink wrap off it and still beat the curve.

    Law school is a crock.

  11. mojohealy says:

    “I’ve had plenty of classes where the prof actually wrote his/her own book and then made that required reading.”

    This isn’t always rampant egotism. A book will generally be the result of years of research, publishing and peer review, just as (one would hope) a corresponding paper’s curriculum would be.

    If a scholar is an expert in a given field, and writes a book on that field, why shouldn’t they then teach from that same book?

  12. juniper says:

    Smoking Pope: I also went to the U of I (LAS ’04) and could never just charge my books to my student account – but that would have been great. My mom always thought I was lying to her when I told her my books cost $500/semester.

    The rough part wasn’t even the books, it was the “course packets,” xeroxed and bound, and unreturnable at the end of the semester.

  13. Mad_Science says:

    Yeah, the course readers (usually photocopied sections of discontinued books) are quite the jack move.

    While I almost never used them, there’ve been tons of “don’t buy your books at the bookstore” sites popping up ever since I started in 2000.

    It’s worth double checking that you’re getting the correct edition of a book. Sometimes they sell the previous or international edition, both of which can have different problems (or at least put them in a different order), which can make things tricky.

    But, yeah…stupid bookstore…

  14. Terri Ann says:

    “The rough part wasn’t even the books, it was the “course packets,” xeroxed and bound, and unreturnable at the end of the semester.”

    Agreed! Thank goodness that I only had to do that for the first semester because my private college was getting legal-heck from publishers from selling photocopies of these books through the book store.

  15. timmus says:

    A book I’ve written for hobbyists and self-published with a $25 price tag has been picked up by dozens of university courses every semester, and I find I’m dealing with oodles of college bookstores these days. Fortunately their markup is only about $12 or so. I find that the college bookstores are there doing a service… it’s the megacorp publishers printing books in Singapore, paying the authors peanuts, and then selling them stateside for $200 that should get a beatdown. I’m not complaining though as the whole situation has drawn me unexpectedly into a niche market.

  16. jdsmn says:

    I found that the previous edition works well for some classes. I accidently bought a previous edition for Psychology for $5 of half.com, and it was the exact same book, except I was a couple of pages off 1/3 of the way through due to resized images. After this I intentially bought the previous edition of the book for my environmental sciences class – same book again, except a couple chapters were switched around. Now, I am currently using an Intermediate Accounting book. The book covers 3 different courses (I, II, and III), and after I took Intermediate II, they switched to a new edition. The book is exactly the same, except they added a couple problems to the end of the chapter (we only do 4 or 5 of the 25-30 available problems anyways). And my book says “company a in 2003”, where the new book says “company a in 2006”, which is probably a simple search-and-replace the publisher did to “update” the book.

  17. Scazza says:

    Here is a plug of my friends really good site he started as a project while in University.
    Its for canadian university and college students. Allows you to find/become tutors for subjects at Uni/College/HS, plus allows the sale/trade of textbooks to others.

    I put an old english text book up like 2 years ago, out of the blue one sunday afternoon months later, I got an email asking to buy it… so it does work..

  18. TWinter says:

    Even when your professor assigns his/her own book, that doesn’t automatically mean that they are raking in tons of cash. The author’s royalty on a $100 textbook could be as little as $1-2 and the author only gets it after a certain minimum number of books have been sold, and some books never hit that minimum.

    Also many universities (esp. public universities where the professors are public employees) don’t allow professors to keep the royalties earned from their own students. At those schools the royalties from sales at the campus bookstore are often sent from the publisher directly to the university as a donation, but the professor can usually choose which fund (scholarships, library, football, etc.) gets the money.

  19. Igoruha22 says:

    Here is what I do: I go to my college’s library with my digital camera and borrow a needed book. Then I go to the nearest table and take pictures of each page. Then I transfer files to my laptop and read the book throughout the semester.

  20. infmom says:

    My dad was a college professor who tried his best to keep the cost of textbooks down for his students. Of course, that is a lot easier when you’re teaching English literature (as he did) and there are plenty of cheap paperback editions of classic books available. Not so easy when you’re teaching engineering or political science or some other subject where the textbook publishers have you by the nuts.

    I have seen First and Second recommended as a good source for textbooks. They are in India (they advertise themselves as India’s largest online bookstore) and sell inexpensive reprints, but their editions contain the same information as the originals. Seems to me that everything’s getting outsourced to India these days–might as well get in on the game ourselves.

  21. mojohealy says:

    I worked for four years, full time, in my local university here in New Zealand. In our case at least, we made very low margins (as low as 10-15 percent) on some of our text books. Text books are expensive because the publishers, not the retailers, make them so.

    Publishers also take the current textbook, add a few new images, change the revision questions, slap a new cover design on and call it a new edition. Unless you’re studying a subject in which the specifics do actually change each year, like law or computing, don’t get sucked into the “must have latest edition” con. The worst that will happen is the pages your prof refers to are slightly different, but this is a minor problem.

    And if the book is anything less than compulsory (we used “recommended” and “highly recommended”), don’t bother buying, just use the library if and when you want/need.

  22. mojohealy says:

    Of course, I meant to write “local university bookstore”.

  23. krunk4ever says:

    Most campuses have their own sites they’re already using. This isn’t really anything new and hardly has anything to do with Web 2.0. Even before these sites were around, there were campus forums and newsgroups where people would post FS (for sale) and WTB (want to buy).

    For example, the popular one in UC Berkeley is:

    This site also serves some other schools like UCLA, UCI, UCSD, Stanford, etc.

    Another popular one at Berkeley is:

    Generally, the 1st few weeks you’re in college, you’ll here about these sites.

    Another good site for text book price comparison is:

  24. Blisspix says:

    Who said you have to BUY the textbooks? Don’t forget that the library usually buys a ton of copies of every required book, and puts them on closed reserve so every student gets access them. Lots of stuff is now made available electronically, too. It’s not perfect, but it sure is a lot cheaper than buying all those books.

    Wait until class starts. Ask the professor if you really must buy every required text – usually the answer is no.

    I purchased only 3 books for my undergraduate degree, and one for graduate school. For the rest I sat in the library and made notes on a couple of weeks’ worth of reading at a time. I didn’t even get a photocopying card until third year (another cost that can be reduced easily).

  25. dirac says:

    That Chegg site is a complete rip off they had a supposed 8% mark down on the books my classes require and some how still managed to be more expensive then my school bookstore .. Half.com for text books all day long..

  26. suckonthat says:

    For all the people who are defending the bookstores, I have to disagree. Maybe new books get a small markup, but often they make a mint on the used books. I had to buy a $120 brand new version of a genetics textbook that sucked so badly I openned it once and never again. Four months later I go to return it and they offer me $30 because the class was using a new textbook the next year. I balked and sold it on Half.com for $80.

    $30 for a book they couldn’t sell next term was pretty generious, right? Well what they don’t tell you is that all the college bookstores are connected. The would have spent $5 max shipping it to a nearby university and selling it for $100. In two different used textbooks I purchased I have found the name of the original owner (written in case they lost it, I presume) which included universities hundreds of miles away.

    I second Blisspix’s recommendation: Just use them from the library if you don’t need it every day.

  27. karimagon says:

    One thing that works, especially for literature and philosophy classes is to download a free version of the book– for the aforementioned classes, the texts are often public domain and are freely available on Project Gutenberg.

  28. Her Grace says:

    I’ve had wonderful luck with half.com, but it’s only available to those in the US. http://www.textbookexchange.com.au is meant to be the Australian equivalent (since I moved down under for grad school), but I wouldn’t necesarily reccomend them–the selection is pretty meagre and Australia doesn’t seem to have something comparable to media rate postage costs so unless you can find a copy near by it’ll cost just as much to ship as to buy from the university store. The prices are good, though, and I have books of my own listed for sale (no bites, sadly). I’m actually buying my books for this semester from amazon and shipping them here–it’s still cheaper than the university book store.

  29. Blisspix
    Don’t forget that the library usually buys a ton of copies of every required book, and puts them on closed reserve so every student gets access them.

    Blisspix, you beat me to it.

    I havent bought a single book yet. I always ask the teacher if he/she can put a copy on reserve for me at the library. Surprisingly this will force you to even do your homework as you can only check out the book in two hour increments. If you own your own textbook, it becomes habit to just pretend that you can come home and get to it later.

  30. kcskater says:

    Just to reiterate what infmom said, firstandsecond.com is great for cheap books. But usually only Math and Engineering texts are super cheap (

    Unfortunately, my school library rarely had the latest editions of texts at the school. I worked at the library and had to deal with a lot of upset people that didn’t understand this. A lot of professors put their own copies of the text on Reserve though, which is always a route to check.

  31. TWinter says:

    @ Blisspix & Holden Caulfield

    You go to schools with very progressive librarians. The librarians at my school (I’m an instructor) don’t buy large numbers of textbooks because the go out of date so quickly and they will not put commercial textbooks on reserve if the whole book is required for the class. They maintain that the library reserve is for articles, individual book chapters, and books classified as recommended not required.

  32. chickymama says:

    In community college the books are just as expensive. My business law book by itself was $100.00. My mom paid for it as a gift as I was footing the bill for my education and she just about fainted when she saw the price.
    Also my anatomy and physiology teacher apologized profusely one day when he realized the $20.00 book he selected from the catalog actually cost us $146.00.

  33. ckilgore says:

    Wow. I feel lucky I didn’t have to go through that. The college I went to has textbook rental. It’s one of the few progressive things they offered, and I think there are only a few school that do it. You do have the option to buy the books if you want at a fairly reduced price, but I know it is a rather big selling point as far as cost-savings for parents and students.

  34. writeinthelight says:

    “The Evil Campus Bookstore?” The college bookstore is not the bad guy in this game. They’re a business, and they are out to make a profit, but their mark-up on new textbooks is surprisingly low. The real “Textbook Goliaths” are the publishers, charging the bookstores extremely high prices that they are forced to pass on to the students and coming out with “new” additions every other year, which they lobby professors to adopt, making it harder for students to get used copies. And don’t even get me started on professors who list their text book as required (forcing the “evil campus bookstore” to buy hundreds of copies) and then tell their students they don’t really need to buy it. It may be fun to rail against the college bookstore, but the publishers are really the ones to blame for high textbook prices.

  35. Kornkob says:

    don’t get sucked into the “must have latest edition” con.
    That con is often perpetrated by the professor/TA, unfortunately.

    The bookstore and the publishers are in bed together, both making a mint at the student’s expense. There are, of course, notable exceptions to this but the fact is that the student is routinely screwed by both the publishers and bookstores, with the school and professors complicit in the act by frequently supporting the assertion that the ‘latest edition’ is the only one that is acceptable and that every student must own their own copy of the required texts.

    Even when your professor assigns his/her own book, that doesn’t automatically mean that they are raking in tons of cash. The author’s royalty on a $100 textbook could be as little as $1-2 and the author only gets it after a certain minimum number of books have been sold, and some books never hit that minimum.

    Yeah– but when that professor has the capability to force a few hundred students a year to buy their book, that minimum sale gets hit a heck of a lot faster. Consider a big ten univeristy first year course where a professor might control the book requirement/course content for upwards of 900 students for a single 100 level course (1 course, 3 classes, 300 students per class– all 3 even tought by a TA instead of the professor sometimes– not uncommon for a 101 course at a big school). How fast can that contributing professor meet the publisher’s minimum sale requirement at that rate?

  36. ct03 says:

    It may seem obvious to some, but it took me until my second year of law school to realize that if I kept the study aids and outlines I had bought in good condition and saved the receipt, I would be able to get a refund on them at the end of the semester. Not the most ethical thing, but if they can resell it, no harm done, right?

  37. billhelm says:

    amazon.com’s used book marketplace has been around for years and usually offers me like new books at half the price of new, if not more.

    plus, you can sell them there afterwards and not lose your shirt!

  38. etinterrapax says:

    Amazon’s raised its fees since the last time I made any real money selling books with them, but I definitely agree that the return is much better than campus buyback. I don’t know why anyone would do that if they didn’t have to. Amazon’s not a guaranteed sale, but the ones that do sell more than make up for the ones that don’t, financially. I got rid of a lot of used-like new books for 80% of retail.

    Students should also know that when a course is taught by contract faculty, as I have been in the past, often the teacher has no control over the textbook (the same one is being used for all sections; we hate this also), or when he or she does, the textbook companies make it very difficult to know the retail prices of books. The ordering system doesn’t include the information. No mention of retail cost is ever made at book fairs. Instructors get their copies for free. And if a book is new, the price might not even be available at Amazon yet. Obviously this is intentional, since if we don’t know how much the books cost, they figure we will order them without regard to the price for the student.

    One thing to do if you are truly in a hardship situation is to ask the instructor whether he or she has an extra copy of the book. I almost always have one or two, and my university had a desk copy library from which I could borrow books if I needed them. I make an announcement on the first day of class that anyone who needs a book should come and see me privately. Surprisingly few students take me up on it.

  39. MasonMacabre says:

    Usually what I do is borrow the textbook from the library and then spend the next hour copying the chapters that I need. In most of my classes we only use about 5-6 chapters per book. I end up paying out 10-15 bucks per book for copies.

  40. People in my school use MySpace to trade/sell text books. You can set up your list of schools in your profile.

  41. justforfun says:

    “I purchased only 3 books for my undergraduate degree, and one for graduate school. For the rest I sat in the library and made notes on a couple of weeks’ worth of reading at a time. I didn’t even get a photocopying card until third year (another cost that can be reduced easily).”

    uhh, a lot of it has to do with convenience.

  42. kromelizard says:

    “But, but, but… my books were free in high school!”

  43. TechnoDestructo says:

    I took a correspondence marketing class, where I had to watch a bunch of video presentations. One of them was a propaganda piece by the textbook industry, attempting to explain why textbooks were so expensive. If I recall correctly, it didn’t even address the only really valid reason, that a lot of them, especially upper division or graduate texts, are for very small target audiences.

    But what really got me was the assertion that it was because “Photos and graphics are expensive.” There were some examples of photos and graphics shown. I recognized them. They were not from a text book. They were from the 1991 issue of Popular Science which covered the YF-22/YF-23 competition. Which I had bought for, IIRC, 2 bucks.

  44. disgruntled says:

    Have any of you seen this website called http://www.collegecollaboration.com? It is suppose to forward you to different online communities where college students from different schools can discuss class topics, work on school projects, but also share textbooks (assuming there are students using the same ones). They are charging $25 per month, and according to the website allows you to join multiple communities. I’m taking 5 classes right now, and I’m paying more than $400 just this quarter alone. If someone can share at least 2 books with me, it would help tremendously. Anyone else heard of this site before?

  45. disgruntled says:

    Sorry for not offering the link:


    And it turns out that they are offering one month free to try with no strings attached.

    I’m going to try it out and post a feedback next month if I get a response to my textbook requests.