The debate over why college textbooks are so expensive, and the blame we wish to parse out to the appropriate villains, is a twisted web to untangle. There are several lesser factors at play, but in my estimation, the textbook conundrum is best explained as the fallout between the opposing market forces of the textbook publishers and the textbook distributors.
From the student’s perspective, it is easy to point the finger at the publisher. How in the name of reason do you justify spending 200 dollars on the necessary evil of a Calculus textbook? Even worse, what if you could have bought a used model for a fraction of the price, but the professor is using the newest edition. Are the truths of arithmetic really in need of an update every three years? Student’s are left to conclude that something else, other than their best interest, is being served.
The publisher, however, has its rebuttal to offer. The evil he points to is often the university bookstore. Often no longer owned by the institution whose student body they serve, the Barnes and Noble on-campus is primarily interested in profitability. As you would suspect, there is usually a healthy mark-up on the textbooks that are sold at the university dealer. While it is increasingly possible to procure your textbooks more cheaply from alternative sources online such as at Textbooks.org, the university bookstore assures you of the purchase of the correct materials without the hazards involved with ordering from other vendors. The cold fact of capitalism here is that they charge high prices because they can.
The wedge issue between the publisher and the distributors is the used book market. Buying used books, when they are available, represents an immediate savings for the student. Our first inclination is to believe that we have found in used books a measure of relief from the exorbitant prices of textbooks, but have we? The publisher thinks not. While the bookstore sometimes enjoys large profit margins on the sale of used books, the publisher is sometimes left out. In response, publishers revise their materials frequently and seek higher profit margins. Herein lies the problem for expensive textbooks.