The “Real” Cost of Textbooks

By: Sugee Kim

The typical college student, in addition to tuition, housing and meals, has one very important factor that cannot be overlooked when budgeting their allowance at the beginning of every semester – textbook costs.

“I came to college with my summer’s savings; it was a little over $700 from babysitting, tutoring, stuff like that. And when I went to the bookstore to buy textbooks for [pre-med] classes, I found I couldn’t afford it,” pre-med third year at Duke University Rebecca Kang recalls.

Kang laughs now as she remembers the panicked phone call she made to her parents as a worried freshman, not knowing exactly what to do. “I’ve learned right off the bat that the school textbook store is not the place to go for textbooks.”

The College Board reported that the average cost for books and supplies during the 2011 to 2012 school year was $1,168 per student at public colleges and $1,213 at private institutions. That’s roughly $600 per semester. And assuming the student is taking three classes, that’s $200 per class not including other costs such as laboratory equipment or necessary rentals.

Why do college textbooks cost so much?

“I thought, ‘This is the college kid struggle – food, beer or books’, because with the allowance and budget I had, there was no way I could get all three,” realized Kang. With a course load with full of recitations, lab materials, lab workbooks and lecture textbooks, she turned to search engines such as Google, Facebook and Amazon in attempts to lower her textbooks expenses. She found that Amazon was pretty good, but including shipping and tax, the costs for a “decently-used” book would be higher than a “like-new” version. It wasn’t until a post on Facebook that an upperclassman was moving into an apartment and was looking to get rid of books caught Kang’s eye. Negotiating a price and meeting the student directly on campus would be faster and cheaper than expedited shipping, she figured. It was a smooth process and the costs seemed reasonable. But a thought did occur to Kang – didn’t the seller care that she was paying less than half of what he had initially bought the textbook for?

“It’s nearly impossible to make a profit off of [selling] textbooks,” Kang admits. According to the Facebook posts and groups that are formed on campus to sell and buy books, a $250 premed book would sell at a huge loss for $50. There had to be a better way to sell books. A quick Google search showed that there were companies who bought back books from students year round. is one of those companies. They are a book buyback website, rather than a textbook selling website. Owned by McKenzie Books, and, it’s the second part of the discounted textbook industry’s cycle and acts as the middleman to buy used books and sell those purchased books online to second, third, or even fourth-hand buyers. On, the customer will type in the book’s IBSN to get a quote estimate of their books. Upon accepting’s offer, the company provides free shipping and handling of the books to their warehouse in Beaverton, Oregon.

From there, the books go directly to online marketplaces like and, where college students like Kang flock to discount prices each semester.

Textbook costs are not included in general school tuition but is assumed to be a personal expense of the student, despite the textbook being a necessity to participate in class. Websites such as,, and Amazon Marketplace boast sale claims not unlike travel agencies: “savings up to 70%”, “lowest prices around” and “save hundreds of dollars.”

Much like the selling point of Amazon or even thrift stores, discounted textbooks sales have proven that “used” is not bad; in fact, “used” is what students want. Kang finds used textbooks more helpful than new ones because “it’s not as if [the highlighting and notes] are for no reason, someone studied from the book.”

From1986 to 2004, college textbook prices rose about 6 percent every year; can a college student really afford to turn down a great bargain on the same textbook they found on

These smaller, individually owned or startup companies such as and fill the niche for college students looking for a stronger customer service component such as a payment plan, direct deposit, or even one-on-one over the phone ISBN search.

When warehouses such as post their inventory on Amazon, they must pay the larger company a commission for every sale, which is a considerable but crucial price to pay for the massive online traffic that Amazon brings. Still, “there’s no point in trying to directly compete with the big boys,” says Katzenberg., while they sell a lot of books on their marketplace, is not so much a competitor as “someone they need to play nicely with, so it’s really just easiest to work with these larger companies.”

“We distinguish ourselves with our customer service. We not only offer email support, but if you call our office you’ll talk to a real person. And since our customer service is all in house, they are better able to answer questions than some of the larger companies who outsource their support.

For example, our Customer Care reps will go back into our warehouse and double check on the condition of a book to ensure that customers are getting exactly what they want,” promises Katzenberg. College students are attracted to this type of extensive customer service, especially when trying to get the highest possible quote for used textbooks.

Textbooks found online at discounted prices often come in two forms: second-hand or electronically. The e-textbook price is often lower than buying the brand new book, but more costly than buying second-hand. The benefits of both are simple: more affordable, more environmentally friendly and more accessible to get (via quick internet searches and orders).

According to a representative at, one of the leaders in online discounted textbook sales, the sales of e-textbooks are increasing. Additionally, sales from the 2010-2011 school year show that print textbook sales have not decreased. The increase in e-textbooks comes with the increase in demand of CD-ROMs, online access codes or other supplementary online material that comes with a brand new textbook. Students, particularly those studying foreign languages or sciences look for these extras.

Apple, a huge player in e-textbooks, is seemingly paving the road to transition the majority of print textbooks over to solely existing online. Walter Isaacson, author of the late Apple founder Steven Jobs, writes that Jobs foresaw this trend in his biography, “Textbooks are a $8 billion market ripe for ‘digital destruction’.” And in fact, Apple released a free educational app called “iBook” that utilizes interactive learning with full-screen digital textbooks, video, and animations.  Working with schoolteachers, the app has an iBooks Author portion that allowed for professors to create full online courses, assignments and quizzes for students to download. Still, it’s future in mainstream education is not yet clear.

Simba Information, a publishing industry research firm has reported that sales for e-textbooks in the U.S. higher education market grew 44.3% to $267.3 million by the end of the fall semester in 2011. Statistics can show the fluctuation of numbers, but what college students’ want is what really drives the sales.

“Availability isn’t the problem,” Kang says. “Most popular textbooks have a digital version and are available to students or anyone who can do a bit of searching online. But it’s not appealing because it’s doesn’t help me study.” The e- textbooks don’t have the convenience a real textbook would. Sure, you can now type notes on a page and bold and highlight sentences on some e-books, but those are too much and too distracting when trying to study, Kang admits. “I go to the toolbar to click the highlighter option and see right below it that I’ve received an email – so I open the email and poof, 30 minutes are gone.”

Katzenberg notes that smaller companies, such as are not yet supplying e-book supplementary materials. It is, however, one of the biggest customer service issues. Although shipping and delivery problems are “definitely the top issues, probably over 95% of all problems that arise”, he notices that recently customers were expecting more than just the textbook.

Dan Rosenweig, CEO of Chegg believes the inevitable future is full of e-books, “We are at the beginning of this arc. Today’s 8th graders will enter college expecting to use e-books.”

The online textbook industry is a strong one that college students will always seek out. Whether or not the e-textbook will take over the print version is dubious, considering “65-78% of all textbooks received at the warehouse have written, folded or highlighted pages”, the primary advantage of print for secondhand buyers who like Kang, assume that the “highlighted parts aren’t highlighted for no reason, someone had highlighted it for studying purposes.”

Next semester is right around the corner, so it’ll be interesting to see how the trends of print, e-books, and smaller online companies such as and grow over the next couple of years.  But until e-books become the mainstream, print textbooks will continue to take its toll on the wallets of college students nationwide.

“Of course,  lowering the prices would be greatly appreciated by every single college student in the nation but not selling it for $200-$300 would make them lose profit… but I don’t think that’s a risk they’re willing to take,” laughs Kang.

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