Learning to Pay – The Hefty Price of Textbooks

Learning to Pay – The Hefty Price of Textbooks

Eddie Go
pricetextbookdemandmarket structure
February 26, 2014

Why on earth are we paying so much for our textbooks? It’s a question that comes across the minds of many students after their first trip to the campus bookstore – and it’s certainly an important one.

Each year students are expected to spend hundreds of dollars on their prescribed reading materials, and for some this can be a hard hit. With this in mind, let’s look at what factors have contributed to the high price of books, and the options available to students.

Like any product, the price of a textbook should cover the costs incurred in producing and distributing it. In this case your textbook dollars would compensate three main parties – the authors and editors responsible for the book’s content, the publisher who prints the book and the retailer who makes the book available to students. Although publishers may prefer their pricing to be solely justified by such costs, an investigation into their profitability suggests that there is more to the story[i].

So why have so many publishers gotten away with huge profit margins at the expense of students? The blame is often pointed at existing copyright laws, which haven’t taken into account how technology has evolved over time. As for how this applies to textbooks, the Australian Copyright Act 1968 ensures that an author’s work is protected and can only be commercially replicated by publishers granted a licence[ii]. While the Act exists to fairly compensate authors, copyright laws have had an unfortunate impact on the textbook market.

By giving exclusive production rights to a small number of publishers, the textbook market is dominated by these firms and there is little to no competition. This situation, known as an oligopoly, allows publishers to sell books at a greater price. Publishers have little incentive to make their books more affordable as they don’t lose customers to any competing firms – nobody else can make the same content available legally! Suppose tomorrow the government decided that any firm could reproduce an author’s work – this would lead to a more competitive textbook market pushing prices down. On the downside this would probably kill the textbook industry if authors weren’t being properly paid by the firms, creating a need for balanced copyright reform.

The reasoning behind expensive textbooks can also be discussed in terms of demand. Demand for textbooks is usually insensitive to small price changes since many students see them as a necessary good. This attitude may have encouraged publishers to gradually increase the price of their textbooks over time[iii].

Frugal students have taken advantage of the used textbook market, where books can be acquired at substantially lower prices. Publishers, who don’t receive any profits from the sale of used books, have constantly attempted to battle the growing market. They tend to release new editions with minor updates, diminishing the value of previous editions. This allows publishers to weaken the used textbook trade and maintain high prices. Many firms also supply textbooks as a bundled product, throwing in additional material such as CDs and online content. If you’re unlucky enough to be enrolled in a subject that actually uses this stuff, you may have no choice but to buy the book brand new.

The good news is, however, students aren’t entirely powerless to the schemes and tactics employed by publishers. Alternative methods of acquiring books have emerged in recent years, with students able to rent textbooks through businesses such as ‘Zookal.’ Although online purchases can still be expensive, with some luck students can find offers better than those on campus. Legally acquired eBooks also tend to be cheaper than the physical version, however publishers have little incentive to lower the prices on these either.

Despite these options, most of us should be left with a sour feeling over the current state of the textbook market. The current system clearly encourages many students to obtain their texts illegally and punishes law abiding students who want to excel in their subjects. The most sensible solution to this problem is a complete overhaul of our copyright laws, balancing the needs of both authors and students.


[i] Band, Jonathan. (2013, June 17). Profitability of Firms in Copyright-Intensive Industries. Retrieved from http://infojustice.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/Profitability-of-Copyright-Industries.pdf

[ii] Attorney-General’s Department. (2012, October). Short Guide to Copyright. Canberra, Australia.

[iii] The Economist. (2014, August 16). Why textbooks cost so much. Retrieved from http://www.economist.com/