Four reasons (and two non-reasons) why textbooks are so expensive

Winter term is almost upon us, and with that, the semi-annual ritual of spending hundreds upon hundreds of dollars for university textbooks.  Why does that Biology textbook cost $200?  Why do all of my textbooks cost so much?  There are a few reasons:

  • The biggest reason why is because the market for textbooks is a captive market.  Assuming that a professor selects a certain textbook for a course, the publishers can charge almost anything they want, because students will need to buy it anyway.  Professors are often sympathetic to the plight of students buying expensive textbooks, but they don’t have the information to make a choice based on what would be easiest on students’ wallets (this sort of information isn’t readily provided by textbook salespeople).
  • Canada’s book import regulations grant Canadian publishers exclusive rights to distribute titles.  Does your bookstore want an American textbook?  They can’t get it directly from the American publisher.  They have to go to the Canadian arm of the American publisher, which imports the book and charges a 10% premium on the book for the service.  This can result in American textbooks being a lot more expensive in Canada than in the U.S.  For example, A History of the Roman People is $100.92 on Amazon.ca and $56.71 on Amazon.com.  Note that Individuals can order American books from American online retailers like Amazon.com without paying duties, although they will have to pay GST on the imported goods.  Of course, you’d have to pay GST if you bought the book in Canada anyway, so no big deal.  With the Canadian dollar above par, checking out American booksellers may be a good way of saving money.
  • Textbooks are printed using very high-quality, glossy paper and other probably-not-entirely-necessary frills.
  • Publishers put out new editions frequently and do other tricky things to ensure that the supply of used textbooks doesn’t meet demand, and so ensuring that students will continue to have to buy textbooks at the new price.

There are several other reasons often cited for why textbooks are so expensive, but some of them aren’t actually a reason:

  • The campus bookstores, while they’re obviously making money selling books (otherwise they wouldn’t bother) aren’t making as much money, percentage-wise, as you might think.
  • The professors writing the textbook, while they may make a fair amount of royalties, the royalties often don’t amount to a signficant fraction of the sale price either.
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