Who Are The Bad Guys in The College Textbook Market?

GUEST COLUMN | by Jeff Lorton

It’s the time of year when the cost of higher education comes face-to-face with college students that must make an important decision that may haunt them for years come. They choose their textbooks. Many pay for these books with student loans that may take decades to repay.

From the outside, most would think that the student makes an easy decision based on the requirements of the course. The format of the book, be it hard cover or e-textbook, the vendor could be online or at the campus bookstore, the length of use as a rental book or purchase, and finally new or used. It sounds so simple. It is a shell game that every student plays and most lose.

I hope this column helps clear away the smoke and mirrors that hide the truth of this market. There are some companies that are leveling the playing field for students and eliminating the shell game advantage.

Who are the bad guys in this textbook shell game? I will identify some of the participants and you can decide.

Textbook publishers are at the top of this market. They invest time and money into creating the content for textbooks. They have field reps that work with professors and universities to help create and influence the choice of using their textbook. It is an expensive process that has not changed in many lifetimes. Most of the publishers are now part of several large companies that control the market. They sell all of the new books and try to make as much money as possible on the first sale. Once a book is used, the publisher may not make any more money on that book.

The publishers do many things to help make new books a requirement. They sell custom books, prefer selling single use e-textbooks, and sell books at the campus bookstore with required codes that cannot be reused. They try to keep students buying new books.

Textbook wholesalers purchase used textbooks and resell those books to many vendors. They buy, ship, warehouse and return the used books to the market. They attempt to buy used textbooks at a low price and resell them at a profit. It seems that they control the availability of the used books on the market so that prices do not become too low. They try to make as much money as possible before the used books become obsolete and a new version takes its place.

Universities depend on textbooks to help professors and teaching assistants deliver quality content for teaching. They run the campus bookstores, so they work with publishers, wholesalers and bookstore management companies. The bookstore profits help support colleges and universities.

There are many other pieces and participants in this giant shell game. Many vendors, resellers, and others all compete in this market and try to make as much money as possible on every textbook sale. Who are the bad guys? I think it is the whole system. It is broken. It is dependent on making as much money on every sale because the other guys may get the money on the next sale. I also know who loses playing this game, the students that pay for this broken mess.

We know everyone is trying to survive financially in the broken market including students. At our company we have built a new model for students that is based on them saving money on the textbook purchase, getting fair resale values, as well as other ways to help them save money as a campus group.

To succeed when playing the textbook shell game, students need to know who has the best the prices at that moment in time. It is very similar to how airline ticket prices change depending on the airline, number of seats available and other factors. Students use our free comparison search that shows the available textbook options and prices at that moment in time. This is an example of actual search results from a freshman English textbook published this year:

New from: $101.75 Range: $101.75 – $130.98 | Net Savings: $29.23

Used from: $105.73 Range: $105.73 – $142.15 | Net Savings: $36.42

Rent from: $49.92 Range: $49.92 – $202.31 | Net Savings: $152.39

Sell Book Back value Range: $37.80 – $52.75 | Best Price: $52.75

In this case there was not an e-textbook available and our results found the new text was cheaper than the used text, renting being the least expensive at this time, and if you will sell the book at the end of the class, there may be no savings in renting the book: 101.75 new- 52.75 sell back value= $49. So the informed student may opt for the new textbook. This is a very unique example, as used prices are usually lower than new book prices, but the demand for the used book may be pushing it past some new prices.

This example also illustrates the price ranges from the many different vendors. You might decide to rent all your books from one vendor. Maybe you chose the vendor renting this title for $49, or maybe you make a mistake in this case and spend $202.31 renting this textbook. It is a complicated game that students can’t win without unbiased, comprehensive information.

My company offers many services including a patent pending peer-to-peer textbook exchange that will allow students to sell their textbooks to students on their campus and get a fair resale price through us.

We also connect students to local business offering discounts to participants. We help student groups manage their members and even help students start and market online businesses.

Students can win the textbook shell game by knowing what prices and options are under hundreds of shells. Pick the right shell and you win.


Jeff Lorton has 20 years experience in sales marketing, public relations management, business development, international and domestic higher education markets and is vice president of marketing at CampusShift. Write to: jeff@campusshift.com



  1. We invite you to browse through our site for a great collection of old books . Select your choice books from our store on a very affordable price.

  2. Thanks for sharing such kind of useful and informative article especially for the students. You are absolutely right that we should have sufficient knowledge about the prices of books and options under hundreds of shells created by the bad guys in the college textbook market. Please keep sharing articles like this.

  3. There’s more to this subject than just the book prices. Publishers offer online supplements of varying sorts. Some are awful “lab” simulations. Some are free, and some require a very modest (e.g. $5) annual subscription to support web site development and maintenance.

    Where is all of this going? I see one book that sells for around $80 on Amazon also available on Kindle for $30 (no used Kindle book sales). Amazon also lists a number of used book sources.

    I believe that the future of educational content lies on the Internet and that it won’t be traditional books. Even with embedded videos, books are just passive learning. Using existing (and expensive to create) books as a springboard, publishers will begin to add interactivity to their online editions making them potentially more valuable to learning than the more expensive print versions. Ultimately, true active learning will appear within this evolving medium.

    The books of the future will still have text and images. They’ll also have stunning videos. But, more importantly, they’ll engage students with material that recognizes the students’ progress and requires students to take positive actions (beyond simple answering of quiz questions) to progress. By tracking these actions, the “book” will know what material to present.

    In the end, we’ll see individualized mastery online as the replacement for the books that have been the source of learning content for centuries. The technology exists today. Only the inertia of a huge industry and the problem of figuring out exactly how to deploy the new way of learning hold back the new era of education.

    Right now, I’m pioneering some of these new ideas in the context of online hands-on science labs, a new wrinkle in the arena of virtual science labs. I am working on expanding the range of active features. We’ve already delivered nearly one million of our Smart Science® online hands-on labs.

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