Skip to content

Why are Textbooks so Expensive & How to Avoid the Expense

Updated: June 19, 2024 | Published: April 28, 2020

Updated: June 19, 2024

Published: April 28, 2020


Imagine this familiar scene for students at the start of every semester: you get your textbook list from your professors, find out that they are all required, and make your way down to the bookstore dreading the final bookstore bill. How much do you pay each year for your textbooks? If it’s around $500 to $1,000, you are not alone. So why are textbooks so expensive? Find out here. (Hint: it’s exactly what you think it is.)

Stack of textbooks on table
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Why Are Textbooks So Expensive?

You’ve certainly wondered why are textbooks so expensive? We all have! The answer to this mystery lies in a few simple but influential parts of the textbook industry.

For starters, 80% of textbooks are owned by only 5 companies. This should tell you a lot about the current competition for lowering prices.

The top 5 reasons why textbooks are so expensive are:

Reason 1: Professors Aren’t Checking Prices

Ultimately it is the professor who decides what textbook materials to assign to their students. Oftentimes, professors don’t even look at the prices of textbooks before assigning them. They are often sent promotional materials by large book publishers, and it’s often easier for professors to simply choose from one of the promoted books.

Reason 2: They Cost a Lot to Produce

Textbooks are massive. They take up a lot of paper, ink, and printing material resources to produce. They are also heavy — which is translated into high shipping rates all over the world. Plus, those 1,000 pages include a lot of information — information that has to be researched, compiled, written, verified, and edited.

And it doesn’t end there, as the book still needs to be designed and formatted to look nice. Just creating a textbook copy is a massive undertaking and takes up plenty of resources. In these ways, it makes a bit of sense why textbooks are so expensive.

Reason 3: Publisher Profits

Textbook publishers take a good chunk of profits from their books, and with so few publishing companies, there is little incentive to lower those profit margins.

With no other competition, textbook companies can essentially charge any price they choose. In addition, students are required to buy — it is not a choice, so they can’t choose to buy a cheaper book. As a result, there is little incentive for publishers to lower their prices.

Hands holding hundred dollar bills
Photo by Alexander Mils on Unsplash

Reason 4: Bundle Pricing

Have you ever found a CD in the back of your textbook? Or perhaps your book came with some login info and a website to complete assignments on? These are software bundles that come with your book, whether you wanted them or not. The bundle pricing of including online resources, softwares, and the book makes prices go up that much more.

Reason 5: New Editions

Some fields are always changing. New information is being discovered, researched, or published. This is especially true in the sectors of science, medicine, history and technology. For this reason, textbooks are always coming out with new editions that need to be reviewed and approved yearly. Students are forced to buy the newest versions, and publishers have an excuse to charge more.

9 Ways to Avoid Paying For Textbooks

1. Buy Used Textbooks

There are plenty of second-hand bookstores and online stores (such as Amazon) that will let you find used textbooks. These used textbooks are always cheaper than buying new so you will save a few bucks easily. Just make sure to check the condition of the book you are buying before you click purchase.

Textbooks on shelves at a bookstore
Photo by Stanislav Kondratiev on Unsplash

2. Buy Online Instead of at the Bookstore

If you do choose to (or have no choice but to) buy a new textbook, compare prices online before heading over to the bookstore. You may be able to find the exact same textbook for much cheaper from an online discount retailer.

3. Always Sell Back Your Books

When you know you no longer need your books, sell them to make back some of that money. You can sell them back to the bookstore, sell them online, or sell them to your classmates. If you know in advance that you plan on selling a book after using it, try to refrain from marking it up with highlights or notes, as you will get more cash back for a book in good condition.

4. Make Sure You Really Need Them

Check with the professor if the materials are required. Sometimes, a professor will add a book to the materials list with no intention of assigning readings or examples from it, but rather as a resource to use throughout the semester. If you don’t learn well from books, this may not be the best choice for you anyways, so don’t waste your money.

5. Attend a University That Includes Free Books

University of the People is not just an accredited tuition-free university, but allows for students to access free textbooks and learning materials for the entirety of their studies. University of the People uses Open Education Resources (OER), which are collections of academic textbooks and journal articles for open use by all, allowing students access to high-quality learning materials, without spending an arm and a leg.

6. Go for the E-Book

Electronic versions of textbooks are convenient to buy, as you just need to download them. E-books are much more portable and greener too. They will save you a pretty penny, as they are often much cheaper than the paper versions.

7. Rent Your Textbooks

Renting your textbooks is a great way to save money and help the environment! When you rent a textbook, you have it on lease for the duration of the quarter or semester, and when the course is over you must return the book. The price of textbook rentals are typically much cheaper than buying. This is also a great option if you are certain you won’t need the book after the class.

8. Check the Library

Your school library or local library may have a copy of the textbook, so check there before you purchase. If you need some quiet to study and visit the library often, this is a great option! Just take the book off the shelf, do your weekly readings, and put it back. No need to spend money at all.

White library with light and books
Photo by Sylvia Yang on Unsplash

9. Check With Friends/Classmates

It is possible that someone you know has taken this class before, so they may have a copy of the textbook that you could either borrow or have. If you get to know other students in your major, you may even be able to start a booklending circle.

If you’re looking for more information on getting free textbooks, check out our guide here.

What About Digital Textbooks?

The idea behind digital textbooks, or subscription textbooks, seems like a good one. Schools sign up for the service, and students are given access codes for their digital textbooks by course they are enrolled in. Prices are included in a student’s tuition, but students can opt out if they want to. Seems easy, right?

Well, there are a few issues some have raised. First of all, students lose access to the digital book after the course ends, so they have no way of selling back the book to make up for part of the costs. It has also been brought up that this is a way for one publishing company to ‘lock in’ money from all the students at a school — because it is built into tuition, students are unlikely to opt out and find other options for purchasing the books.

Open-Source Textbooks: A Promising Solution

Open-source textbooks are textbooks that can be accessed by anyone, and authored by anyone reputable. The idea behind open source is that knowledge is not something to be hoarded, purchased, and sold. Rather, knowledge belongs to everyone and everyone should have access.

Professors are slow to adopt open-source textbooks, however, because they have a long standing relationship with the larger publishers, and open-source books are less regulated and verified than published textbooks.

The Bottom Line

Why are textbooks so expensive? You certainly don’t have to be part of the answer to that question. There’s no need to spend hundreds of dollars each year on textbooks, with so many other options for you to get the books and knowledge you need. Rent, borrow, or buy used and save your money!

At UoPeople, our blog writers are thinkers, researchers, and experts dedicated to curating articles relevant to our mission: making higher education accessible to everyone.