Textbook Price Inflation

The Economist reports that textbook prices continue to climb several times the general rate of inflation:

Textbook Prices


But hope is not lost for poor scholars. Foreign editions are easy to find online and often cheaper—sometimes by over 90%. Publishers can be litigious about this, but in 2013 the Supreme Court ruled that Americans have the right to buy and resell copyrighted material obtained legally. Many university bookstores now let students rent books and return them. Publishers have begun to offer digital textbooks, which are cheaper but can’t be resold. And if all else fails, there is always the library.

They note that one of the main reasons for the constant climb is a type of moral hazard: the person deciding which textbook to assign (the instructor) is not the same person who has to come up with the cash (the student). The professor can get an examination copy of the book for free, decide if he/she likes it, and make the call–totally insensitive to whether the marginal value added by the selected text justifies the marginal expense when compared to alternative materials. Some instructors can be quite considerate of cost–I like to think that I am–but instructors are also busy people juggling many responsibilities and trying to find materials quickly which make their own lives easier. Of course publishers are aware of this and market their products accordingly. My advice? Use the secondary markets as much as possible: buy used, buy online, buy the overseas edition, borrow or rent where possible, resell (unless it’s a definite keeper!) quickly before the next edition comes out, or buy a digital edition.


One thought on “Textbook Price Inflation

  1. I meant to comment on this earlier, but I never really thought about the displaced decision that faculty have compared to students. This moral hazard idea is symbolic of a principal-agent problem where the principal being affected by the textbook cost is not the agent making the decision of what text to choose. I fully concur that textbook decisions would be different if faculty realized the cost of the book. Personally, I try not to change the edition too often to allow for resale/renting possibilities. The faculty who switch editions year to year are loved by publishers, but hated by students’ wallets.

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