How Can Professors Save Students a Few Bucks (or More)?

If you use textbooks in courses, writes Thomas D. Sigerstad, there are concrete steps that cut costs -- and don't hurt the quality of education.

January 15, 2009

It’s tough to make a buck in textbook publishing. There was a time when textbooks didn’t need to be revised into new editions that often, when the used book market was not as pervasive and so easily accessible for any student to be a buyer and seller online, and digital copies or other competitive nuisances hadn’t been thought of, or were even possible. Not so today.

Student purchasers of textbooks can be creative before I, as a faculty member, even begin to save them a few bucks. To protect the market for textbooks, and the incentive for authors, publishers and authors have valiantly fought against this creativity, primarily by revising textbooks more frequently, and secondarily by offering bundling and custom packs for instructors.

As I look at various texts on my shelves where I am interested in how the field has changed or developed, I notice texts from the ‘60s and ‘70s that had five- to six-year spans between revisions, and in some fields, without much change to content, even longer. Nowadays it seems like every two years is the norm for a new edition. Publishers make the old edition obsolete and allow for continued textbook revenue and author royalties. The argument is that examples need to be fresher, cases need to be current, pictures need to be updated, and so on. Those are excuses as much as valid arguments. I’m also beginning to see content rearranged and chapter order changing more often as another way to make older editions slip into obsolescence. The customized and bundled packs also make material obsolete in that the material is only good for those instructors requiring that packaged material. Students lose the ability to resell, or even buy used material, except perhaps through their own bookstore which might be somewhat reluctant itself to invest in one-of-a-kind course materials.

There’s no doubt that fresher content examples make the text more timely for each new cohort of students, but when I think of basic content, I don’t see much change. I teach in a college of business, teaching an introductory course as well as a capstone course. In the introductory course I see no major content changes, no major additions to our theoretical understanding (not that we want to introduce too much theory in a business college’s applied setting) and the same content we have borrowed from our sister disciplines in the other social sciences that we have been presenting since they were new in back in the ‘70s and ‘80s. I do note new textbooks that try to take a fresh approach to “packaging” the information and giving it a new twist, sort of like the old wine in new bottles approach, but when you look at the information, it hasn’t changed; it’s just been reorganized under some hot new way of looking at something … that “paradigm shift” that used to be so hot itself back in the ‘70s.

I note in my strategy capstone course that there have not been any major additions to basic theory in well over a decade. What if I were teaching history, math, biology or another field where, perhaps, content is also slow to change? I could tell my students easily to pick any edition of either of the primary textbooks that I use as long as it is copyrighted after 1985, and they would be at no loss for basic content. The examples would be outdated, but not useless, in that we can still learn from the context of history.

So, what do I do? I send my syllabi to my roster of students three to four weeks before the semester starts with a note that suggests they visit their online used book sellers. I tell them the ISBN of the current edition of the text, and I relate the retail price of that book. I typically give them the ISBN of the prior edition and relate the going price on a major Internet book seller’s site, usually about half the price of the new text, as the older edition loses its value quickly when the new edition comes out. I then give them one older edition’s ISBN number and often report that this used text will typically cost them less than the cost to have it shipped to them. For one of my courses using a popular textbook, the current edition has a list price of $124 for the hardback that contains case material I won’t use in class, so I suggest the paperback version for $104, an immediate savings right there that is even magnified in older editions. I tell them that they can purchase that $104 paperback for $71 used. I then let them know they can use an older edition that sells new for $38 and used for $4 with no loss of basic content. In fact, I give them the opportunity to purchase an even older edition, now a whopping six years old that can be had new for $8 and used for 1 cent. It will cost more in shipping to get the book. With no loss in basic content, it is hard to rationalize paying $104.

To be sure, I now look at the order of chapters and major content to see if anyone purchasing an older edition will be at a disadvantage, and then relate these differences to my class. I also refuse to test on the examples that use current stories, names and events, as I believe they are less important than basic content. I refuse to put together custom books that have no resale value for my students because I might be the only instructor using that package. Some of my students find “gray market” imported books for sale that were printed overseas at huge cost savings to publishers to be competitive in those markets but which then find their way back into the U.S. market, a huge savings as lower production costs are passed along.

I encourage my students to save money. I tell them not to waste money on versions that contain cases if I don’t use cases. When I refer to something in a text by figure I’ll often have students with other editions pipe up and inform those with other versions the page number for their text. And I get notes from students consistently thanking me for making it easier to save money on this growing expense item. Students are even smart enough now that they ask me well in advance for ISBNs so they can shop for value. Students share their secrets like any savvy consumer about where the best deals are and often remark in class about the good deal they found. With textbooks averaging in the neighborhood of $700 per semester for all their courses, they can easily cut this expense in half or more by requesting ISBNs from their instructors and doing online price comparisons. At the end of the semester, I’ve had students tell me they also maximize the resale value of that semester’s textbooks by reselling all of their textbooks online to get the best price from other students.

In the past, the publisher had more of an upper hand in this publisher-student marketplace relationship. Secondary markets didn’t really exist, except within the campus book store. Students knew that used books would save them some money over new ones. They might get a few bucks back at the end of the semester, but resale values would be low because there was only one buyer, the campus bookstore. So students didn’t have the option to be creative. The publishers were also supported by gatekeeper instructors who really controlled what textbooks the students bought. That gatekeeper was a sure thing if the professor wrote textbooks him or herself, but even when the instructor was not the author, the publisher supplied enough teaching materials in the way of PowerPoint presentations, test banks or instructor guides, that there was incentive to upgrade to the newest material, some of which could be specialized just for that instructor, and no real incentive not to. The only cost was borne by the student.

It would be tough to be in the textbook publishing business today. The business model has been attacked by the robustness of the used book market and the creativeness of students trying to get value. Publishing is, at best, trying to keep its product life cycle from declining by using the aforementioned techniques, but you can tell by consolidation in the industry, outsourcing and new technologies that it will remain a struggle based on a savvy consumer and a middleman gatekeeper (instructor) often no longer willing to support price maintenance. It’s a little tough for me to stand in front of a class and tell them to purchase something for $100 or more when the same information to do well in the course can be had for a couple of bucks. Fellow professors, let’s stop being gatekeepers – and instead start helping students be smart consumers.


Thomas D. Sigerstad is professor of business and MBA Program coordinator at Frostburg State University, in Maryland.


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