When the Imprint Isn't the Brand
Who Buys Books These Days?...

The Mysterious World of Textbooks

Magnifying_glassToday was a vacation day for me.  I had the pleasure of taking my son to Purdue for an orientation visit.  All went well, but now that we're dealing with two kids in college at the same time I'm focused on getting the best deal I can on textbooks.  The world of textbook retailing is indeed interesting and intriguing...

If you pay attention to the Amazon bestseller lists you've no doubt seen the sudden appearance of a variety of textbooks at the start of the fall and spring semesters.  Just like the rest of us, students are looking for the best value and Amazon generally offers the richest discounts.

As we walked around campus today it was impossible to miss the "special offers" and other deals the campus bookstores were pitching to get your business.  One chain "sponsored" the orientation event, which just proves (once again) that institutions of higher education aren't afraid to slap a corporate logo on something if it means making a quick buck; can't they find a way to fund their budgets with these skyrocketing tuition rates?!  One of the other stores didn't sponsor the event but had employees outside accosting you with their deals as you walked by.  Honestly, it felt like those guys on the street corners in Vegas with their "show" cards.

What really set me off today though is the secrecy that surrounds the required textbook list for each course.  Again, students are quickly learning that the campus store probably doesn't have the best price.  As a result, the campus store's websites aren't all that forthcoming with the list of required books.

But what about the school's website?  Here's an example of a first-semester Calculus course at Purdue, MA 161.  All the relevant course details seem to be there...except for the textbook information!  Shouldn't the school's website play Switzerland in this and treat all resellers the same by including the required textbooks on the course page?  I've looked high and low on their site and I can't find the information.  I've got a message in to Purdue's Registrar to get their "official" position on this and I'll let you know if I hear anything back on my inquiry.

To be fair, we're likely to buy some of the books online and the rest at the campus stores this year.  Timing, availability and other issues make it challenging to do all your textbook shopping at Amazon, for example.  And while I love browsing through the campus stores, they need to adjust their whole why-to-buy message, just like the bigger brick-and-mortar chains.  Walking through the stores today I got a sense that I wasn't the only one thinking about a better (and cheaper) online alternative.


Morgan Ramsay

Textbook prices are insane. I wish there was a law that prevented predatory textbook distributors/publishers from making exclusive deals with desperate academic institutions... The stench of unfair business practices is fresh in the world of textbooks.

Everyone talks about the poor state of affairs in American education, yet there appears to be nobody inclined to address the core problems. One of those problems is the infusion of commerce into academia. Who should foot the bill for course materials: academic institutions, textbook distributors/publishers, government, or students? Certainly not students. They're customers of the institution, but they're not treated that way. Serious reform is needed in this area.

Jim Minatel

BTW, with a couple of google searches
"MA 161" text site:purdue.edu
I was able to score the Purdue Math dept masterlist of texts by course for fall 2007:

So, at least for that dept, the information is available, even though not as handy as it could be on the course page you pointed to.

The specific bad news for you on MA 161: "blah blah CUSTOM6th EDITION - PURDUE UNIVERSITY, includes
Webassign Cards, custom book" AND it's "new." Want to be there's no used books, no chance of buying it on Amazon since it's custom? basically the Purdue official store can sell this baby for whatever they want. It's printing money. Don't worry Joe, if you default on the 3rd mortgage you need to pay for this book, you can pitch a tent in our back yard.

Carolyn Bahm

You make an excellent point about how the names of textbooks should be listed with the course. If you wait until a class starts, talk to the professor and then order a cheap used textbook online, you're already behind schedule (and that's assuming the right book is still available by that late date). Great idea -- I wish ALL universities made it easier to buy books online. And of course, they should be sure to list the right VERSION of the book; I got stuck mistakenly buying an earlier edition once.

Other than the university bookstore's profit motive, are there any other reasons why textbook lists are not released early and publicly? Are professors compensated in some way or otherwise encouraged by their employer to promote textbook sales through the university bookstore? Do they not announce textbook alignments to specific courses early because of some quirk of publishing companies' print schedules for new textbooks (if that's the excuse, a list of textbooks could easily be published online, though)?

Interesting topic.


I am a student and have fond similar text book costs... However my friends and I have found text book swapping! Sites such as www.bookchoice.com are useful. We wait until the the lecturer tells us the text book then go swap an old one out for it. it can usually happen in the week. so thats my tip :)


It's difficult for institutions to play "Switzerland" when the bookstores pay for the rights to be on campus. As such, the more that shifts off campus, the more money the institution loses.

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