I have a feeling I’m stepping in front of a flamethrower and baring my ass here, but…
I’ve been (and now am) on all sides of the textbook game except writing: textbook buyer for a college bookstore, college English instructor, and now as a medical textbook publisher’s rep. And still the economics and money flow baffle me.
The Bookstore: Believe me, they want to buy all of your books that they can use. The profit margin for the bookstore on a new book is 23-30%. On a used book, it’s more like 50%. And if it’s a Follett, they have their own centralized used-book warehouse so you can get more money from them if the book’s in need anywhere in the country. A caveat, though, is that there needs to be a certain percentage of new books because some students just don’t want used texts.
The Instructor: It depends on the prof, really. Some want the perfect book and damn the cost, some look at the prices and will try to fill in the gaps otherwise. I was usually the latter.
The Publisher: It’s all about volume. Textbooks are low-volume print runs (compared to, say, the latest John Grisham), and the prices reflect that. Add to that your instructor has decided he or she wants a free copy of every anatomy book we sell, and guess who pays for them? On top of that, we only get paid for new books that are actually sold to students–bookstore returns and used books don’t count. The massive used-book market is why there are new editions every couple of years; if students kept their books for their libraries, editions would last a lot longer. And the writers have to get paid something, though it’s usually a pittance. Rarely can someone make a living writing textbooks.
Oh, yeah, I am ABD for an American Lit Ph.D., so I’ve also been the screwee. The economics of the whole situation suck, but looking at it from all sides, a large part of the high cost of textbooks is that people sell them back.