What the hell is up with custom textbooks?

A friend of mine is working on a degree at a California university. She’s got to watch her pennies, and used book sellers are a great way to save money on textbooks. Unless, that is, the professor uses a “custom” version of the textbook published for that class at that university.

Custom textbooks significantly diminish the market for used textbooks, because the text is significantly less useful to a student at another university, and students like my friend usually can’t buy the custom textbook from a seller in another location. They’re mostly the same, and often the “customization” is just cutting out the chapters the professor doesn’t plan to assign (they don’t necessarily renumber the pages when they do this, either), but the student doesn’t know this without examining the textbook.

I see why the publishers and the campus bookstores are in favor of killing the used textbook market. What I don’t understand is why professors go along with this.

Professors go along with this because they write text books and want to sell more of them, the same reason the publishers are doing it. I’d do the same thing if I was as unproductive an individual as the average university professor.

I suspect incentives for other than the authors of the text books. Screw your students for a pittance. Also, the administrators may push it to keep their facility that does write books happy. It can be a dirty little world.

It’s not nearly as sinister as y’all are making it out to be. What follows comes from a discussion that happened in a class I was taking; the professor decided that we needed a bitch session, and this came up.

Most students won’t buy the textbook if it’s not required, or if there is some indication that the professor will only assign a few chapters from it; either they’ll buy the book before the first day of class and return it once the professor goes over the syllabus, or they’ll hold off on buying the book at all until they know for sure whether they really need it or not. When sales don’t happen, the bookstore (and the professor, if he stands to profit from the book’s sales) makes no money at all. This is a big deal for the university itself because the proceeds from the bookstore are often used to fund activities of various sorts.

On the other hand, publishing custom texts means that students are more likely to buy the text, and that results in sales for the bookstore. More sales means more money for the university. So it is money, but not in the way that you think.

That being said, unless part of her funding requires her to buy her books at the bookstore, why isn’t your friend shopping around? I’ve gotten textbooks from Amazon and some of the other used book sites at significant savings; in fact, I can’t remember the last time I bought a book through the bookstore. The bookstore may also have these custom textbooks available digitally, where they’re dirt cheap relative to the cost of the dead-tree versions. Finally, most professors aren’t total assholes when it comes to textbooks; they really do understand that not every student can afford to buy every book on the book list, and they may be able to help, either by lending her a sample copy for the semester or at least letting her copy the relevant chapters. There are ways to beat the system. You just gotta be assertive and creative.

What MsRobyn said. I’ve heard about these things, but in my entire university career, I’ve never once had a professor that was an asshole about textbooks. Most of them avoided textbooks if at all possible. Those that could not avoid them almost always made sure a copy was available on reserve, allowed plenty of discussion on the cheapest place to buy books, and generally just made it easy on people.


I have a feeling we are reading different things into this. I see this as EXACTLY as sinister as everyone is making it out to be. It’s actually a “problem” that students don’t buy textbooks that are not required for their class? Textbooks are sold, not as a learning supplement, as a reference for the student, but as a way for the school, publishers and professors to earn extra money.

It the same bullshit that industries all over the place use to fuck over their customers. Get you locked in, then nickel and dime you to death with overpriced add ons that you wind up required to have. While I appreciate that it is possible to beat the system, what is infuriating is the existence of the system in the first place.

I just took a class with a custom text book and I was also pissed about it. What was custom about my book? Not much. It just contained excerpts from another text book. The prof said she assigned that book because it was much cheaper than the original book. That was sort of true. The problem was that I could not sell it back to the university bookstore or to anyone else. Oh, and how much reading was assigned from those books? Zero.

Literally every single one of my professors in college complained about what a racket the student book store was (I want to say they had a deal with Barnes and Noble or something). They would frequently tell us if other, older editions of the book would be sufficient— though they were banned by the school from telling us where to buy books besides the book store.

Also, if they were using their own book, they’d all just photocopy the necessary parts and distribute it to us.

First of all, no one is forcing anyone to buy any of the textbooks at all, and no one is forcing anyone to buy their books at the university bookstore. I agree that textbooks are a racket, which is why I suggested ways to get around it.

All the professors I’ve known have thought the textbook industry was kind of a racket, although there were some books worth buying and keeping. And the profit that a professor would make from even a few hundred copies of a textbook that he or she had written is usually pretty small, so it’s not much incentive to make students buy the text.

The class I TA for requires that students get custom texts, but they were designed specifically so they’d be cheaper than the original. Many of our students aren’t exactly Rockefellers, so the administration had only the chapters students needed bound in cheap paperback. Students sell off their used versions every semester, and professors make sure to tell students that several copies of the original text are on reserve in the library.

What does this even mean? I’m going to spend tens of thousands of dollars on classes and not bother getting the textbook?

So, we’re entirely in agreement. It’s a racket. People have a right to be pissed off that it’s a racket, and there’s no particular reason to defend the system because it’s possible to avoid some of the most egregious problems.

The fact that you can avoid a scam doesn’t mean these folks have stopped trying to scam you. All it means is that they’re not as successful as they wish they were.

Unless the prof wrote and edited the book themselves, they don’t get much money from textbooks. My friend gets $1,000 at most to write an entire chapter, and no residuals.

There are some profs who write and sell their own books, but when I had them they were happy to pass out copies to their students in their classes.

The open textbook market is starting, and even broke-California is trying to help sponsor some work to make it easier.

My experiences are over a decade in the past. The only case I knew of a custom textbook was one that was less than half of the original and considerably cheaper. Also lighter. (On more than one occasion I took a book and simply cut out all the parts that I needed for the course punched holes and put them in a binder. Simply so that I wouldn’t have to carry the whole thing around.

The textbook business is utterly corrupt. When I took calc, the book cost $5 and a used copy half that and could be resold. It was also under 300 small (probably 5 x 7) pages. Now they come in at 1000 8 1/2 x 11 pages with a price pushing $200. Has there been anything new in elementary calculus since I took it (55 years ago)? No. Of course, these books try to include any application that anyone has thought of. It ought to be the job of the instructor to provide notes for any applications he is interested in. Nowadays there are also free online calc books and if I had to teach calc now, that’s what I would use.

About 20 or 25 years ago, I was to teach a course in number theory and had to choose a text. The one I used as an undergraduate was, unfortunately, out of print. A beautiful little book. So I had to find a text. (Students in math courses are very unhappy without an assigned text and a text is a good source of exercises, or I might not have.) I got a list of five and wrote to the publishers asking what their prices were (this of course was pre-web). The results were interesting. Two of the five ignored my letter. One of them wrote back to say that that information was proprietary! Imagine that! The price is a secret. I chose the cheaper of the remaining two. Perfectly satisfactory, but over-priced at $55.

Hey guys, I work in the textbook industry and figured I’d offer myself up to answer questions.

A few things to start:

First I will say is that there’s a big difference between “custom textbooks” that are just re-mixed versions made so they can’t be as easily re-sold. (this is a favorite practice of the Majors, i.e. Pearson, when they’re not busy bribing officials through their non-profit of course, McGraw, Cengage, etc.) and legit custom texts. Big guys do the “custom” stuff for the same reason there are new editions made seemingly every year of textbooks of topics that basically don’t change and certainly don’t need an update; to try to pump new sales out.

Remember, especially in an age where non-direct rentals and used books are easily accessible, the companies feel that they have to squeeze the most out of every book. Once that puppy is sold they stand to not profit from it ever again, even if ten students end up using that book (of course, don’t think that’s not priced into the cost of the book to begin with…).

Two, you’re probably aware that even on custom made books where you have no choice most college bookstores charge a mark up (and sometimes a significant one?).

Three, not all custom texts are a scam. There are a number of companies that are content aggregators (XanEdu, Academic Pub, University Readers) that will put together custom textbooks that do seem to actually be cheaper (and sometimes significantly so) than traditional books (and usually come in ebook format even if the original texts don’t). That’s because they’ll generally pull stuff from across content providers (which the Majors won’t do. Period. You can only mix and match their own stuff, naturally) so students can actually buy one book instead of four, etc…

Of course students do get still get stuck with the inability to sell back their books and that sucks.

Four, there’s also a movement towards “free,” open source, etc. content. Flatworld is the most famous of those providers. But, before you scream “yes! free textbooks!” be aware that it’s basically a gimmick to get you to buy other shit. The free online ebook reader that lets you read the books for free is (intentionally) crippled and the downloadable ebooks are a completely unreasonable $25, never mind the charges for open source content when you want an actual textbook.

So, that said, fire away, I’ll try to answer the best I can…

on edit: one other thing, most of the professors we come in contact with, believe it or not, aren’t out to screw the students! You’d be surprised how often professors do care about the price of books. And in how many other cases they feel embarrassed that they assigned something that was so expensive without investigation.

I’ve never used a “custom textbook,” but I have seen ads for them, and IIRC, they’re advertised as being a better deal for the student, because you only pay for the sections of the book you’re actually going to use. So instead of the full textbook, with Chapters 1 - 16, half of which you’re not going to even look at in a typical semester, you get a shorter book which includes only the chapters you’ll actually need. Except that the drawbacks are exactly as the OP noted.

Of course there has: graphing calculators, computers, mathematical software, videos, online resources…

My impression is that a large part of the reason for high textbook prices nowadays is that, if you’re publishing a textbook, you pretty much have to also produce all sorts of supplementary materials (videos, software, websites, solution manuals, test banks, etc.) to go along with it, in order for your book to be competitive.

Here’s the thing, most supplements that you’d actually want to use for many courses are available openly online or have cheaper alternatives than what’s fed to you with the textbook.

Within the industry the practice of including CDs, password protected websites, software, videos, etc. is known as “bundling,” and the primary reason we do it is because it pushes the price we can charge up in order to stick students with supplements they may not want or need but are required to buy to get the book. (forced bundling, btw, is illegal in texas as a practice and I expect other states will eventually follow).

Through two undergraduate degrees (biochemistry, mechanical engineering) at two different universities… yup.

You can

  • use the books in the library
  • borrow off that friend who took the course last semester and keeps absolutely everything
  • use an old edition
  • use free online references (every university teaches pretty much the same stuff at the undergrad level; most put their course notes online!)
  • use a different book entirely on the same topic

Part of going to school and learning stuff is learning how to learn stuff - spending money doesn’t really need to be part of that. Having alternate sources of material, or being able to compile a greater understanding of a topic because you pieced it together yourself is a good thing.

I probably bought about a third of the “required” books for both degrees, and probably only bought less than 5 of them as unused, current editions. In the rare event of the teacher handing out specific problems from a specific edition of a specific book…I’d photocopy those questions in the library or scan them from a friend’s book.

I realize that this is probably harder to do for literature courses than science ones, but even then, so much is available from legal sources like Project Gutenberg that you could still possibly find the same translation of Les Misérables and save that $14.99 at the bookstore.

Be creative…you are in university, after all. Think about it :wink:

That’s exactly right. I’m not prepared to drop upwards of 200 smackers for a book that has outdated or incomplete information as soon as I buy it. I’m not a math or science major, so most of the textbooks that are assigned aren’t even useful as references. Unless the professor is going to assign the book for a specific reason, I’m not wasting the money.

One of the ways to express one’s displeasure with the current system is to boycott. Until bookstores and publishers figure out that very few people are willing to spend that kind of money on textbooks, we’ll keep the current system.

Professors get nothing for most custom textbooks. We just work with the publisher to choose specific content, often from a database. I use a custom book each semester, so our bookstore buys them used. They tend to be cheaper anyway, since I choose only the content I need.

At my (state) school, we cannot profit from textbooks.