Save $ on Textbooks

Save $ on Textbooks
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By Paula Last Courier Editor
Illustrations by Adam Medley

Why are Textbooks so Expensive?

Have you ever wondered why your textbooks are so expensive? If you answered yes, then we have something in common.

We talked to a publisher’s rep, an author and the Centennial College bookstore. Here’s the gist of what we found out on the cost breakdown: not much. While each were willing to share their perspective and some ballpark figures, hard numbers are hard to come by.

Lack of transparency and a funny dynamic

Coordinator of Centennial College’s Book + Magazine publishing program, Denise Schon wasn’t surprised that we hit a wall, explaining that academic textbook publishing lacks transparency.

She also said that there is a “funny dynamic” in academic textbook publishing that isn’t found in other publishing industries.

“The person who is making the purchasing decision is not the person who is paying for the book,” Schon said. “Even the school boards will say ‘We’ll have to negotiate price,’ but at that university level, professors are making the decisions, students are paying.”

Textbook Publishing: The Basics

The Courier spoke with Jason Wormald, a member of Production and Acquisitions at Captus Press, a small textbook publisher located in the GTA.

According to Wormald, new editions are published based on a three to four year publishing cycle, but this can be sooner or later depending on the knowledge of a particular field or industry.

Bundling Increases Costs

One trend that is raising prices is the addition of what Wormald called “toys” for professors such as powerpoint slides, videos, test questions, practice exams, lesson plans and websites.

Wormald said that the extras are requested more often in colleges like Centennial, where there are part-time instructors who work full-time in another job. Their time is at a premium, and they may not have lesson plans prepared.

The bundled materials is a cost that “students never see,” according to Wormald. And since Captus does not require professors to take extras that come with the textbook, some students may be overpaying.

Customization Lowers costs

A “push toward customization” is a trend that is lowering costs. In addition to the traditional course packs of photocopied articles and book chapters, professors have the option to select chapters from a publisher’s product for textbook quality print. The customized book is cheaper but a good quality copy, and students don’t pay additional Cancopy fees they do with course packs. However this isn’t an option for materials that instructors want to pull together from different sources.

So what does it actually cost to print a textbook?

This is where we hit that wall. Publishing companies, authors, and bookstores are not required to reveal their costs.

While in Canada, there is no solution to the transparency issue on the horizon, the story is different in the US. In 2008, the US federal government passed the Higher Education Opportunities Act (HEOA). The Textbook Information Provisions came into effect in 2010.

Whether this has impacted the cost of books remains to be seen.

Textbooks – What you can do, what’s being done
What’s the answer?

Student Strategies

Used books

The used book market is one of the best options students have to reduce their textbooks cost. Given that new editions come out every 3-4 years, there can be ample opportunity for students to save some cash.

Tim Harrower, author of a key journalism textbook, compared it to a “black market” for textbooks, since he only gets royalties for the first copy. But for students, this completely legal option is a good way to save money.

Both the bookstore and the Student Association have a system where students can buy and sell used textbooks. Amanda King, bookstore manager at the CCC and Ashtonbee campuses, said that they will pay up to 50% of the sticker price for books in decent condition.

If you’re a heavy highlighter and the bookstore won’t take your book back, there’s always the CCSAI used book site. (Check out the ‘how to’ box to get set up).


Of course if you’re someone who doesn’t scribble notes on your books, another budget-friendly option is to rent your textbook. The Centennial bookstore offers rentals on many books, and there are a number of websites that offer rentals as well, if you don’t mind the potential hassles that come with shipping. Some offer the option to buy after the rental, if you decide its worth keeping.

Buying Overseas

As reported in 2011 by the Globe and Mail, many students are buying textbooks at a fraction of the cost overseas. However this practice may be illegal if it violates a publishing company’s exclusive distribution contract.

The Library

There’s no better option than free! Be prepared to get there first, be on good terms with your friendly neighbourhood librarian, and know how to place an online hold so that you’re next in line. Chat with your fellow students to find out who’s using the library copy, and figure out how to share the wealth (but not by photocopying the whole thing, obviously). Also check with your professor about putting the textbook on reserve.


Last fall the government of British Columbia announced its Open Textbook initiative.

Starting in the fall of 2013, students and the public will be able to access open textbooks online for free and in print for a small fee. The 40 most popular introductory textbooks, authored by faculty, will be on offer.

In a November, 2012 blog interview, John Yap, British Columbia’s Minister of Advanced Education, Innovation and Technology, estimated that students using the open materials will save $900-$1500 per year.

And the US federal government passed the Higher Education Opportunity Act in 2008. The act’s Textbook Provisions followed in 2010, aiming to make textbook publishing costs more transparent. Will it reduce costs? Time will tell.


This story originally indicated an incorrect markup on selling used books and omitted the words “up to” before the phrase explaining the bookstore will buy back books for “up to 50% of their sticker price.” These errors have been corrected and the text has been amended.

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