back to article Amazon tackles soaring textbook prices

Amazon is sending its Kindle ebook reader off to college, enrolling it in a program to help save students from the crushing burden of skyrocketing textbook prices. "We're excited to offer students an option to rent Kindle textbooks and only pay for the time they need – with savings up to 80 per cent off the print list price on …


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  1. John Styles

    All very well...

    ... but what are the royalties for the authors like?

    1. the spectacularly refined chap


      Wouldn't have to be much to beat the royalties they get for a library copy. Last time I looked it up it was around 2p per loan. They and their publishers don't even get to opportunity to opt out.

  2. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

    US textbook prices

    Not suggesting that there is any sort of monopoly or anything but....

    US college courses are a big business for textbooks, much more so than the UK there is a textbook for the course and the course follows the textbook, often the publisher produces the entire course, lecture notes, powerpoint, midterm, final exams - everything.

    One colleague gives a course where the textbook even comes with an IR remote - he is required to use this for a certain number of pop-quizzes during the course. The idea is to stop students sharing, photocopying, borrowing books or buying used older editions.

    There are stories of special conferences by major textbook publishers for academics, being held in very nice resorts - but I don't teach so don't get invited!

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      It's insane

      My wife took a maths course last year and the cover price on the textbook was $120. And the book was shit.

  3. Franklin
    Thumb Down

    Nice, when it works...

    One if my girlfriends is currently in grad school seeking her doctorate in biophysics. She complains that Kindle-ized textbooks aren't useful to her---largely because most of her textbooks rely on color, particularly in charts and graphs, to communicate information.

    The publishers know it. They also know that people would rather carry around an iPad or a netbook than a textbook. Their solution has been to offer PDF 90% of the cost of the printed book.

    1. D Lobb

      Sure they're cheap....

      I agree, a black and white kindle image would be worthless in a lot of text books.

      But many publishes have color E-alternatives. However, these cheap prices are typically only for short term textbook rental; most publishers do not even offer an option to purchase the ebook. Also, from what I have seen, the price to rent for a semester or two is pretty much the same as the hard copy purchase price: very little price break, if any.

      I want to keep a copy of the textbook forever, not rent it for only a semester or two. It looks like I'll have to keep buying physical textbooks...

      It seems everyone is vying for a rental/lease revenue stream these days...

  4. ZenCoder

    Why we need open textbooks.

    I understood why a upper level computer science textbook weighing in at over 1000 pages and containing information which became out of date the moment it was printed would be expensive.

    What upset me was why all my low level books in other fields were shorter, less time sensitive, required less research, had a larger audience, were still just as expensive.

    I think the real problem is that those making the purchasing decisions are not the ones paying, so there is no real competition on price.

    You could change this by including the cost of books in with tuition. But then you'd end up with the opposite problem, with courses being handicapped because the university doesn't budget enough money pay for up to date course materials.

    I think the best solution would be a migration to open text books and other open educational resources. Instead of having thousands of people writing thousands of textbooks you have everyone collaborating on a few, which can be freely updated, supplemented, customized and printed and bound at cost.

    1. mlo0352


      While that is actually a great idea, unfortunately it doesn't include the fact that everybody's in it for the money...

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Thumb Up

      I find many of my best instructors already use open text books.

      They tend to come in the form of either a rough draft of a book that the professor is ever so slowly writing or a stack of research papers that are relevant to the course. Of course, those won't teach you how to write a bad English paper...

  5. Old Handle

    At best, this won't accomplish a thing

    Textbooks are a scam, pure and simple, it doens't have anything to with the medium. Instructors pick the book, but they don't pay. Students pay but they don't pick the book. As long as that situation remains the scam will continue.

    Why do I say "at best"? You can't resell a used eBook. So this may end up being being a way to rip of students even harder.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Try a healthy dose of optimism.

      Text books may actually come down in price. The biggest scam has always been school bookstores buying text books from students at 10%-20% of face value and reselling them for 50%-75% of the face value.

      There have been three major reasons given for the high cost of text books. First, the books are usually made from high quality materials and contain lots of color graphics in them. These are expensive to produce. The same text book produced for India only costs about 2/3 of what it does in the US, but the quality of the books is far lower (cheap paper, soft cover, etc.) Moving to an electronic form means that the production costs will be negligable. There will still be some cost for formatting the book for various devices and hosting the product on a server, etc., but those are minor compared to the cost of physically producing the text book.

      Second, there is the used book market. The used book market is generally cited as the biggest reason why text books go through so many versions--and have minor changes between them. Because the publisher and author do not get any money from the used book sales, they have an incentive to produce a new edition that will force at least one year's worth of students to buy the book all over again. By allowing the students to rent the text book, they would (presumably) pay less for a semester's rental than a new or used book that they would sell back at the end of the semester, but the authors and publisher still get a cut of that money coming in. This means that the publisher doesn't have to pad the cost of the text book to cover for the used book market.

      The third major cost is the authors themselves. Good text books take a long time to write. Also many universities do not care if a professor does write a book. Some do put that as a requirement for tenure, but many do not. This means that the proceeds from the book have to be sufficient to encourage one or more professors to write the thing. This, of course, won't be affected by electronic books, but instead forms a base cost for the text book. However, shrinking the used book market may make text book writing more lucrative and allow the costs to be spread out over more consumers.

      So, there are two big reasons why text books should come down in price once the electronic formats are the primary means of distribution. Of course, if I wanted to be cynical, I would point out that companies have a tendancy to not lower their prices and instead just pocket the savings themselves.

      As for having the instructors pick the book, this seems the more sensible choice to me. I would much rather have a book that matches the course and contains useful material than some random one picked off Amazon that might work for the course. The idea is that the professor should be making sure that the chosen text book contains both useful material as well as the material that is going to be covered in the class--hopefully with a great deal of overlap. I do realize that not all professors do this. I have had more than one boastfully exclaim that he had never read the book before and had no idea if it was any good. However, I have also had some say that they try to pick books that are cheap for the students. Finally, I've had some that have been mandated by the department for the class and the professor has no say in the text book or the curriculum at all. Oh, and there was the one text book that was written by the professor himself--that scam will exist until the end of time...

      1. Tom 13

        Prices won't come down because most of what you've written is bollux.

        I worked in the printing industry for a while. The lowest cost part of the publication is the printing of the book itself, assuming you don't have an idiot for a printer. The costs are in the distribution marketing, and payments to all the middlemen involved in producing the book. Granted it's been a while since I was at dear old State, but our textbooks were black and white, and just as outrageously priced. Started in Astro, so I spent as much if not more on books than the Lit types who had more numerous volumes. The reason given of course was the expense of the type fonts to set all those damned equations. Believable before the advent of computer typesetting, but not anymore. At the time I was spending about $450/semester for books, and that was more than 20 years ago.

        If anything, the used book market would drive prices down, if profs weren't in cahoots with the publishers. War and Peace hasn't changed any since Tolstoy wrote it. Newtonian physics has changed less since he published his work, and all the translation for that has been done long since. Which means small changes don't necessitate changing the text for the course. So if the publisher puts out volume XIII, volumes X, XI, and XII should still be good. Oh, and if the publishers wrote good usable reference books, there wouldn't BE a secondary market because students would keep them for future reference. I still have my physics books and kept a fair number of the math ones as well.

        As to the last, yes the authors are a major cost, but good books don't necessarily take a long time to write. They may take a long time to edit because most profs can't speak let alone write a simple sentence, but that can be worked around. Another problem might be illegible long-hand notes that some poor schmuck at the printing house has to decrypt into some semblance of English. (My astrophysics prof had a sheaf of hand-written notes that were run off at the local copy shop every year, completely indecipherable.) No the problem is most printing houses aren't interested in signing contracts with new authors because despite the economies of scale, academic books lose money.

        I'll also note that I did a back of the envelop calculation when they quoted the 30 day rental figure and went, 'Ah, so that'll be at best 10% less than if they bought the book to get them through the 90 day semester, which is easily compensated by selling your books back.'

  6. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

    Captive market, and subsidies, duh!

    _Of course_ the price is skyrocketing. Same with, hmm, admission prices for law school and some such. Hell, I recently took a look at the price of high school textbooks. The way it's going, a hardcover Harry Potter would be EUR 120.

    Just another bubble.

    I remember that even back in the oldem times, we kept the copier smoking. Or we didn't go for drinks on Saturday for a month or so,

    Also, "Sizzling Sixteen". What? The Hell?? Bruce Sterling, William Gibson, Brian Aldiss, Clifford Stoll and Douglas Hofstaedter, more like.

    1. Anonymous Coward

      Reply to post: Captive market, and subsidies, duh!

      Prices aren't skyrocketting. Near as I can tell, text books have stayed at about the same price for the last ten years.* I even seem to find a lot that are cheaper these days.

      Text books have always been expensive and for good reason. The cheaper ones do seem to be coming in smaller sizes printed on nonglossy paper with soft covers and black and white graphics instead of color.

      *From my experience of buying text books for CS degrees as an undergrad through graduate school in the US. An actual survey of the average cost of a student's text books would be more precise, however.

      Also, I haven't read any of that series, but if she's managed 17 volumes of that stuff, then someone must be buying it.

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Nice racket, average rentals come to around 80% of paper price

    So the quick napkin math:

    100-140$ Calculus textbook for an 18 week, 5 Unit math section.

    80% discount***(up to, probably LOTS less) per MONTH. 20-28$ = $4.62-6.46 week.

    So that's $83-07 to $116.30 to rent something, instead of buying a used book at 20-25% below new cost, which you may be able to sell back. That also assumes the maximum discount promised, which isn't likely to be available for everything.

    All this is in the end: another cynical attempt to extort cash out of one of the lowest income groups existence. E-text "rentals" block the lucrative after market for used textbooks. If this gets off the ground, how long till the paper editions are discontinued?

    FYI: For those that like sticker shock, renting an undiscounted book would run $415.38 for an 18 week class. Buyer beware...

  8. Mr Brush

    It has already been established that the Kindle isn't much use for textbooks

    You can't flick back and forth through Kindle texts.

    I love my Kindle, but it is purely for reading in a linear fashion. I've long since given up trying to use it for reference books.

  9. Anonymous Coward


    Every self respecting student knows its always referred to as "Dog"....

  10. Brad Ackerman

    $100 or Rs. 295, your choice

    Back when I needed to order textbooks, the Indian divisions of Pearson's Puppeteers, Random House, etc. did an acceptable job of bringing down my costs. Rs. 295 for the book, Rs. 500-1000 for shipping to the US, and it still comes to less than a third of the overpriced US edition.

    Beer, because what else would you spend the difference on?

  11. Anonymous Coward

    This will be a great money-saver

    If the students only have to pay for when they're looking at the book, I reckon some of my students can get by with only hourly rentals.

  12. Richard 15

    Nothing new here.

    There have always been overpriced books.

    And there have always been "new" editions that added little or no value over the previous editions.

    A teacher should never, with the very rare exception, require that the student buy a book that they

    have some financial interest in. If you happen to have a world famous author teaching a course on their own books, and you can get it in paperback for $10 that would be OK.

    Likewise schools should not receive any form of kickback.

    A school should have to certify that a new edition actually brings something new. Lets face it,

    you really don't need a new edition of most math books. If there is a mistake, then an inserted

    addendum (with the right for all to freely copy to correct and compensate for the mistakes)

    should be made available.

    A school should need to certify that all those expensive CD's with software or what not actually

    have some value.

    If an e-book is issued it must include a legal method of transferability and non-expiration.

    I have no objection to rentals provided they are at a reasonable fraction of the cost.

    By certify I mean that the books should be reviewed and approved before it can be assigned.

    Until such certification occurs the old books should remain in circulation. If the publisher

    declines to continue that edition and their new one is not yet certified, too bad for them, they

    don't get issued.

  13. Anonymous Coward

    i wonder how long

    before services like these in japan that take your book, cut it up, scan it and send you the pdf, for about $2 per book, will take to catch on?

    solution. 1 class buys one book and everyone gets the pdf.

  14. SynicNZ

    Let's not forget publisher's shitty practices

    When a lecturer at my university had a book published everything as delivered as both text and photo ready content.

    So the publisher had someone type in every single thing again along the way inserting errors into every example and every formula

  15. Anonymous Coward


    I'm intrinsically suspicious of any academic subject where there's no active secondary market for textbooks, and while I can totally understand Amazon wanting to get in on that action, f'em (F'em in the ear!).

    The textbook publishing market is a bit strange (constrained audiences and whatnot) but I'm unprepared to believe that *any* field has, at undergrad level, such a rate of change that only being taught with the very latest texts will suffice. Not least because, let's be honest, at undergrad level the whole Lies-To-Children approach is still in effect.

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    And you are forgetting the other scams.....

    ...when the wife took her Masters, she had a list of books to choose from.

    Amazing that most of them were either current or former lecturer of the Russells Group, suprise, suprise, so was her Uni.

    Jobs for the (boys and girls)

    1. Tom 38 Silver badge

      Re: The other scams

      I know right? All these professors from top universities are in a cabal to get each other to use their books for their courses! It's *so* unfair, we should have the choice to use cheap textbooks written by a lecturer no-one has heard of, from some manky poly in the West Country.

  17. Doogie Howser MD
    Paris Hilton

    Dave Limp?

    Is that his porn star name? Haw haw!!!

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      you're so clever, Doogie.

      Bet he never heard THAT one before.

  18. bill 20


    By "Newcastle" I presume you mean Newkie Brown? WTF is going on with that website you linked to? Enter my DOB in YANK FORMAT????? I'll never let another drop of the Dog pass my lips again….

  19. James Micallef Silver badge

    How school textbooks get approved

    This reminds me of a story from Richard Feynman's autobiography. He was asked to be on a panel to select schoolbooks *. Most of them were rubbish, and due to a printing error, one of the books to be reviewed was completely blank. Most of the panel gave a score to all the books including the blank one - ie not only had they not read it, they hadn't even bothered to open it. It turns out that Feynman was the only person on the panel who had bothered to look at the books before giving them a mark. Talk of judging a book by it's cover!!

    ( * This was California in the 70s or 80s, I doubt much has changed since )

  20. Tom 7 Silver badge

    We dont need open text books

    we need open course work

    It would involve something remarkably similar to html.

    Well exactly like html - short concise pages about a part of a subject with other pages linking to them.

    I think the hyperlink was originally invented to facilitate the linking of documents given at the end of papers but it seems to been subsumed into pdf documents to point to adobes download pages.

    One of the beautiful thing about the internet is you don’t have to eat shit anymore - but you may have to help cook but that may just involve stirring.

  21. Anonymous Coward

    I found every book i needed

    In a store that my lecturer recommended called "google it you lazy g*t".

    saved enough for many more brainstorming sessions in the Rocket Club

  22. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

    Further thoughts

    Very few lecturers make any money from textbooks - it's just not worth the time/effort.

    There are a few authors who do make a living, they are the ones on the 10edition of the intro physics/chemistry/engineering course books. In reality these haven't changed much - there haven't been many recent breakthroughs in Newtonian mechanics that make my 25year old copy of Keppler+Kelenkov obsolete. And any decent lecturer will produce notes that work with any edition.

    The reason a particular textbook is required for many US universities (and probably UK ones now) is that you need to have your course material approved by the dept, the faculty, the state, two popes and the writers on the family guy. This is why so many lecturers are delivered on powerpoint rather than a blackboard - so that you can prove you covered all the required points in the approved manner. And this is for a science dept - imagine what a politics/economics/theology class must be like.

    The nice thing about the approved textbook is that somebody else has done this. And you (or your dept) don't have to worry about a disgruntled student suing because you said or wrote something they dissagree with. They can go ahead and sue a Murdoch owned publisher if they want!

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