College is often the first step into adulthood. Leaving home, getting a job, managing your time, responsible for your own success. It is a huge and vital step for many.

During this period of transition, one of the realities of life we all face begins to come starkly into focus: our personal finances. Nothing forces us to face this reality quite like that first trip to the college bookstore. Tuition and boarding are expenses for later, costs to be divided up and paid years from now. But standing at the bookstore counter with your syllabus and reading list in hand, the cost of your first semesters books is a very real thing.

Why Are Textbooks So Expensive?

Multiple factors contribute to the high prices of textbooks. Notably, textbooks are complex; filled with text, graphics, images, charts, columns, and various other formatting headaches. The editors and designers who create a textbook have no small task before them. Along with the authors and fact-checkers, there is a lot of work that goes into creating a textbook. Those authors and designers need to be paid.

There’s also the margin that goes to the bookstore, which likewise has to earn a profit to keep providing their services to students.

But that’s where the reasonable costs associated with textbooks end.

Jordan Weissmann of the Atlantic published an article in 2013 measuring the rise in textbook pricing. He found a “812 percent rise in the cost of course materials since 1978.” 812 percent! A textbook in 1978 that cost $20 cost over $160 in 2013. That increase is staggering.

Where Does the Money Go?

This is the most important question. If the cost to research, design, and print textbooks rose a comparable 800 percent, the increased cost could be understood. In 2012, US News published data regarding the breakdown of pricing and how the costs of a textbook are divvied up:

According to figures from the National Association of College Stores, an average of 21.6 cents of every dollar spent on a new textbook will go to the bookstore, whether for personnel costs, operations, or income. For [a] $289 textbook, that’s around $62. Another cent of every dollar pays for the freight of shipping a heavy book around, so subtract another $3 from her cost. That leaves around $224 that goes to the publisher, or around 77.4 cents for every dollar.

NACS no longer receives information from publishers about where textbook money goes, but as recently as 2008, they provided that cost breakdown. At that time, around 15.4 cents of every dollar went toward marketing the textbooks, 11.7 cents went to the authors, and the largest chunk—32.2 cents—went to the basics: paper, printing, and paying publishers’ employees.

US News, How Your Textbook Dollars Are Divvied Up

If we trust the cost breakdown from 2008, we have 59.3 cents of every dollar going to the actual publishing of the textbook. Following from that, if we work with the same $289 textbook, with $224 going to the publisher, $132.83 is spend on the actual production of the textbook. Leaving $91.17. Where does that money go?

Presumably the majority of it goes into the pockets of the publisher.

Understanding The Publishing Monopoly

Libby Nelson, in a piece for Vox from 2014, compares textbook retail the healthcare industry; “[F]aculty choosing textbooks based solely on quality are like doctors prescribing a brand-name drug without checking to see if there’s a cheaper generic equivalent. The person doing the prescribing isn’t the person who does the paying.”

This comparison is echoed many times across the web when examining the issue of textbook price creep. Even with the explosive growth of higher education costs, textbooks stand out.

Tracking just a ten year period from 2006 to 2016, the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows a massive disparity in the increase in price of textbooks relative to other education costs. Textbooks are not only increasing in price at a stagginer rate, but they are outpacing even other education cost increases. The extra cost students are paying is funnelled largely to the publishers.

Limited Alternatives

Currently, there are a few ways students and educators work around the high costs of textbooks. From renting books to using open access ebooks, members of higher education at all levels are starting to take notice of the ever-rising costs.

Unfortunately, these alternatives are limited in both their scope and their effectiveness. For example, open access seems a perfect option for educators and academics who wish to share their knowledge and resources. But currently, adoption of open access materials in the classroom is very low, with the best estimates pointing to around 6% of all classroom reading coming from open access sources.

Renting and sharing has it’s problems too; most notable the ‘new edition’ cycle for publishing shortening. For many years, academic publishers would update textbooks about every five years. But recently new editions have been releasing every two or three years, shortening the cycle and requiring even more regular purchases. This doesn’t prevent bookstores and individual students from sharing the expense of a textbook by renting or selling used editions, but the decreased lifespan of a textbook limits the viability of sharing.

Students are in a difficult place. They need these books to complete their classes, but the costs are prohibitively high. Self-publishing like Glasstree offers another alternative, but even that presents more unique challenges. Much like open access, self-publishing is a great way to circumvent the exploitative academic publishers. But just publishing a work (either through self-publishing or open access) does not ensure visibility.

Until we find a way to help make certain academia’s eyes are on the best works, rather than the ones publishers put in front of educators, no true alternative can exist to the dangerous model of escalating prices.