What Can We Learn From the Used Textbook Market?

The August issue of Book Business had an interesting piece about the textbook industry. The article, “Combating the Higher-Ed Used Book Market,” said that of the $8 billion higher-ed textbook industry, roughly two thirds of the dollars spent is for used books. That’s bad news for the publishers and authors, as neither makes any money when students resell their textbooks.

There are many possible reasons for this, including high cost, books students don’t want in the first place or will never use again, required classes students don’t want to take, required books instructors don’t use, and so on. Another reason is some students must sell their book to help finance the next semester.

However, the bottom line is these students don’t value their textbooks.

The few dollars they will receive by selling the book means more to them than the content in the book. In economic terms, the book lacks “utility”; it does not possess usefulness. When a book lacks utility, only those who have to buy it, will. And as soon as the owner is no longer required to have the book, he or she will sell it (or throw it away).

The lesson for the textbook industry is clear: produce books that have value beyond the length of one semester.

By extension, there are also lessons for the greater book publishing industry:

  • Write the best possible book.
  • Ensure every chapter is relevant, every paragraph adds worth, and every word is needed. Remove redundancy, cut filler, tighten sentences, write concisely, and explain clearly.
  • Edit the book meticulously.
  • Present a compelling interior design and worthy cover.
  • Title it wisely.
  • Make quality paramount.
  • Give readers a reason to keep the book. For fiction, this means a story they will read again; for nonfiction, this means the book will become a useful reference.
  • Add helpful resources. Include additional content that will enhance the book, such as an index, glossary, graphics, color, related resources, study guide or discussion questions, and so forth.
  • Price it right.

While we can’t stop book buyers from reselling books, we can give them reasons not to.

2 thoughts on “What Can We Learn From the Used Textbook Market?

  1. Some of my daughter’s books for her upper level class accounting classes were so valuable, she received more than the face value of the books when she sold them back. Davenport University was contacting students personally to ask them to sell the books back. And she refused to sell a couple of them back, along with some of her classmates. Those books went out of print, even though they were highly valued by the students.

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