Image: Teenage boy behind a stack of books © Jupiterimages, Brand X Pictures, Getty Images

In a world where you can download a best-seller for $10 to $13, the price of college textbooks seems pretty egregious. It's not unusual for a hardcover full-color textbook to cost $200 or more.

Surely, it's time to fight back again greedy publishers and arrogant professors indifferent to the economic plight of their students.

Or . . . maybe it's not that simple.

Activists for the Student Public Interest Research Groups recently completed a multicity tour as part of their "Textbook Rebellion." The mission: to highlight the high cost of textbooks and to push for more alternatives, particularly free "open-source" textbooks.

"The (textbook) market is really dominated by these expensive publishers," said Nicole Allen, the textbook advocate for the Student PIRGs. "We want to topple the regime of these oligopolistic publishers and create a market with a lot more options to choose from."

The textbook protest comes at an interesting time. Spending on textbooks has actually dropped in the past several years, according to market research firm Student Monitor, even as prices rose. Full-time college students at four-year institutions spent an average of $534 on books in the 2010-11 academic year, down from $644 in 2005-06.

Liz Weston

Liz Weston

Students spent twice as much on their cellphones, the Student Monitor found. They spent more at the movies. They spent more on gas.

That doesn't excuse $200 textbooks for existing, but it does indicate that this issue -- as with most things that have to do with economics -- is more complicated than it may first appear.

At this point, I should air all my potential conflicts of interest, including:

  • I'm married to a college professor. He teaches art, though, and doesn't assign textbooks.
  • Three of my four books ("Your Credit Score," "Deal With Your Debt" and "Easy Money") are published by FT Press, an arm of Pearson, one of the biggest textbook publishers.
  • I thought college textbooks were too expensive decades ago, back when I was a scholarship student and the campus bookstore had a near monopoly on textbook sales, both new and used. Yes, I probably did spend more on beer than books even then, but I still hated shelling out so much to the bookstore every semester.

The difference today is that college students have a wealth of options. None of those options is perfect, which can cause a lot of frustration, resentment and ransacked bank accounts. But they exist nonetheless. In the Student Monitor's survey:

  • 49% of textbook spending paid for new books.
  • 38% of spending paid for used books.
  • 10% went for textbook rentals.
  • 2% was spent on e-textbooks.

Freshmen tend to spend more on textbooks than more-seasoned students do, said Eric Weil, Student Monitor's managing partner.

"When young freshmen come on campus, they don't realize there's such a thing as a used book," Weil said. "By the end of the year, they realize having a book that's already highlighted is pretty convenient."

The majority of students (61%) said they compared prices online before buying their books, tapping into the vast bazaar of used books and rentals that can dramatically reduce textbook costs. My Facebook fans who cut textbook costs said they use a variety of sites to look for books, including Amazon.com, CampusBookRentals.com, Chegg, AbeBooks.com and Barnes & Noble. Comparison sites such as AddAll, BigWords.com, BookFinder.com and DealOz scour online booksellers to help you find the textbooks you need.

Interestingly, it's this vast, vigorous secondhand and rental market that's indirectly abetting the high cost of new textbooks.

Here's why: Creating a new textbook can be costly, and the market for most textbooks isn't that huge. Back when publishers had a captive audience, they could more or less count on being able to spread those costs of production over a certain number of buyers.

As the used and rental markets expanded, that captive audience was captive no more. So now publishers often produce "updated" versions as a way of selling more books -- spreading out the costs of production over more buyers.

That leads to a big frustration for used-book buyers: page numbers and test questions can change, which can cause confusion if the professor makes assignments using only the newest version. (If the professor happened to write the textbook and requires the newest edition, he or she is likely to earn a lot of students' resentment.)


Another frustration: professors who don't post their syllabuses until the last minute, forcing their students to scramble to find used and rentable copies. Sometimes, these copies take several days to arrive, meaning the students start the semester already behind on their work.

The gradual shift toward digital or e-textbooks that's already under way could help bring costs down by eliminating printing costs -- although publishers will still face the remaining, typically more expensive upfront costs of having to pay writers, editors, designers, artists, the marketing staff and so on.

Of course, there are downsides to digital textbooks as well. They're often sold with an access code that expires or that can't be transferred or sold. If e-books did replace traditional books, the used-book market could shrink dramatically, and students might be back in the situation I faced in college, with few options beyond those allowed by big publishers.

Then again, one of the things slowing the adoption of e-textbooks is the students themselves, who prefer printed material, the Student PIRGs' Allen said.

"It's what they grew up with," Allen said. "It's what they're used to."

Still, the Student PIRGs champion the free open-source textbook, like those provided by one of the Textbook Rebellion's sponsors, Flat World Knowledge. Flat World provides students with free online textbooks that professors can readily modify to fit their courses. Flat World Knowledge makes its money by providing study aids and alternate forms of the books (print, audio and .pdf files, for example).

But the company has only a few dozen titles, compared with the 350,000 textbook titles currently in print that are available from traditional publishers, said Bruce Hildebrand, the executive director for higher education at the Association of American Publishers.

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So again: There are no easy solutions. But a hat tip to the Student PIRGs and the Textbook Rebellion for keeping attention on this issue. Open-source materials won't be the solution for every course, but professors and universities need to be reminded that they -- and not just their students -- should be looking for alternatives to the $200 textbook.

Liz Weston is the Web's most-read personal-finance writer. She is the author of several books, most recently "The 10 Commandments of Money: Survive and Thrive in the New Economy" (find it on Bing). Weston's award-winning columns appear every Monday and Thursday, exclusively on MSN Money. Join the conversation and send in your financial questions on Liz Weston's Facebook fan page.