The College Textbook Adoption Process Is Broken, Here’s Why (and How to Fix It)

In triangulation, each of three separate entities uses the other two to its advantage by shifting accountability onto them, playing them against each other, or consolidating power by making them dependent. All of this has been at work for a very long time in academic bookselling and the college-textbooks sales and buyback process.

In this case, the three entities blaming, needing, and using one another are the publishers, faculty, and bookstores. None of them owns the system per se, they are all interdependent and perceived as bad guys by the consumer, and they are all frightened of data being freely shared in the marketplace. Let’s look closely at theses three players and their roles and how they affect college-textbook selection and pricing.


They own the copyrighted content and material contained within textbooks and they do everything possible to encourage professors to use their book on physics rather than that published by a competitor. The publishers work directly with the faculty through sales reps and they offer them incentives such as free resources or technology for using their books. Publishers encourage faculty to build custom editions that eliminate the stuff that the professor won’t be covering, and they tell the prof that these custom edits makes a cheaper book for the student. And that is true. Also true is that the book is now a specialty publication limited to that professor’s class at that college that term and the textbook has absolutely no buyback value for the student afterward. This suits the publisher as it keeps used books from entering circulation and eating profits from sales of new books and eTextbooks. They also create a false sense of demand by constantly creating new editions if even a few pages have changed.


Course instructors work with the publisher to select books and then they work with the bookstore to get the books stocked and made available to students (this is called the textbook-adoptions process). Publisher sales reps compete for their selections (see above) and bookstores tend to badger faculty to make textbook selections as early as possible so that the store can secure enough copies and the greatest number of used books. Faculty want to teach, not deal with multiple booksellers or costs and conditions, so they tend to tell only the main campus bookstore what titles they will be using and they tend not to be in a hurry to do this given their classroom commitments.

The book-selection process is not always spelled out for instructors. Many times the publisher is selected by the department chair who has committed to titles from a certain publisher. In some cases, department budgets are so limited that faculty need the resources that the publisher agrees to include in exchange for a commitment to selection of one of their titles. And finally, I believe that in many cases, instructors want what they think is best for students even when it is not the case. If you were a history professor and a sales rep from a publisher told you that cutting 20% of the content would also cut 20% of the book’s price (but not that the book lost all buyback value), you would think you were helping your students.


The bookstores don’t want to own the process in a technical sense but they do want to own it in a practical one, which is to say that they want control because they do most of the work (ordering, receiving, sales, returns, buyback, etc.) Given how much effort they expend in terms of cost and labor, they are not eager to share the data they amass along the way (students purchasing habits, bestselling texts by subject, required reading by course and location, other market trends, etc.). And why would they? Doing so would help competitors. Knowledge is power and informed consumers have the power of choice.

So what’s the solution? I wish that it was a simple one. The problem is that we have big money at stake and the key holders of the information do not have a financial incentive to share this money and push sales away from their current channel. Here is one that most benefits students but it would be a tough sale to the publishers and bookstores:

Most schools already have digital catalogs for classes. In many cases, these catalogs are already tied to required textbooks via links to the bookstore based on data that was made public via the Higher Education Act. Standardizing and sharing this data would break up the triangle-shaped monopoly that exists between publishers, faculty, and bookstores. The original legislation in Congress was a start, but it didn’t go far enough in enacting specific formats by which the information should be shared or by creating a standard body with which the information should be shared. A central collection of the data would initially be an intense investment, but would quickly benefit all when shared in an equal format that created a more competitive marketplace where the playing field were more level and the students benefited.

How do we find a middle ground?
What other solutions do you suggest?

Comment (1)

  1. GP

    Has anyone cracked this adoption problem? How would one collect adoption data from a variety of schools?


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