Why Are Textbooks so Expensive? Here’s an Explainer

why are textbooks so expensive

The average student will spend around $40,000 a year on college tuition. For private colleges, this figure can be even higher. You would think those astronomical figures would be enough to worry about.

However, the cost of required textbooks for your course can run into hundreds of dollars. The average cost for student textbooks for the 2018-2019 academic year was $415. The College Board stipulates that students should factor in around $1240 annually for textbooks and supplies. 

This isn’t even the worst part! Some students on courses such as science and medicine can find that one single textbook can cost in the region of an eye-watering $300.  

So why are textbooks so expensive? And what can you do to combat this? In this article, we will explain the reasoning behind this and give you some top tips to help with this hefty college textbook bills.

Why Are Textbooks So Expensive?

In short, this is to do with the publisher’s motivations to make a profit. Publishers of college textbooks are in the unique position of students and colleges needing to buy their books so they can charge exorbitant rates.

The fact remains that the academic publishing industry is not a saturated market whatsoever. There are five main publishers in the industry and they control 80% of the total sales. With such a huge margin and so few competitors, it’s in their interest to keep costs high, as students have no choice but to buy them. 

The publishers also work closely with their academic writers and professors, constantly churning out new content and editions to render previous textbooks obsolete.

Professors and academics are also under quotas and external pressures to keep getting new publications to ensure their tenure or their position at a university. 

Publishers capitalize on this unfortunate pressure in the academic world, allowing them to continue to create new books. This, in turn, will force students into having to purchase the newer editions to complete their studies.

It is an endless cycle of intellectual content that is academia, and not something that will change anytime soon.

College libraries also suffer because they simply cannot afford to purchase these books in the quantities the students need. At most, if budgets allow, they might be able to buy three or four of a certain textbook.

But say if there are thirty or forty students in a class, that is nowhere near enough textbooks to go around. Which then forces students into purchasing the textbook at a high cost. 

Are Textbooks Getting Even More Expensive?

In some cases, the unfortunate answer is yes. The problem being access codes and bundles which are sold alongside the textbooks to access online content. The access codes or login details are then only redeemable until the end of the semester.

After that, they are rendered useless without the correct codes which means students can’t resell their textbooks or buy one secondhand. Up to 4 out of 10 colleges have used bundles or access codes alongside their prescribed academic textbooks.

This is not good news for students who are trying to keep their overall costs down.

Legislation and College Professors  

In 2006, the Advisory Committee for Student Financial Assistance reported that the cost of student textbooks had risen by 186% in the past eight years. This extreme hike in price was even noticed by legislators and steps were put in place to try and address the issue.

In 2008, a law was passed known as the Textbook Affordability Act where textbook publishers had to disclose to faculty and professors how much each of their textbooks cost. It is a step in the right direction for college students and their costs, but some people still believe this isn’t enough. 

This visibility and transparency have helped in some respects. By allowing professors and departments access to the prices they can make their own decisions on which textbooks to allocate their students.

This is in good faith that they will choose textbooks that aren’t extraordinarily overpriced or beyond students’ means and budgets.

This initiative has been helpful to some extent, but it is, of course, dependent on the whims of the individual professors and faculty. The law is leaving the responsibility firmly in the hands of the colleges, as opposed to the publishers. 

So What Can You Do About Increasing Textbook Costs?

Do you want to be one of those students who are having to forgo lunch, meals out, or be left with no disposable cash at the end of every week? Shelling out on massive textbooks that you are going to use for one semester doesn’t make any logical sense.

The best thing to do to save money on your textbooks is to thoroughly price check before you buy.

Here at TextbookRentals.com we provide a thorough price comparison book rental service that allows you to price check on thousands of different books. You can search for any book via its ISBN number, title or author, and price compare different rental options found through our engine.

You’re then able to rent your books for a limited time, for a limited fee from the recommended rental providers listed by our price comparison website. This can save you hundreds of dollars for money that you can spend on yourself, instead of gathering dust on a shelf.

You’ll see the cheapest option first, and find 3 different rental date ranges. These ensure you can rent your book for a full semester, 90 days, or less than 90 days. However long you need a book for, our comparison service will show you the best rental options for you.

Where Can I Find out More?

We hope this article has given you enough information and food for thought about increasing textbooks prices and why they are so expensive. Unfortunately, it also doesn’t look like things will be changing anytime soon.

If you would like to find out more, why not check out our previous blog posts?

We’re dedicated to ensuring all students have access to simple, easy-to-understand information on textbook rental prices, however long they need them for.

The Most Expensive Textbooks and Infamous Majors for Pricey Books

most expensive textbooks

All college students know that apart from their high tuition costs, their textbooks are also responsible for putting a strain on their wallets.

If you’re not yet a college student or are considering changing your major to save some money – we don’t blame you!

But what are the ideal majors? How do I make sure I save money on textbooks?

The real question is: what are the most expensive textbooks and what are the majors that are infamous for pricy textbooks?

We’ve looked around and we’ve done the research for you.

What Are the Most Expensive Textbooks?

Before choosing or switching your major, make sure you check out these expensive textbooks. If they are above your desired budget, then you may want to avoid these majors altogether.

Make sure that, when shopping for textbooks that you always try to find the best deal.

The Top 3 Most Expensive Textbooks

At the top of the list is Acta Philosophorum The First Journal of Philosophy. This retails at a whopping $1,450 for a new copy. As you guessed it, this is for Philosophy majors – but, this price should not make you shy away from majoring in Philosophy.

In fact, it is highly unlikely that your Philosophy professors would assign this textbook at all. To be on the safe side, you can always contact the respective department beforehand to ask if any of the expensive textbooks are required.

Next, for $1,215 is the Encyclopedia of International Media and Communications. Again, if you are a Media Studies or Communications major it is unlikely that you would have to shell out for this textbook. These majors are increasing in popularity and as a result, the textbooks will be available in abundance and are probably on the more affordable side.

At $850 you can purchase a copy of Management Science An Anthology. This is a textbook for business majors. Even if you never come across this particular textbook, be prepared to shell out a lot for majoring in business – whether at the undergraduate or graduate level.

Majoring in business, while a popular major, is likely to break your bank. However, this is considered to be one of the most practical majors as well. Keep this in mind when choosing your major – is the cost of tuition an investment or a burden?

The Sciences

Now let’s look at some of the most expensive textbooks in the sciences.

We start with the Biostatistical Genetics and Genetic Epidemiology that retails for $665. This is a very specific study of science, and most likely, all of your textbooks will be expensive. Even if they don’t reach the $665 mark, they are unlikely to be less than $400.

Another expensive textbook is Solid State Chemistry and Its Applications, which costs $500. While an undergraduate course in general Chemistry may not be overly expensive, a specified focus of chemistry (or any hard science) will probably be expensive. This will especially be true for a graduate or doctoral program in the hard sciences.

But again, the hard sciences are the more practical majors. You want to study the job prospects and job availability to decide if the textbooks are an investment for your future.

But what about sciences that are not in the ‘hard sciences’ category?

The Companion Encyclopedia of Psychology costs $600. But most psychology majors will probably not need an encyclopedia of their entire field of study.

Psychology, however, can be an expensive major. And if you wish to go down the traditional route of psychology, you will need to pursue a Master’s or Ph.D. after you complete your undergraduate degree. The cost of textbooks (and tuition) will continue to increase as you move up to higher-level degrees.

While no medical textbooks made the list of most expensive textbooks, it is likely that medical students will have to shell out a lot for their textbooks.


This is a popular and important major. Regardless of what concentration of engineering you choose, you will probably find that your textbooks are expensive. Engineering is in demand and often, engineering majors go on to have very high paying jobs. As a result, engineering is seen more of an investment than many other majors.

The more specialized and rare your concentration of engineering, the most expensive your tuition and textbooks will be.

The two most expensive textbooks in Engineering are Concepts and Design of Chemical Reactors at $593 and Advanced Semiconductor and Organic Nano-Techniques at $570. As you can see, these are very specific textbooks for specialized concentrations in Engineering.

Liberal Arts

Liberal Arts degrees and textbooks are usually among the most affordable options. For example, if you majored in English Literature, you will probably spend more money on novels than actual textbooks. And you can probably get those novels for free at the library.

Liberal Arts degrees, however, are not always the most practical option. It can be hard to find work in these fields and often, they are not the most high-paying.

Surprisingly, however, two of the most expensive textbooks in existence are from the Liberal Arts fields.

History of Early Film costs $740. And Feminism and Politics retail for $600.

Most film studies majors will probably not have to purchase a textbook that is as expensive as the aforementioned title. Most film theory textbooks will probably not exceed $100 – and you’ll likely find that most of them are far cheaper than that.

As for specialized studies such as Feminism, Queer Studies, Ethnic Studies, these will also probably not have a high cost to their textbooks.


Finally, economics is a great degree to pursue. Economics helps us understand how life works and how societies function. 

Unfortunately, if you do choose economics, you might end up splurging on textbooks. Ethics in Business and Economics costs $550 and Environment in the New Global Economy cost $510.

More mainstream books on economics (that may be part of your curriculum) are more affordable and will be available for less than $100. We’d suggest speaking to the department beforehand on the list of textbooks you’ll have to get.

Hard Work Pays Off

Now that you know the most expensive textbooks, you’ll have a better idea of what majors to choose and which ones to avoid. Regardless of your decision, we wish you well and assure you that your hard work will pay off.

Be sure to check out more great content on textbooks and surviving college.