The Demise of the Textbook Mafia

Textbooks are antiquated and incredibly expensive. With the industry facing extinction, Massachusetts is poised to revolutionize educational publishing.

college textbook publishing industry

Illustration by Neil Webb

Everyone knows college textbooks are a racket, and it’s the tuition-strapped parents and broke students who pay the price. The cost of textbooks has grown at twice the rate of inflation, jumping 89 percent between 2002 and 2012, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. The only education-related expense that grew at a faster rate: college tuition. Big publishers know this can’t last.

“The business model is increasingly under enormous pressure,” says Paul Corey, managing director of higher education learning services at Pearson, which employs 900 people in its Boylston Street offices.

Few would argue. But some critics take it much further, saying that the college-textbook industry has become dangerously consolidated—by one estimate five publishers now control 80 percent of the market—and increasingly vicious in its tactics to undermine cheaper alternatives, namely used and open-source textbooks.

“We’ve seen very aggressive efforts to mischaracterize and mislead people about alternatives,” says Ethan Senack, of Student Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs), who points to an embarrassingly unsuccessful #usedtextbookproblems Twitter campaign launched last year by McGraw-Hill. The half-baked attempt to goad college students into sharing pictures of the supposed woes of using secondhand course material immediately backfired. “I don’t have any #usedtextbookproblems but some douchebag charged me $200 for a new textbook (you were that douchebag),” one commenter groused. A mother wrote, “#usedtextbookproblems Thank goodness for used textbooks! With 3 kids in college at the same time how can we possibly afford new books??!”

She has a point: The average college student now shells out $1,200 a year on textbooks. As a result, “You’ve got 40 percent of students who are skipping out on buying the books they need,” Senack says.

All is not lost, however. The push toward open educational resources, or OER—textbooks that aren’t bogged down with steep licensing fees, marketing costs, and production expenses—is gaining momentum, and Massachusetts has led the charge. Consider UMass Amherst’s Open Education Initiative. Launched in 2011, the program incentivizes professors to use low-cost materials in their courses. In the first few years, the program has saved students $1.3 million.

Similar programs are catching on around the country. “Almost every school is under pressure to improve the affordability of their course material,” says Geoffrey Willison, CEO of Boston-based Valore, a company that created a digital marketplace for used textbooks and last year acquired Boundless, a fledgling OER publisher. “It’s on all of us to create a more sustainable model.”

Pearson’s Paul Corey agrees. He notes that while going digital has been the industry’s biggest pain point, it’s also its salvation: “Our digital products are somewhere in the range of 50 to 60 percent less expensive than the print product,” Corey says.

It’s time those savings started trickling down.

Turn the Page

In 2016, Student PIRGs published “Covering the Cost,” a report based on a survey of nearly 5,000 students from 132 institutions. Here’s what they found.


Portion of the textbook market controlled by five publishers alone.


Priciest textbook at University of Michigan–Flint (winter semester ’15).


Percentage of students who reported using financial aid to pay for textbooks—which suggests that students will often pay interest in addition to the sticker price.


The average savings per course, per semester for a student assigned an open textbook in lieu of a traditional one.