The Textbook Industry & Greed: My Story

There’s nothing more upsetting than knowing that you are being taken advantage of. I have four classes until I graduate college, and every semester the same thing happens time and time again.

I’m required to spend hundreds of dollars on the latest college textbooks and three months later I can barely fetch half of what I paid. It’s the same story, but this past semester I was confronted with something much worse.


The Textbook Salesmen

I rarely visit my professors’ office hours, but twice last semester I had the opportunity to watch salesmen from textbook giants (Cengage, Pearson, McGraw-Hill) work their way down through the faculty hallways, moving from office to office, with the goal of persuading my professors to purchase  “custom editions” for their classes.

“Custom edition textbooks are tailored to your classes so only the content you choose is there. It’s great for you and your students,” they would say. I listened to this well-dressed team of salesmen with anger – I had just spent the last two weeks conversing with the university bookstore about unethical textbook practices by my English professor…


The English Professor

There are certain classes where the entire student body hears about the pointlessness of a certain class.  At UMaine, it’s an English class, and a guaranteed “A.”

Simply show up to class with your i-clicker, answer a few questions at the end of class, and complete a weekly discussion online through the Blackboard course management software. The only downside? There’s a required textbook (written by the professor himself), for a measly $150 dollar price tag.  There’s a one-time use access card bundled with the book, which allows us to complete our weekly discussion problems, view the course syllabus, and instructions for registering our i-clicker.

My wife and I were taking that same class, and we were unable to purchase an access code without purchasing two copies of the book, which was very upsetting. I asked the individuals working at the bookstore if they sold unbundled copies of the access code, and to my dismay, they did not.

The story gets better…

I ended up purchasing a single copy of the book + 1 access code, and decided to call Cengage with the hope that I would be able to obtain the extra access code. I had homework due, and I was unable to access any of the course materials. The professor had put a wall between course content, and purchasing his textbook was the only route. In fact, he reminded us in class, that the only way to access Blackboard was to purchase the book NEW from the bookstore. Think I’m joking? Take a look at this..

I could only purchase the book “new”

After ten minutes on the phone with Cengage I was able to purchase a single access code for $20 dollars. I asked them about overnight shipping, but that was nearly $65 dollars, which is ridiculous. I opted for the 3-5 day shipping for $10 dollars, and decided to document every interaction from that point on.

Below are screenshots of what happened.

Access Code Receipt


This “wall” prevented me from accessing anything related to my course.


I tried confronting my professor about this, but never received a response.


The Bookstore

If my professor won’t listen, surely the bookstore will? I sent an email to the bookstore director, and scheduled a meeting. He was surprised that I was able to purchase an access code directly from the publisher, and was shocked to hear that the access code was required to access key class materials (syllabus, homework, etc). I was promised that he would dig to the bottom of this issue, and mentioned that students complained about that certain professor before.

Fast forward – it’s the end of the semester and time to sell my $150 dollar textbook back to the bookstore. “We don’t buy back that textbook because the professor updates it.” With that being said, I have a spiral-bound textbook containing poems and other works of literature that I could easily find online – let me know if you want to buy it!

I tried to find out if my professor received commission for his textbook, but the university doesn’t have that information (it’s between the professor and publisher), and the publisher won’t disclose that information. This was a class of 250 students, so even $5/book is $1250 dollars per semester. 


The Law

After researching this issue, there’s a federal law which requires the unbundling of textbooks. How often is this law enforced? I have no idea…

college textbook and any supplemental material accompanying such college textbook as a single
bundle shall also make available the college textbook and each supplemental material as separate
and unbundled items, each separately priced.


What’s the lesson in this story? Students are being screwed over by the textbook publishers, and professors and bookstores are joining in on the action. It’s sad. Professors have the opportunity to make an extra buck, and the bookstore is the exclusive distributor of custom edition textbooks.

It looks like there’s light at the end of the tunnel, companies like Boundless are seeking to disrupt these greedy giants with free textbooks. Go get em guys!

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