How Much is a Textbook Worth?

By: Mr. Wade

Several factors determine how much your textbook is worth, and its value can fluctuate over a given time frame due to supply and demand. Textbook prices are too high and they have been for some time, and below are a few ways to assess value if you own one and want to get the most money back.

A Higher Starting Price

Books in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields command a premium on the used market because these textbooks have a higher retail price when new and hold their value well. STEM fields are high demand majors, which means there are more students competing for these majors than there are available slots. This increases demand for course material.
Another reason science, math, and engineering textbooks are worth more is because of the complexity of the subject matter. It takes a huge amount of work and time to produce a calculus textbook, an anatomy and physiology textbook,  or an engineering book on statics and dynamics. The process of writing textbooks is a job done by multiple professors working for years and years. It is an ongoing effort, as the authors do not normally change between editions. That effort and time is baked into the price, and those costs need to be recouped.

New Edition are Almost Never Complete Re-writes

Courses material needs to be up to date and relevant. Imagine being taught from an anatomy textbook from the fourteenth century. Publishers periodically release new editions when the body of academic knowledge around a particular topic progresses enough to warrant a new book. Medical discoveries happen all the time and textbooks need to contain at least some cutting edge research to prepare students for the workforce.
However, lots of things we know about the human body will not change such as: the number of bones in the hand or the types of muscles in the forearm for example. Knowledge builds upon knowledge and the effort to corral and organize that knowledge is reflected in the value of a textbook. This is why some books cost over three hundred dollars. Everyone that had a part in producing that book has to get paid, and that list of people can be long. It often includes grad students, post-docs, and junior professors.

Older Editions are Practically Worthless

Previous editions are worth almost nothing on the used market if the majority of professors have moved on to a new edition. For almost any college course, students can purchase a book that is several editions old, but this might not help much in class. This is because it is in students’ best interest to own the same edition the professor is using. Using an old edition is risky because it might not match up with what the professor is teaching and could lead to bad grades. With the cost of college as high as it is and scholarships dependent upon GPA, it is just not worth the risk. Most students with enough money to go to college have enough money to purchase the new book.

New Editions After Only Three Years

Here is a quick example of how quickly publishers release new editions. Human Anatomy (9th Edition - 9780135205020) came out in January of 2019. The eighth edition was published in 2016 and is already obsolete. Human anatomy obviously hasn’t changed in three years or fifty years, but the publishers must create new editions to continue making a profit. They do not make money off used copies - the universities do because they buy and resell the used books. The publishers only make their money once, hence the need for continuous, incremental updates that are labeled ‘New Editions’.
Sure, they will add a few new studies and information here and there, but the book is largely the same. It’s ridiculous to make students pay so much for a new ninth edition when there is nothing wrong with all the used eighth edition copies that are still on the market.
It can take awhile for universities to adopt a new edition and some continue using the older edition for some time. Therefore just because a textbook is an older edition does not mean it is worthless. It takes effort for professors to switch to the new book because they have to amend their teaching schedule, and many don’t want to do that. Expect older editions to gradually lose value as more and more professors ditch the old book and bring in the new edition.

Supply and Demand

Perhaps the most important factor when valuing your textbook is how many of them are in circulation and how many people are trying to buy them. Textbook distribution is a national logistical effort and one company (Follett) operates most campus bookstores. If they have a large inventory of a particular book, the price is going to drop. If they have a low inventory of another book, the price is going to climb.
It’s not just Follett that deals in textbooks - a number of companies purchase and sell used books, and they all compete with each other. Sometimes a dealer will buy a book from one vendor and then turn around and sell it to another vendor for a profit.
Inventory fluctuates based on when students change classes during a semester, and the vendors never know how much inventory of any one title they are going to get. So value starts out high and then tapers off as more students sell back their books. The best course of action is to sell your book at the end of the semester right before everyone else does. Waiting even a day or two can mean losing a fifty or sixty dollars in some cases. Sometimes the bookstores just stop buying if they have too many of the same book.

Physical Size

Larger books take more paper and ink to print, but paper is cheap and black ink is even cheaper. Pictures and color are the main factors that add to printing costs because they require special paper and lots and lots of color ink. Therefore books that contain lots of diagrams, charts, and photos are going to be worth marginally more than books with mostly plain text. However this is not a huge determinant of value, and the other factors above make more of an impact.

Final Things to Remember

Mostly science, math, engineering, and technology textbooks are going to be worth the most money. These types of books like freshmen chemistry, biology, anatomy/physiology, physics, calculus, etc. are where students spend lots of money.