By: Mr. Wade
More often than not, the subject matter determines the price. It has to do with the "value" of the material contained within and how difficult that material was to procure. Knowledge is valuable, and Universities, especially research one universities (R1: Doctorate Universities), are expected to be on the cutting edge. When we're talking about price, it's important to understand who is writing them, and that would be professors who often larger than necessary egos. You could ask most professors how valuable their work is and they would likely say, "It's priceless!", and that response is often what gets factored into the retail value. However, sometime the increased cost is warranted.
The increased cost of books in some subjects is warranted. STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) often require textbooks that are super expensive. Students who major in these subjects are almost guaranteed good job prospects upon graduation. That's not something that could be said for the majority of other majors. Books in these subjects are also generally larger, contain lots of images, and take a long time to write.
The physical size of the book does play a big role in its final, retail value. Thicker books require more paper, ink, and resources to produce. Also, those with lots of color images will cost substantially more - color printing is much more expensive than black and white. If you have ever ordered business cards with colorful images, then you know what I'm talking about.
That's a good question to ask when discussing the general cost of textbooks. Why shouldn't publishers and professors charge as much as they possibly can? I suppose there's no good reason why not in a free market economy. The trouble with this model is that costs are going through the roof. Students have to have material, so they have to pay whatever the price is. It's not fair, but that's how it works. Along with tuition, textbook costs continue to skyrocket.
That being said, students can save money in different ways. They can sell used textbooks online through a number of competing vendors (listed on this site), or they can sell directly to each other (also on this site).