A colleague of mine, who teaches chemistry, claims that these days, sales of copies of college textbooks are no longer profitable for publishers. He says that their revenue is now from services, such as answer-checking services like MyMathLab. I asked him to provide a source for his claim, but he didn't. I have a pretty hard time believing this as stated, because his statements sound categorical and extreme. But is there at least some truth to this? Is there any way of knowing, since the publishers may not make the data available?

My suspicion is that a $280/copy o-chem text is even more profitable than it was before, because the online services can be used to force the students to give money to the publisher. Before the online services came along, a student could just buy a used book, which would put no money in the publisher's pocket. Now, the student may have no choice but to buy the book shrinkwrapped with a card providing access to the online service.

The publisher can also rent the book to students in electronic form, with a DRM scheme that makes the book evaporate after a year. This also helps to kill off the used book market.

  • 2
    Anecdotal evidence in my experience TAing something like calculus: Fewer students actually buy the book than you'd expect (many who do have much easier access to cheap used copies not through the publisher), and those who don't can often find online copies of the book in the illegal fashion.
    – PVAL
    Commented Feb 19, 2016 at 0:36
  • And there are lots of other on-line resources, making textbooks less essential.
    – vonbrand
    Commented Feb 19, 2016 at 1:25

2 Answers 2


To be honest, I'm not sure even to what extent a book can be seen as profitable separate from the online tools because of the ever tighter integration between the two. A number of textbooks in newer editions have started offloading (er, onloading? uploading?) activities that would traditionally be in the textbook to online systems. This is especially egregious with audio or video activities that used to come on CD/tape/VHS/DVD, and now are only accessible online (those materials are important for us in foreign languages).

And to really drive home the point that they are considered to be a single unit, I've used at least two textbooks now in the past few years for which the physical book + e-book + online tools cost less than the physical book alone.

So I guess in that sense, you could say that the online tools are where the money are (because that's where they're pushing people), but it's not like they could discard the textbook and just sell the online tools, at least in my field. A good book can go without online tools, but the other way around isn't so true.

Now there is a trend to goto single-use sells, and again, it's easy to conflate that with the online portion (and hard to fully separate out the economics of it without detailed numbers none of us have): they've always been able to grab people on single-use sells via workbooks, but now I notice there's a small trend to try to integrate textbooks with workbooks in a single print to reemphasize the formers' single use nature, with or without an online system.


I don't have any evidence to back this but I believe they are making less profit. As someone who has TA's for years one thing I have noticed is that publishers are sending less free books to academics. They used to send more freebies to people who taught related courses. Also, they would provide several free copies of a textbook to the department when a textbook was selected for a course. Now they only provide one. I think this could be an indicator that they are not making enough profit.

I think the reason is that students buy less books than before. People find PDFs online and download them for free which hurts the publishers. Also, used book sales (which do not benefit the publishers) are ever increasing. A lot of students even opt to just use wikipedia and online resources to complement lecture notes and forego using textbooks all together.

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