Amazon.com's Kindle Taking Aim at Textbook Prices

Last Updated May 12, 2009 1:04 AM EDT

Amazon.com could be on the verge of shaking up the much maligned college textbook industry. I suspect that even cafeteria food doesn't generate as much kvetching as the price of a semester's worth of college textbooks, which can cost more than a half dozen iPods.

Amazon recently announced that it is tiptoeing into the textbook business with the Kindle DX, its latest electronic reader. Amazon is underwriting a pilot project at six schools, including Princeton, Arizona State, Reed College and Case Western Reserve, to see if its Kindle DX has the potential to catch on with college students.

Students have not embraced previous electronic textbook efforts, but with Amazon's marketing muscle this time might be different. Frankly, any effort to address the insanity of college textbook prices is cause for rejoicing.

Ironically, textbooks are obscenely expensive because college kids are balking at paying full price. Before Amazon.com and other online sellers existed, students bought new textbooks from their campus bookstores. Because these stores enjoyed a monopoly, the cost of a used textbook wasn't that much different from a new one. That led to many kids buying the new Shakespeare tome rather than the one marked up with a yellow highlighter. This kept the textbook publishers happy.

But today's students turn to virtual sellers to hunt for better deals anywhere in the world. (My daughter found great prices for a couple of her Spanish books in Europe.) Ironically, this desire to save money has led publishers to fight back with higher prices since they only have one shot to make a profit before the books end up in the used market. New science and math textbooks today typically cost close to $180 and few new titles in other disciplines are priced at less than $120.

And publishers aren't just jacking up the prices. When I was in college, a publisher might not revise an edition for five or six years or more, but they are now rolling out revised editions frequently to force kids to buy new. Professors aren't changing the way they teach calculus or Shakespeare, but publishers are desperate to make money.

I believe the electronic delivery of textbooks will eventually bring a satisfactory pricing equilibrium between broke college students and the profit-driven textbook industry. In the meantime, I've found a great way to save on textbook costs. I told my daughter Caitlin before she started college that she'd have to pay for her books. If I was picking up the tab, I'm sure she would have strolled into the campus bookstore and paid full price. But since it's coming out of her checking account, she devotes a lot of time finding the cheapest deals.

It's a win-win for both of us.

Textbook image by MinivanNinja, CC 2.0

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