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When it comes to buying textbooks, students have two essential problems--complexity and price.

We all understand the price problem--"that book is HOW MUCH?!"  But the complexity problem is less understood, and it directly affects the price problem. You see, if students don't know all their options, or don't understand what they actually need (or don't need), they're going to pay too much.

After 17 years in the textbook industry, we finally got tired of watching countless students spend way too much money for their class material simply because they don’t understand they have options.  Publishers rely on creating confusion to ensure student’s buy new, high priced items from them instead of lower margin or used items on the web.

And the craziest thing of all...students have no idea they’re getting screwed because of textbook complexity.  They know books are expensive, but they say, “I just bought what was on my syllabus.  What’s so complex about that?” 

A lot actually, and while you might have what you need for class, you probably overpaid big time.

So, we decided to do something about it.  We understand that a typical student has no way to become a Textbook Expert, so we created a free tool that makes everyone an expert.    Our tool does two things. 

  1. It puts students back in control by giving them every option for the material they need.  There are more options than they think--even for things like access codes.
  2. It simplifies class material down into its component parts.  Publishers make a ton of money on high priced “packages” that contain more than one item.  We’ve found that if you break that package down into its individual items and just buy what you need, you can save dumb amounts of money. 

We call our free tool PageLess, and you can use it at

Curious about the inner workings of the 15 billion dollar textbook industry?  Ask us anything.

Comments: 56 • Responses: 15  • Date: 

heidismiles18 karma

Why do you think so many professors are still resistant to using free materials like OpenStax?

bdsherman14 karma

So, a couple of reasons, first, it’s just inertia.  Professors, like all of us, tend to be creatures of habit, and most of them are a bit older and set in their ways.  They’ve been using a certain book for years and don’t want to change their entire class model for new material.  

Secondly, while some of the free class material is great, the free stuff available is sometimes not as comprehensive and options can be limited in certain disciplines. 

Here’s what the free courseware like OpenStax has done, though.  They have FORCED the for-profit publishers to radical change their business model and lower their prices.  I don’t think this would have happened, and certainly not as quickly unless free course material was gaining traction.  Great, question!

yackofalltradescoach12 karma

That intro seems a lot more like an advertisement than a public service announcement.

I browsed your site and i don’t fully understand the way your company makes money. I would guess that you get referral fees for driving traffic to the sites where books or access codes are eventually purchased.

My first question is how does your site make money?

The other issues that raises suspicion on my part is the fact that your company isn’t trying to actually help students beat the textbook industry. The textbook lobby is despicable, but supported by policy makers and educators so not fully to blame.

My second question is: does your company direct students to information outside of the textbook industry so that demand for textbooks will eventually decline and students will be able to explore relative content from any number of sources or does your company simply direct students to industry driven information, creating a second hand market for textbook sources, which supports and furthers the textbook industry as well as creates a middle man to profit off secondary transactions?

Sorry for the wordiness of the second question and thank you for taking the time to do the AMA.

bdsherman10 karma

Hey, Yack, 

Really glad you asked this question.  You are correct.  We make money when students use our site to find their books.  When a student clicks on one of our links to go buy what we found for them, we get a commission.  So, yes, we are a business. We spent, like 100k developing this tool.  The algorithms and programming behind what we do is absurd.  I have no idea if we will ever make that money back, but what I do know is that whether non-profit, or for-profit, our tool is free, and it can save students loads of money in totally unique ways never done before.  Real solutions do come out of the private sector. 

I’ve been thinking about your question a lot, and I have to politely disagree that we aren’t helping students beat the textbook industry.  If we collectively save students 10 million dollars, that’s 10 mil in their pockets and not in the bank account of the publishers.  

After reading your second question, I think I understand your first better. 

I think your second question is insightful and asks a really important question that I have not considered.  Do we even need textbooks?  Is there another way to disseminate and teach complex information without textbooks?  I really have no idea, though I know we are getting there with places like Kahn Academy.

Let me be clear.  I don’t think textbooks are evil.  I probably think they are necessary (at least at present).  Certainly my family and the families of my employees have made their livings by selling textbooks on the secondary market these past years.   I hope you won’t think it a cop-out if I say that we are laser-focused on helping with the current scenario in the best way we know how.  I can tell you publishers don't like us, and tools like PageLess have the potential to make textbook industry executives stay up at night.  We are a thorn in their side.  I believe that we (usually) have to work within a system to make it better.  Feels like an incomplete answer, but they again, your question was a doozy.

TheLittlestTiefling9 karma

A few questions for you:

  • Can you explain a bit more about why textbooks cost so much? Is it the research that goes into them or an arbitrary price set by the publisher?

  • Do the writers of textbooks get royalties for sales, like regular books?

  • what is a subject where it would be important to get a more recent edition vs using an older one?

Thanks in advance!

bdsherman3 karma

  1. The main reason for the crazy inflation in the cost of textbooks is two-fold.  First, especially before the internet, publishers enjoyed a sort of monopoly.  Consumers have no choice but to buy what their professor tells them to buy for class.  When a consumer has no choice, the publishers could charge whatever they wanted.   

Secondly, the publisher’s business model was destroyed with the advent of the internet.  For the first time, students could get a fair market value for BOTH buying and selling their books.  Suddenly, the market was awash with easily accessible used books, and publishers were hemorrhaging market share.  So, they just started jacking up their prices and printing a new edition every three years. much has calculus changed to require four new editions in the last ten years?  

  1. Yep, writers of popular textbooks (usually they are also professors) get paid big and for every new book that sells.  It’s common for these professors to roll onto campus in their Bentleys and park next to their co-worker’s Volvo. 
  2. So, when buying old editions (A great way to save money!) Think, “Has this field of study changed in the last few years?”  If you are in a media class, probably a lot has changed, so get the recent edition.  If you are in a Spanish class, well language changes but not that fast.  You’ll probably be ok with the old edition. 

Game_of_Jobrones9 karma

It’s common for these professors to roll onto campus in their Bentleys and park next to their co-worker’s Volvo. 

What campus did you guys go to school on?

bdsherman2 karma

We actually went to a very small school in Montana. I was talking with a professor at UCLA the other day that told me about some of the deals these professors would have and the type of money they would make.

The_God_of_Abraham7 karma

Publishers rely on creating confusion to ensure student’s buy new, high priced items

Isn't this just as much about professors as it is about publishers?

In my experience, professors often insist that students buy the latest edition of every book (some of which are written by them, of course), which are "revised" with a few paragraph edits every 2 or 3 years. If the books have problem sets, they'll change a few numbers in those so that students can't get the right answers otherwise.

It's not like used book markets don't exist, are hard to find, or are particularly expensive.

bdsherman6 karma

I would say that some of the professors are part of the problem, but a lot of the time, it is the publishers that are pushing new books on them all of the time. I do not really know of any other market where the person deciding what to buy is not the end user. They are told what books are the best and never told what books cost. They just choose what they are provided. I think that NPRs Planet money did a good podcast on this. The economics of textbooks are interesting.

I have heard that some states have set laws on how much textbooks can cost for a certain course. I am not sure how widespread that is though.

I agree about the used book market. Unfortunately the publishers have some tricks up their sleeve to make this hard. Access codes are one of their ways to get students to buy through them. Used textbooks do NOT come with access codes, so if you buy used, you still have to buy their codes.

The publishers have also just recently started to do some very complex things to force used textbooks off of the market. The only way to get any "bound version" of a book these days from any of the Major 3 publishers (Pearson, McGraw, and Cengage) is to rent them. They do this so that these books all have to be returned. They have also made it hard to find loose leaf books. Times are quite crazy in the textbook world and we do hope that we can try and help students out.

The_God_of_Abraham6 karma

I guess I assumed it was largely the authors changing the books, but I suppose the publishers might be doing it, or twisting their arms.

I just know that for many of the books I've bought over the years, there were always lots of considerably cheaper used versions available--but there was always some reason why those weren't sufficient, even though the substance of the books were nearly identical. Definitely shenanigans going on somewhere in the chain.

bdsherman3 karma

Oh I definitely agree with you.

In most cases the publishers have set terms with authors to update their books every few years. Now that they have switched to digital versions, they say they are going to stop printing as many editions, and only update their online versions. They have been setting new royalty deals with authors to do this on a rolling basis. They say this will keep the costs lower by only updating content when it is needed. Time will tell...

We also believe used books are also the cheapest. PageLess actually pushes students to buy the cheapest books that we can find. Most cases they are used. Rentals are also a great option as well. We send people only places we would trust to buy a book such as Amazon, Chegg, Textbooks dot com etc.

Let me tell you, there is a LOT of shenanigans going on, even in the used textbook marketplaces.

bdsherman3 karma

I also forgot to mention eBooks and other online content. The publishers are really focusing on everything online because none of these things can ever be sold after they have been used. Their main goal is trying to get rid of the used markets so that people have to buy directly through them.

The_God_of_Abraham3 karma

That's too bad. I like ebooks and read plenty of them, but physical books are qualitatively superior for textbooks in particular.

bdsherman2 karma

Oh ebooks are definitely great and we also let students know if those are cheaper too. In a lot of cases that is the best. Some people like them and some people dont, so we like to give them all of the options. I prefer physical books myself, but if I was saving 50 dollars to go digital, you can bet that is what I would do!

Skeldann6 karma

Are colleges & universities getting a cut of the inflated prices? And would that be why they allow this practice?

And would that not legally be a conflict of interest?

bdsherman4 karma

As with everything, this is not a simple answer. Most institutions do not make much (or any) money on textbook sales. They do, however have long standing contracts from "way back" when the college bookstore was the only way to get your textbooks.  These contracts are usually restrictive (in favor of the bookstore), and usually give the bookstore operator sole approval to sell books on campus.   In my opinion there is no "foul play" occurring. The institutions themselves don't set the prices (which are usually grossly inflated), or profit from the book sales. Universities/Colleges have contracted out their on-campus book sales, to ensure that there are books available on campus for students.  This can sometimes allow for mini-geographical-monopolies, which is super not awesome for students.  Luckily, these days the internet exists.

ileisen6 karma

Have you gotten any pushback from the publishers of textbooks? What about the universities themselves?

bdsherman3 karma

We are brand new.  I mean, this tool was in development a couple months ago.  But we certainly expect to be unpopular with publishers if students begin to use us.  The problem is that they have a major PR problem.  They all claim to be doing all they can to lower the cost of books, but at the same time, they are creating course material that just makes no sense.   They won’t like us, but they can’t argue with what we’re doing...and we’re still telling students to buy their stuff.  Just less expensive stuff.

SaintPoost5 karma

How does your site source the information on pricing for products we are about to buy?

Note to all students, use for your textbook pdf needs, you can often find commonly-used textbooks on there. You'll still need to buy codes for math shit though.

bdsherman1 karma

How does your site source the information on pricing for products we are about to buy?

We are part of affiliate programs that allow us to connect to our partners APIs. When someone searches for a book, we search every single site for all of the formats of books. It can actually get quite complex with the amount of calls that we are making.

We definitely understand why people use that site as well, and while I do not blame anyone for using it, we do not condone pirating anything. The publishers have tried to force their ways around this by creating these access codes, which have to be purchased. That said, there are often ways to source these for a bit cheaper if you know what you are looking for. We know these tricks and have tried our best to build them into our site so that it is easy for anyone to find.

ohwowthatsawesome4 karma

Thanks for doing this AMA! Any thoughts on subscription services like Cengage Unlimited?

Horseplay-on-Ladders4 karma

Oh, yeah! now you are talking! programs like cengage unlimited might be the key to the future of textbooks. in fact, with our PageLess tool, we are able to identify any time a student searches for an item in the cengage catalog. The very first thing we offer them on our site is cengage unlimited, and we also explain what it is. basically, if you need an access code, Cengage unlimited is always the best route to go. if you need more than one book or access code, from Cengage, Cengage unlimited is going to save you a ton. We make sure to highlight this fact but then give students the choice for what they want to buy.

Have you ever used Cengage unlimited or know anyone who has? I'd be interested to hear about the experience.

ohwowthatsawesome4 karma

I don’t know anyone personally who’s used it but I’ve seen demos several times and the concept seems solid, especially as a way to reduce costs for students.

bdsherman1 karma

It definitely is an interesting way to help reduce the cost. I am not one for subscription based models, but if a student has multiple classes that uses Cengage course material, then it is really a no brainer IMO. It seems to have been pretty successful for them, so it will be interesting to see if the other major publishers will start doing the same thing. Then we could have the problem of having multiple subscriptions that every student must buy...

BayesOrBust4 karma

What is your opinion on libgen?

bdsherman1 karma

I actually just found out about this just a few weeks ago and have noticed how popular it is. I personally think it is very interesting, but do not condone its use. We understand why students are using it though. It is a byproduct of a toxic market that the publishers created.

Unfortunately the publisher get around this by creating the access codes which can not be accessed using that platform. If you know how to search for these codes though, there are often ways to save money if you know what you are looking for. We know these tricks and have tried our best to build them into our site so that it is easy for anyone to find.

Hopefully programs like OpenStax can become the standard, so that students do not have to rely on pirating materials.

BayesOrBust4 karma

I think the popularity has stemmed from the same movement as scihub (as in, if anything, it might be used moreso by professors rather than students). The access code problem is still unavoidable and probably the biggest caveat to overcome for any approach to this, legal or illegal.

On another note, It would be interesting to see what majors/degrees tend to require more books with access codes as I seldom experienced it with math/statistics but saw others dealing with them frequently during my undergrad.

bdsherman3 karma


I think that the majority of access codes tend to be for more gen ed classes. It seems the more advanced the classes get, the less they tend to be used. I know that the main publishers have them for all types of classes though. I know that some of the publishers have some fairly big plans with them soon. Hopefully they keep competing to keep prices down, otherwise, if everything is digital, it is the publishers that are setting the market prices.

yellowromancandle2 karma

Why are you double spacing after periods?

bdsherman3 karma

I was always just taught to double space after periods. I think that it is a remnant from typewriters haha. I am not that old though, its just habit.