The dark side of the textbook publishing market

Textbook publishers are making e-textbooks unaffordable, unsustainable and inaccessible to libraries.

To accommodate students who may be struggling financially, instructors will often request that the library purchase a copy of their course-required commercial e-textbook to place on reserve. However, many textbook publishers or vendors will not sell electronic versions of their books to libraries (like VitalSource) since it is more profitable to sell directly to students. If e-textbooks are available for libraries to purchase, they are often unreasonably priced (see this crowd-sourced spreadsheet of examples) and come with restrictive licensing (e.g., limited simultaneous users, limited ability to download and print). For example, several of the academic publishers we work with and buy from regularly have started classifying their eBooks as either ‘eBooks for library sale’, or ‘eTextbooks, only available for individual student purchase’. Some of the publishers that we deal with who have these restrictions on textbooks include:

  • Canadian University Presses (they place restrictions on eBooks that have a “potential as textbooks” and exclude them from the comprehensive collection we purchase)
  • Sage, Cambridge University Press, Oxford University Press (all have longstanding textbook divisions that do not sell to libraries)
  • Wiley (they re-classified over 1,000 titles in summer 2022 to a new “inclusive access” textbook program and will only sell those titles to individual students)

Please note that the USask Bookstore is a cost recovery unit and works to keep costs low for students, criticisms of unreasonable pricing and restrictive licensing should be directed at profit-driven commercial publishers.

So, when choosing a commercial textbook for courses please consider whether it is:

  • Accessible in print and electronic format for both individuals and libraries to purchase 
  • Affordable for students and libraries 
  • Available with reasonable licensing restrictions

Better yet, consider adopting or adapting one of the many open textbooks or open educational resources (OERs) now available! These will be FREE for students to read online or download, and they are openly licensed for you to adapt to suit the needs of your course. Your liaison librarian can help you locate some options, and the Gwenna Moss Centre has grants that can help you adapt them or to create your own OER. The USask Bookstore offers a print on demand (POD) service (at cost) for students who want a printed version of an OER.

Students who want to get involved with advocating for OER resources, please contact your Student Union VP of Academic Affairs (USSU or GSA).

For more information on this issue follow the #ebookSOS campaign. This advocacy initiative was launched in 2020 by several academic librarians in the U.K. in response to the unavailability, high prices, and restrictive licenses of ebooks during the pandemic.