The mathematics of school textbooks

It’s all easy in primary school. You send the money in, you get a box of goodies. There’s few textbooks, and almost all are kept at and owned by the school.

It gets more complicated and expensive in secondary school.

So here’s the scenario: Two kids, two years apart. The school has a secondhand book scheme.

At the end of the year, books are sold for two-thirds the retail price, with the seller getting three-quarters of that. So basically for cashing in your books, you get half the money back — assuming you bought them new in the first place.

So with two kids going through, I’m trying to work out if it’s worth selling them through the scheme, or holding onto them unused for a year before using them again.

If you bought $100 of books new at the start of year 1, you’d get $50 back for selling them at the end. If you bought them back again for year 3, it’d cost you $66, and you’d sell them again for $50. Total cost $100 – $50 + $66 – $50 = $66.

If you bought them secondhand originally, the cost is $66 – $50 + $66 – $50 = $32.

If you bought them new, and held onto them until the end of year 3, it’s $100 – $50 = $50.

If you bought them secondhand, and held onto them until the end of year 3, it’s $66 – $50 = $16.

The big unknown here is whether or not the school decides to changes the textbooks along the way, as new editions and better texts are published. If they change them before year 1, you can’t buy them secondhand in the first place, but must buy new. If they change them for year 2, you can’t sell them in the first place. If they change them for year 3, and you held onto them, you have to buy new ones anyway, and you missed your opportunity to sell.

I wonder how fast the turnover is. Perhaps it pays to sit down and be selective, holding onto things which are recent editions.

And just when I thought I’d figured out what to do, my sister mentioned she can get publisher discounts through her work.

By Daniel Bowen

Transport blogger / campaigner and spokesperson for the Public Transport Users Association / professional geek.
Bunurong land, Melbourne, Australia.
Opinions on this blog are all mine.

9 replies on “The mathematics of school textbooks”

Rough rule of thumb is that the schools change text books every 2 years BUT what one school uses might be completely different to another school down the road, so check out surrounding schools for 2nd hand texts (might seem cheeky but they’re happy to be able to sell any and all texts at the end of the day).
Hunt out op shops (many near-new books end up there when they can’t on-sell them), the second hand books at the school, don’t worry if the CD-rom isn’t present with the text book they are (theoretically) supposed to be for the kids to take home instead of lugging heavy books around.
Editions only 1 or 2 years older than the current one are usually ok to use, any minor differences the kids can usually photocopy from a friend’s text book.

It’s so stupid that schools change books, and that new editions of books are published so frequently. It’s all so obviously designed to sell more books. The material is almost the same, with chapters and page numbers re-arranged and different example problems (in maths books for example). A family should be able to use the same books for all of its children. The principles of science and maths don’t change every two years.

That’s my rant anyway.

Sometimes, estimating something else/from another angle is easier.

Another way to look at this is to calculate how often the school would change textbooks and have you break even. In this game, you have bought either new (because you were forced to) or second-hand (because that was available, and obviously you’re going to do that). It now comes to the end of the year, and you have to choose. At this point, calculate how frequently the school would need to change textbooks for you to lose money on the deal, then compare this against the attributes of the textbook.

The switching of books varies by subject, obviously. Some have switched recently, but some (such as French) are using editions published in 2002, and which are still current.

I’m sure the view of the publishing industry would be that they’d like schools to switch books much more often than they do.

What annoyed me much more when I was a secondary school student (back in the 1970s) was the fact that some of the text books on the list were never used in class.

I was a scholarship student at an expensive private school. My family was poor, and every cent counted. I knew how hard it was for Mum to find the money to buy my textbooks, but she always did, even if they were second-hand copies. I went without a lot of things that the other kids had, but not books; I don’t recall ever starting a school year without the complete set of books on the booklist.

How, then, could I possibly tell her at the end of the school year that some of the books had never even been mentioned in class, let alone opened? Why did teachers put books on the list that they weren’t planning to use in their teaching? These weren’t merely suggestions for further reading (the kinds of reading lists you get at tertiary level) – they were supposedly required textbooks. There was no way to tell in advance which books were really needed and which were not.

Thirty-odd years later, it still angers me. Does it still happen in secondary schools these days?

Phee’s school has a big second hand book sale this weekend. Does Isaac’s school do the same? Last year I ordered online via Academic and General and was able to get most via their website in second hand copies.
I don’t know how you’ll go with handing the books down with a year in between. I think they change the eds more often than that. Which is sh*tty but you want them to have the most up-to-date copy which they are all using in the class.
I think I would sell at the end of each year, regardless. You don’t want to have an old ed in hand with no way of getting rid of it (gaining a sale price or not).
If Phee is in the year above/between the boys, we can give you her old books, if they are using the same titles/eds? Let me know what you need/want. She is in Year 8 this year, 9 in 2010.

I used to work in a school book supplier, and some of the prices were just obscene. I remember seeing invoices of well over $1000.

Daniel, are you aware of ? It’s a website dedicated to buying & selling secondhand school-related materials. Looks like something that will help out a lot of families (and the environment). (Disclaimer: my employer built their website)

You know, thinking about this, I son’t think we ever had to buy texctbooks for school. Even at College, I remember us getting the books and having to pay a deposit for them (refundable at the end of the year when we returned them) but never actually buying anything.

Mind you, I also remember that one of our science textbooks was called “Science For the SeventiesW, which perhaps suggests that it’s been a while and things have changed!

Certainly, though, I was lucky enough to have been provided with very large numbers of books by my parents that weren’t tied to school per se but which they thoguht (rightly) would just help build my knowledge. I have a set of encyclopaedias which they bought when I was a baby which *still* get used from time to time even now, so I suppose that menas they count as a Good Buy!

Wow, I’m impressed with Sustainable School Shop!
Ian Jelf’s comment reminds me that some schools used to buy the text books and hire them out to the students who’d pay a deposit (lump sum for all books) then hand them back at the end of the year – very civilised!

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