Explore Textbook Alternatives

Creative Commons Copyright

The original version of this guide was created by Kate Pittsley-Sousa at Eastern Michigan University. Your local library may have made improvements or altered the guide to serve your institutution.

Info for libraries reusing this guide

This version of the Alternative Textbook guide was revised for use by other universities in Michigan (or elsewhere). Libraries are welcome to link to this guide (and we will maintain the links).

Alternatively, librarians are welcome to copy this guide and customize it for use at your library.

For an example of how this can be customized for a particular library, see EMU's instance of this guide.

Alternatives to Traditional Textbooks

Some faculty have had success using a combination of the following types of materials in lieu of a traditional textbook:

Open Access Textbooks
Open access textbooks allow students to read texts online for free. Higher quality (sometimes peer reviewed) open access texts are becoming available. See the Open Access Texts page.

Alternative Textbooks
Some new entrants to the textbook market offer students the choice of very inexpensive e-texts or low cost print versions of the same. These publishers' low cost models mean that they don't send publisher's reps to your office, so you need to investigate via publisher web sites. See the Alternative Texts page.

University Press, Scholarly, or Trade Books
University Presses publish high quality texts that are often more reasonably priced--the same can be true of scholarly associations and some small academic or technical publishers that specialize in a particular subject area. Trade books are usually less expensive than traditional texts and may work well for some classes. The library may have some scholarly or trade books available as library ebooks. See the University Presses page.

Library Ebooks & Chapters from Library Ebooks
Library ebooks can be read via an internet browser with an institutional login. It may be feasible to assign chapters from different ebooks. There can be advantages and disadvantages to assigning library ebooks as course readings. See the Library Ebooks page.

Links to Articles in the Library's Collection
When the library has an article in electronic form, you can provide a link to students and save them the cost of course-packs. See the Online Articles page for details on how to do this successfully.

Open Educational Resources - OERs
OERs, are classroom and study materials that are available online that can be reused and modifed for educational purposes by others. See the OER page for more info.

We've also gathered together resources to help you find two specific types of OERs:  shared syllabi and online videos.

What else can faculty members do?

Sometimes a traditional text is still your best option. In that case, you can still take a few steps to help with the cost issue.

1. Consider small publishers that may be new to the textbook market 
We need more competition in the textbook industry and some small players have more reasonable prices.

2. Use links to articles in place of coursepack articles
You can reduce the expense of course-packs by linking to articles in the library's electronic collections and preparing course-packs only for those not in the library's e-collections. Universities already pay large subscription fees for electronic journals; we don't need to make the students pay again.

3. Submit your required readings info as early as possible
There is high demand for used texts across the country. The earlier the bookstore can place orders, the more likely they will be able to obtain used copies for your students.

4. Inform students of viable alternatives
Is your text available in a cheaper electronic form, such as on the RedShelf or VitalSource platform? Can students rent the text? Will a previous edition work for your course? Informing students of options can help them to save money, or to obtain the book when the bookstores are out-of-stock.

5. Avoid assigning custom texts and code packaged textbooks
Custom texts may be cheaper than the new hardcover edition of the standard text, but custom editions usually cost more than a used copy of the standard text. Students often can’t resell custom editions after the course (money they often need to buy the next semester’s texts).

Code packaged texts can make it difficult for students to save money with a used text. Although publishers are required by federal law to sell the codes separately; in practice they don’t always provide this option to students or sometimes charge exorbitant prices for the codes. By law publishers must inform instructors of the code cost. If you assign code-required options, ask for price and availability of the access code before you adopt a text.

6. Check the course catalog to see the price listed for your text
Publishers sometimes quote faculty the wholesale price at adoption, but then copies in stock at the bookstore have higher prices. Some faculty have questioned this and gotten price reductions for students.

7. Don't sell your review copy texts to the book buyers roaming your halls
This phenomenon adds to the spiraling textbook price problem. The Text and Academic Authors Association provides suggestions on what to do with complimentary copies you don't keep (link below).

8. Give students time to obtain the text
Some professors assign an online article from the library or other free reading during the first week and wait till the 2nd week to use the text.

9. Let students know about tax credits for course material expenses
Course text expenses may qualify for tax credit using IRS form 8863 and documentation, such as receipts and a syllabi listing required texts. (see FAQ linked below)

10. If you author a textbook:
Find a publisher that sells books at reasonable prices. Or, consider publishing an open textbook. Some of the publishers or open text projects described in this guide may be a good match. Your library may have a platform for publishing open access books. Some of these platforms are indexed in Google Scholar and provide detailed statistics on downloads.

11. Consider placing a copy of your text on Reserve at your library.
This provides an option for low-income students. It also helps when the bookstore runs out of copies

Reserves Tips: 
1.) Place your Reserves request early. If you wait till classes begin, staff are less likely to be successful in putting the book on reserve in a timely fashion.
2.) If the library doesn't own the book, it may be possible to place a personal copy on Reserves. 
Check with your library on Reserves policies.

Resources for Students with Disabilities

Academic Freedom & Disciplinary Diversity

Academic Freedom
It is important that faculty have the freedom to choose the most effective course materials. Sometimes the ability to combine chapters, articles, and OERs from various sources will enhance a faculty member's options to design the best course. Also, healthy competition among numerous publishers will provide more options than a market dominated by a few large textbook publishers.

Disciplinary Diversity
Disciplines often use different types of materials for both scholarship and teaching. The humanities have always relied less on standard texts (and the course materials tend to be less expensive); some disciplines rely heavily on articles for course readings; standard texts work well for some other fields. It's important both to use the type of materials that work best for teaching in a field AND to consider the effects of course material costs on students.

Faculty Authored Texts
It can be appropriate to assign a self-authored text, but assignment of self-authored texts may involve ethical considerations. See AAUP statement below.

The Problem with Custom Editions & Code Packaged Textbooks

Is your textbook too expensive?

Free the Textbook!

A large 2022 survey of college students in Virginia found that due to the cost of required course materials:
- 38% of students took fewer courses
- 34% earned a poor grade
- 16% failed a course
- 16% chose their major in part on text costs
The % of students experiencing the effects listed above were significantly higher for students who had Pell Grant funding, who were First generation students, who were non-white, who were disabled, or who were taking care of family members. [Virginia Course Materials Survey, 2022].

"In 2020, 65 percent of students surveyed reported skipping buying a textbook because of cost; 63 percent skipped purchasing one during the same period the previous year. . . . Students who faced food insecurity were more heavily impacted by unaffordable course materials. 82 percent of students who reported missing a meal due to the pandemic also reported skipping buying textbooks due to cost; furthermore, 38 percent reported they skipped buying an access code."  [U.S. PIRG, 2021]

An extensive survey of all 40 postsecondary institutions in Florida showed that 64% of students decided not to purchase a text when the price was too high. As a result of high cost texts: 43% took fewer classes, 41% didn't register for a specific class, 23% dropped a course, 36% earned a poor grade, and 20% failed a course. [Florida Virtual Campus, 2018]

From 1978 - 2005, textbook prices rose at rates higher than new home prices, and even higher than medical expenses. [BLS] 

From 2006-2016 textbook prices rose 88%, tuition and fees 63%. [BLS]

The effects on students are severe: Frequently texts for even 100-200 level classes fall in the $100-300 range, presenting a formidable barrier for low income students. We've recently seen undergraduate students have to purchase $400 texts for courses.

Many students immediately fall behind, while waiting for financial aid payments or for a cheaper text ordered online to arrive.

Some use out-of-date previous editions or cheaper foreign editions, which may omit content found in U.S. editions.

Many students attempt the courses without a text, relying solely on lecture notes. Others postpone courses due to expenses.

In U.S.PIRG's 2013 poll, "nearly half of all students surveyed said that the cost of textbooks impacted how many/which classes they took each semester." 

Students report emotional stress related to acquiring textbooks: “It’s not just a massive economic cost, but it’s also a massive mental cost. Oftentimes you don’t know what textbooks you need up until the very first day of class. Trying to scrounge … to find a book you can afford if your budget is pennies on the dollar can be very mentally taxing.”[source]

If we can lower the textbook expense barrier, more students may succeed, we can relieve some student (and faculty) stress, and we may improve time to graduation rates.