Last semester I put in a request to my campus bookstore for the textbook I was going to use for my class, including its specific edition and volume. To the dismay of my students, I found out a few weeks later that the bookstore was carrying a newer edition that was not only more expensive than the one to which I was accustomed, but which also contained new material with which I had yet to make myself familiar. This created a bit of a mess and confusion for me and my students. I had assumed that there was an innocent mistake along the way, either in my administrative assistant accidentally processing the wrong information or in the bookstore accidentally ordering the wrong edition, or even more likely, the bookstore ordering an edition that was similar to that used by another instructor who was teaching the same class.
As the new semester approached, I politely made sure to clarify that I wanted a specific edition again since I did not want this screw-up to repeat. I then received an email from the bookstore saying that they were only carrying the newest edition. According to the bookstore manager, I only had two options: either get the new edition or tell my students to get it somewhere else, presumably online. I felt rather constrained, told the manager about this, and ended up electing to stay with the old edition (which was still the third edition by the way and still fairly new). My reasoning was twofold: one, each new edition usually contains about 10-15% more material and I didn't have the time to orient myself to this new material, and two, at a community college, cost is an extremely important factor. I didn't want struggling college students, already burdened by lots of debts and hectic work and life schedules, to be paying a higher price for something I wasn't going to use. She replied that she agreed with my reasoning.
This is a lesson in the peculiar nature of textbook publishing. The publishing companies will sometimes make special deals or put constraints on campus bookstores. I have seen this done when it comes to financial aid (i.e., if the student wants to use financial aid to purchase books, they MUST buy it from the campus bookstore). It leaves the students with few options and the feeling that they are being screwed over by the system. Honestly, I can hardly blame them. At the same time, NPR's Planet Money did an interesting and balanced piece on the subject in October 2014, noting how a lot has changed about textbook publishing in recent years. Because of amazon and other features of the internet, publishing companies can no longer make much money off of used editions. They basically have to sink or swim within the first six months of publishing a new edition.
There's a lucrative market in textbook publishing that often leaves both the professor and student feeling helpless and dissatisfied. Professors will often see pushy salespeople come to their doors, begging them to buy used books or shove new editions in their face (obviously, some salespeople are more pushy than others). All of this is a bit disconcerting, particularly if you're an idealistic professor like myself who wants to prioritize the ideas, not the business type of things. Yes, I know we'd never get the ideas out there without the business, but there's got to be a different way, and as a historian, my hunch is that the packaged, commodified nature of information was not always this way...