Despite what most students think, some professors actually care about the textbook costs for their class. We care because we want the students to read the text, which they can't do unless they buy it and the higher the price the less likely they are to read it.
I generally teach two classes Economic Development and Introduction to Macroeconomics. For Development I assign three paper back that can be purchased on Amazon for about $10 each used. For intro to macro, I have students use an online homework system called Aplia, which for $80 also includes an online copy of the book. I think Aplia does a good job running the site as my students have few technical glitches and the homework problems are solid. I would like my students to get a better deal.
I could shop around, I think I will next year. But I'm just one professor with 50 intro students, I'll be subject to the market going prices, which is probably $80 if I want an online homework system (which I do).
I was thinking about all of this when I read an entry in Seth Godin's blog on high school musicals (the actual kind not the movie staring Zac Efron). He said his local high school paid $3,000 to stage Grease. He believes the high price was because the High School had little bargaining power when getting the rights to a musical, since few companies option the rights to well known musicals. His suggestion was to form a cartel of high schools that would option musicals. The cartel would be a set of a few hundred school that could use their size to bargain for the rights at discounted prices. My guess is 100s of schools each year put on Grease, but is that really that preferred to say Joeseph and Technicolor Dream Coat.
Back to textbooks. I wonder if universities are doing this. What if the Towson Economics department which teaches by my rough estimates 600-700 student in Intro to Macro each semester got together and tried to bargain with a company for exclusive rights to provide an online homework system. If a conservative estimate is 1,000 students a year in intro to macro and 1,000 in micro, we could be talking 2,000 students at $80 a pop we are a $160,000 in value.
Of course getting faculty members to agree on anything is always difficult let alone the same textbook. But even forming a cartel of 4 or 5 faculty may be large enough to get some bargaining power.