Textbooks are an integral part of structured syllabus coverage in higher education. The argument advanced in this article is that textbooks are not simply products of inscription and embodied scholarly labour for pedagogical purposes, but embedded institutional artefacts that configure entire academic subject fields. Empirically, this article shows the various ways that motives of the (non-) adoption of textbooks have field institutional configuration effects. The research contribution of our study is threefold. First, we re-theorise the textbook as an artefact that is part of the institutional work and epistemic culture of academia. Second, we empirically show that the vocabularies of motive of textbook (non-) adoption and rhetorical strategies form the basis for social action and configuration across micro, meso and macro field levels. Our final contribution is a conceptualization of the ways that textbook (non-) adoption motives ascribe meaning to the legitimating processes in the configuration of whole subject fields.