Wednesday, January 28, 2009


The Bookstore Conundrum

A returning correspondent writes:

As a Ph.D. student who actually purchases most of the books on the
required lists, I'm becoming more price-sensitive than I was when I
was an undergraduate (and, incidentally, funded more generously!) and
a spendthrift M.A. student (when I only had to purchase a few books).
Consequently, I do most of my shopping on Amazon now, which is both
faster and more convenient than trudging to and from the bookstore half
a dozen times as the required texts trickle in over the semester.

My question is this. Why haven't colleges given up the bookstore ghost
altogether and simply set up a link on their home page to an Amazon
site listing all of the texts that students should buy? (Or Alibris,
or Powells, or whatever.) Surely these bookstores don't earn money,
and their nontextbook revenue streams (shot glasses, beer steins,
corkscrews, and sweatshirts) could be housed in smaller and even more
profitable-per-square-foot stores.

Students will always complain that textbooks are too expensive, of
course, but surely this would eliminate some of the intermediary costs
while also doing away with the hassles of textbook return policies and
so forth.

As it stands, it just doesn't appear that the hassles--from
understocked books to testy salespeople to blocks-long queues--are
worth giving up what is always prime university real estate to,
essentially, a store people only use twice a year.

If only it were that simple...

“Surely those bookstores don't earn money.” Actually, they do. In some cases, quite a lot. And the college gets a cut, either directly or indirectly.

At my cc, the college actually owns the bookstore. Bookstore profits are funneled directly into the college's operating budget. (Nationally, the trend has been to outsource the bookstore to a national company like Follett's. In those cases, the revenue stream to the college is based on rent, rather than sales, but if the sales dried up, it's a safe bet the rent would, too.)

Now, if one were so inclined, one could call this a conflict of interest. College hires faculty, faculty choose books, books enrich college. That's true as far as it goes, but there's more to it than that. Unless they choose books they've written themselves – which happens – the faculty don't get any actual kickbacks directly. The bookstores usually make higher profit margins on used books than on new ones, so they're often joining students in the crusade to get faculty not to change books too often. Publishers know this, so they 'bundle' all manner of stuff with textbooks and change editions every hour on the hour to try to suck the air out of the used book market, with which they compete.

From my desk, I'm happy to encourage faculty to allow paperbacks, or used editions, whenever it makes pedagogical sense. (That tends to work better in American literature than in computer science, for obvious reasons.) Used editions are higher profit items, and still cheaper for students, so I get to feel good about helping the students while also helping the college's budget. To the extent that we can outsource our shortfalls to publishers, I'm happy to do it. But there are obvious limits to this, and I've never pressed the point when faculty have insisted that a particular new book was simply better.

Back in the day, campus bookstores had effective monopolies, since most required texts were specialized enough that other bookstores within realistic student distance wouldn't have them. Now that students have access to online booksellers, it's possible in many cases for students to do end-runs around campus bookstores. Yet, judging by sales figures, very few do.

Some of that is probably inertia, and I've heard anecdotally that some of it is based on financial aid. (If your book voucher is only good at the campus bookstore, then the question of where to shop has been pretty much settled.) Some is based on speed; if you need the book for a class tomorrow, buying it in person is the best bet. And if you don't have access to the list of necessary books until you get your hands on the syllabus on the first day of class, then the 'speed' variable becomes harder to evade. (A really savvy student could purchase only the first book at the bookstore, and order the rest online, but that doesn't tend to happen.) Depending on what happens with e-book readers, I guess it's possible that this issue could become moot, but I suspect that's at least several years away on any meaningful scale.

Finally, of course, there's the issue of returns if you drop the class. College bookstores usually have policies that are tied, if vaguely, to the local academic calendar. Online bookstores typically don't.

When I was in grad school at Flagship State, the university had a primary bookstore, but faculty also freely used several other bookstores in town. It didn't seem to help much with prices; I recall being struck even then that no matter where I bought books, I paid too much. The official store overcharged; the seedy store overcharged; the painfully trendy store overcharged. Once I got really ambitious and drove to the university bookstore at another university; it, too, overcharged. And once the Supreme Court got all finicky about 'fair use' in the 90's, the old “Kinko's discount” became harder to pull off. Naturally, this made overcharging even easier, since the safety valve of samizdat had been largely closed.

So the short answer to the question is, colleges keep bookstores because they're profitable. The secondary question, which is a little harder, is why the student grapevine is still relatively ineffective at circumventing the system.

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

Financial aid dictates 100% where I purchase my textbooks. Here's what gets me: The book store at my college is owned by Barnes and Noble. I checked the price of a textbook I needed at the actual B&N store: $20 cheaper than the college B&N price. It's not much, but $20 is $20. Obviously it would make better sense to purchase the cheaper book; sadly, my little ID card doesn't count for much outside of the college campus. It's certainly no Visa.
My college is fairly good about taking my financial aid, deducting tuition, and cutting me a check well before the semester begins. At the same time, most professors use Blackboard to make their syllabus available before the semester begins. The campus bookstore lists both new and used prices on all available textbooks on out intranet.

In every case so far, the Amazon price on new books has been at least $20 less than the campus bookstore price on the very same used book. I have yet to buy anything other than scantron forms at the bookstore.
Our campus book store, too, is owned by B&N. Faculty have faced a problem in recent years with the book store significantly under-ordering required texts. (The book store's rationale is that many students do not purchase their required texts, so why order 20 copies when only 12 or 15 will be sold.) I am happy to alert students to online sellers for any texts that do not come shrinkwrapped with an important supplement; after all, I want my students to be able to save money shopping online, just like I do. The catch, however, is that the more we faculty encourage online purhcases, the less likely the book store is to stock itself with a sufficient number of required books. We do have problems with students going to the book store in week two or three -- after their funds are flowing more freely -- and reporting, quite accurately, that the book store is out and an employee has told them the store won't be ordering more. Some of our most strapped students, in fact, tend to put off purchasing a book (a novel, for instance) until it's going to be used in class -- and surprise, surprise, it's been cleaned off the shelf, either by more timely customers or by store staff whose job it is to send back leftover stock midsemester.

With all the social networking that goes on out there among students, I'm surprised they haven't banded together -- locally, at our college -- and created the equivalent of Craig's List for textbooks. Maybe the actual exchanging of books requires some bricks and mortar someplace (even Amazon has warehouses, in the end), or maybe our students are too busy with jobs and families to invest time in organizing such an exchange. I wish it would happen, though. I have a really tough time coming up with love for our corporate seller of books, an entity that is by necessity more focused on making a profit than serving students' educational needs effectively.
In many classes, I try to see if I can get away textbook-free the first week or two so the students can order from or amazon used. (As I teach philosophy, and we're usually starting with something like Plato, I can usually find the text online, out of copyright, and post it or a link to it on Blackboard.)

I've gotten really upset with the escalating cost of textbooks and with the uselessness of many new editions that are obviously only there to prevent resale of used editions. They were expensive when I was in college, but they've become ABSURD. I've shifted one class I teach to online only -- virtually every text we use is available online and out of copyright -- and I'm looking into arranging those into a book at somewhere like "" so students who like a bound book to make notes in, like me, can do that. I got so upset when they came out with ANOTHER brand new edition of the text, which is NINETY-FIVE DOLLARS (last one was $85) for a set of texts that are ALL but a few out of copyright (and have mostly been in English translation since 1642, give me a break!) and come with a single paragraph of copyrighted introductory material to each of the texts. It's RIDICULOUS. I can go get the same texts from Gutenberg and have lulu print them bound for $12.

(And the few that are IN copyright we can get in $6 penguin editions or via the fine people at the library who get you academic articles for class and arrange all the fair use for you. Typically we only use one or two of those a semester anyway.)

I'm also not sure why the students don't have a better method of selling one another used books, although I know that the bundling of extras hamstrings it in some departments where they really push the extras, and that the constant introduction of new editions is a problem. (Apparently the bookstore is not allowed to sell the old edition once the new edition is available.)

Re: Amazon -- I got my first credit card in college SPECIFICALLY to order book from amazon twice a year, both because they typically undercut the bookstore AND because the bookstore lines were long, the books were freakin' heavy, and my campus was car-free so that was the longest. walk. ever! with 40 pounds of brand new books after waiting in line an hour to check out.
I think the other thing that prohibits kids from buying books online is that they don't quite get things like ISBNs so, if the syllabus says "Huck Finn" and they buy "Huck Finn" and the professor says, "Okay, let's look at what's going on here on page 95," it sucks if your 95 is not the professor's 95.

You can, however, order by ISBN at Amazon, so professors who want to aid their students in doing so just need to provide the ISBN of the book to the students and then everyone is on the same page, so to speak.

From our end (the publishers'), I think the real drawback to the death of the bookstore would be that we send desk copies once we've verified that the college bookstore has actually placed an order. If there are no college bookstores, how would we decide which ones of you needed free books and which ones of you were just scamming us?

But that's a small problem, really. Amazon and an administrative assistant with the ISBNs saved me a fortune in grad school and I don't begrudge anyone else for using them.
I'm teaching a course for the second year in a row now and both times the University-owned bookstore price is the same as Amazon's or (last year) $10 less. This isn't for a particularly large class, either -- 20 or so students. I think if you're sufficiently plugged in with the distributors, which is probably the case at largeish schools, there isn't a huge price differential between what you can get and what Amazon can get for low-volume books.

And then there's the used books, of course. If the instructors get their book orders in at a decent time the previous semester, the bookstore can find used books which the student can actually see before buying, as vs. on amazon for used book sales.

As long as the price differential is small, I think the reason why students use the bookstore isn't a big mystery -- convenience. It's right there, and sure the lines are long at the start of semester, but you are pretty sure that all the books for all five classes will be right there. Otherwise you're left with searching online to buy 5/10/20 books of unknown rattiness from potentially a handfull of different sellers of varying reputations and shipping promptness (and charges!).
Amazon is certainly promoting more competition in the market.

Another usually unexplored facet of this is how much the used market causes the new books to go up in price when no value is added.

The best we professors can do is to actually utilize effectively the books we require.

And I know our university gets a significant cut from our university bookstore - so much so that one of our university vice-president continually emails us about how much we are "helping students" by picking our books out 6 months ahead of time - of course, without mentioning that the used market significantly increases the kickback his office receives.

And, while our local bookstore employees work very hard, the corporate policies become quite annoying. I still remember students showing up with a 20-year-old edition (many with covers falling off) with a new ISBN sticker. The problem - the 20-page introduction in the new version was a significant component of the study of the work.

I also utilize online resources - both the web and journal articles already purchased by student fees and available from the university library - as much as possible.
My class on software testing this term has open-book exams. But then I found out that most of my students (fourth-year undergrads) claim that they don't have a physical copy of the book; they are using a PDF version. ("It's cheaper", they say; they probably mean that it's free.)

This is a bit perplexing to me, because it seems hard to use a textbook that's only on your computer screen. It also makes it harder to give open-book exams, since I don't really want to give open-Internet exams.

By the way, even computer science textbooks don't need to change that often, apart from perhaps the first-year textbooks. There's a lot of fundamental computer science that doesn't change so fast.
Some college bookstores make money and some don't. A big clue is the presence nearby of alternatives - if there's money to be made, everybody wants a piece. If there is no nearby alternative bookstore, the campus store probably isn't making money. If your campus store is still run by the university, it's not making money. If your campus store has been run by multiple different corporations (Follett, B&N, back to Follett, lather rinse repeat) it's not making money but everybody thinks it should. If you're really curious you could ask your university accounting office.

Back in the bad old days when I was a student at the university that now employs me, the campus store made a net income of over a million dollars a year. Cue Amazon, and it started bleeding money until 20 years later it was losing a million dollars a year... and this is on a small campus.

I wouldn't be surprised to see some universities start to recharacterize their stores from auxiliary operations (meant to at least break even) to student services (meant to lose money).

-I'm accounting as fast as I can
My CC recently linked financial aid to the bookstore (which I believe we own) in a big way, by funneling the refunds through the bookstore. Students come in and purchase textbooks and then get their refund afterward. Further, if the financial aid is from our college (rather than state or federal), the students have to purchase the books in our bookstore -- they have no choice.

Most students don't know the difference between fin. aid funding sources, so they think they are required to purchase their books here on campus, and the cost is typically a bit higher than 'out there.'

Students who understand the difference and want to purchase books elsewhere have to wait for the bookstore to process the refund, and it can be a week into the semester before that happens, so I tend not to count on the majority of my students having a textbook before the second week of classes. I make sure the library has a copy of each text on reserve for those students.

And of course, some students never purchase the text, choosing instead to make copies of the chapters from the text on reserve -- which is a lot less expensive than purchasing.

And the cost of textbooks boggles my mind; I do my best to let students use older editions, copy chapters, whatever to keep the costs down.
Thanks, DD.

I should have considered the financial aid aspect, which does make sense. And although I'd understood that the used book market was clearly a major profit stream for someone (which is why our university bookstore is urging people to "save the environment" by "recycling books"--that sort of manifest dishonesty usually requires pecuniary motives) I didn't know it could be a factor for the university's bottom line.

I also now understand why course readers, which I loved and which were ubiquitous at Midwestern U. for undergrad, are now unknown here at Prestigious-but-Poor. More's the pity.
Ah, this is a major irritant at my R1 institution, with the university bookstore seriously gouging students.

How bad is the hit?

A book that I could purchase from the publisher for $60, was listed for over $90 in the bookstore.
Many students simply don't know about Amazon, or any other way of buying books online, whether new or used. I work at an open admission school, which attracts students who, while sharp, don't tend to read for fun. Perhaps they're familiar with local chain bookstores, but many of them have never used Amazon at all. When I listened to a group of students complaining that the bookstore didn't have their text, and showed them how to buy it used through Amazon, they were amazed. I suspect that this situation is more common than any of us who do read for fun, and who do buy all sorts of things online, could possibly imagine.
I once attended a talk from someone in the publishing industry who said that publishers were eager to custom create eBooks for profs. I wondered at the time if that would catch on at all. Anyone doing that? is so turn of the millenium. (now a division of ebay) is how I bought all my books for the graduate courses I had last year. functions like a true open market. The seller sets his/her price and buyers choose whether or not to pay it. I bought fom individuals as well as used-book clearinghouses and was completely satisifed with both the prices I paid (on average about 60% of bookstore rate) and quality/condition of the books I received.
I think publishers would love to create custom ebooks for professors, but I know the permissions issues are a huge problem. Someone will get it sorted out eventually.

I have this dream that someday a professor teaching a course will be able to go to a site and search for all relevant chapters and articles and see a price per copy for each of those things and click on the ones he wants, have them sent to his campus copy and bound as a course pack with the price per student obvious right up front.

Shoot, or have it all combined into a pdf for the students to use.

Some of us are having a hard time accepting that our job isn't just to make a certain kind of physical object any more, though, and others of us, like me, feel anxious that we're losing sales by not delivering information to our customers in the forms they would like.
"I have this dream that someday a professor teaching a course will be able to go to a site and search for all relevant chapters and articles and see a price per copy for each of those things and click on the ones he wants, have them sent to his campus copy and bound as a course pack with the price per student obvious right up front."

Publishers already do this, and it's AWESOME. I do my intro to lit anthology this way, and it saves students approximately 60-80 bucks when all is said and done, they read everything that they buy, and it gives me more choice as to the kinds of things I assign (I'm not stuck with an anthology that has one thing I want but a bunch of other stuff I don't want). All of the permissions are taken care of, and it's less hassle than putting together a course back or putting things on reserve for me and for the students.

I use Pearson for mine, but I'd imagine others have to do this too? And, FYI, Pearson does have options for disciplines across the spectrum. In other words, this does exist and
Woops - ignore the and at the end of that. I was actually done :)
Are you kidding?! That's awesome. I am now spending my afternoon looking into whether that's something we can do, too.
Let's not forget that a large part of campus bookstore revenue comes from non-book things. Sweatshirts, t-shirts, sunglasses, overpriced snacks and "dorm essentials", university mugs, etc. Things that parents and alumni can buy as well as students.
The one downside to class-specific course texts is their resale value is limited. Standardized textbook can be sold online to whomever; specialized ones can only be resold in the same school and only if the prof uses the same one.

I used one as a student for a nutrition class and I DID like it, but there was no resale.

(And Anon 8:55 a.m. -- We were using at the turn of the millennium too. Amazon marketplace frequently has the books cheaper and has a better problem resolution process. You buy 'em where you find 'em.)
The lack of resale is a feature, not a bug -- it allows the publishers to charge a much lower price since they're not cutting themselves out of the used market.

Off topic, but I enjoyed seeing this in my newspaper this morning:

Apparently, Jill Biden is a cc adjunct. No cushy courses for her, either - Developmental English and ESL.

I like that this has caused the pitiable truth of adjunct pay to be published in a major newspaper. Of course, someone married to Joe Biden can afford to make peanuts and teach cc just for the love of it; not all adjuncts are so lucky. Anyway, though, I think it's fantastic that she clearly does love the work. Maybe some of the issues near and dear to your heart will be heard the halls of power, after all. is where I research all my book purchases. It compares the prices from several sellers, including, amazon etc.
It's difficult for students to arrange organized book sales or bartering for a couple of reasons. One of the main reasons is that in some schools, especially small ones, lots of courses aren't offered every semester, every year, or by the same professor. Students generally don't want, or aren't able, to hang on to books until the course is offered again after 3 years. It is more effective for courses like Bio 101 that tend to be popular, regularly offered, and use the same books, but even in that case physical book swaps and sales can be hard to organize on a large scale. Someone at my college experimented with it pretty much every year, as well as with a discounted online bookstore, but neither really worked due to storage issues and low buyer participation.
I helped set up an online book exchange, based on some open-source code, which looks like it's still quite well used.

I was approached about it by student government, who wanted a replacement to the big binder & bulletin board (IIRC) in their office area.

One of the finance people who was in my vanpool :) said once (I think!) that the bookstore was still a moneymaker. (For me, it was sometimes the only source of food if I forgot lunch, being as how I was in a vanpool going to a campus without grocery or restaurants w/in walking distance. Bleh.)
Our bookstore pays some fee to the college, and this is a significant source of revenue for us. In principle, I think we aren't supposed to tell students there are other bookstores in town!

Hey, $20 or $30 less is nothing. Some of the on-line sellers have (illegally imported?) texts for a tiny fraction of the cost of a new book.

I now make it a matter of principle to know the MSRP for any book I am looking at and do a cost benefit analysis.

One option is an electronic book, particularly tempting for the custom texts where resale can a problem. The savings of not having it on paper can be huge. I don't know how out bookstore can profit from them, but maybe it will be through that financial aid trick mentioned above. Will have to watch for that.

PS -
My word verification was "slowness". How did it know I was late getting to this party?
I'm at the University of Illinois, and while I don't know exactly how much our bookstore makes, "Auxiliary & Departmental Operations" produces 13.2% of the revenue for our annnual operating budget of 4.17 billion, which is about $550 million. The bookstore doesn't make near that, of course, but it is one of the larger contributors (after housing, which generates a huge chunk of that 550 million). I wouldn't be at all surprised if the revenue (across the 3 campuses) was in the tens of millions.

Also, our bookstore is university-run, and there's a Follett's a block from the official bookstore.
I think this issue varies by college, perhaps due to the relative online-ness of the student body, because the college bookstore I worked for definitely WAS hurting from online sales. In fact, it's part of the reason it no longer is directly managed by the university, but was contracted out to B&N.
1. It is part of our bookstore contract at Enormous CC that we're not allowed to push our kids to, sayt, Amazon. Or at least that's what we're told is the interpretation of "sole proprietor." Either way, all teachers ignore.

2. I have asked to be on one committee in my career: the bookstore committee. 'Twas educational. It was enlightening to find out what some have remarked on: that a bookstore, in a perfect world, would sell a used book in August and January, buy back a used book in December and May, etc., etc. More of my ire is aimed at the publishers; my specialty is Comp I and early American Lit, and do we need a new handbook explaining again about nouns, clauses, blah blah; and how many new ways can we repackage Am Lit I, since the latest primary material of the course, by its very definition, was written in about 1880? (Native American stuff, Kidnap narratives. Check. That was ten years ago, and they're not knocking out Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, Poe, Whitman and Dickinson, which all told is half the semester right there.)
It alternately galls and amuses me when the local bookstore re-sells theoretically not-for-sale books. Foreign editions, desk copies, &c. They put large swaths of black duct tape across any incriminating text.
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