Wednesday, January 28, 2009
The Bookstore Conundrum
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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 "lulu.com" 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.
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.
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!).
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
How bad is the hit?
A book that I could purchase from the publisher for $60, was listed for over $90 in the bookstore.
Half.com 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 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.
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
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 half.com 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.)
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.
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.)
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.
My word verification was "slowness". How did it know I was late getting to this party?
Also, our bookstore is university-run, and there's a Follett's a block from the official bookstore.
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.)