Tuesday, November 23, 2010


College Bookstores and the Internet

Anecdotally, it looks like the new Higher Education Act is doing a number on college bookstores, and on bookstores in college towns.

A dirty little secret of higher ed: bookstore proceeds are revenue sources for many colleges. When the bookstore is in-house, it’s usually either a direct arm of the college (and therefore a direct revenue source) or a national chain with a contract that pays for the privilege. (Follett and Barnes and Noble are fairly common in these parts.) Either way, it represents a revenue stream. Over the years, colleges with those revenue streams come to rely on them.

In other settings, colleges contract with local bookstores as textbook providers. Sometimes this is done formally, and sometimes individual faculty do it. When I was at Flagship State, faculty had their choice of several different bookstores as textbook suppliers. The upsides of that were several: it gave faculty some competitive force, since they could switch from any bookstore that dropped the ball; it allowed for at least some level of price competition, even if muted; and it contributed to the College Town feel of the place by sustaining multiple bookstores simultaneously. The downside for students was that it sometimes took trips to three different stores to get your books for the semester, depending on which classes you took.

In an attempt to help students do battle with ridiculous textbook prices, the new Higher Education Act requires colleges to post textbook information online as soon as practicable. The idea is to make it easier for students to comparison-shop. Why pay a hundred bucks at the college bookstore for your Psych book when you can get the same book online for eighty?

At one level, of course, it’s a great idea. Textbook costs are severe, and there’s no loss of quality in buying the same book online as you would have bought onsite. (Admittedly, that’s debatable for used books, but it’s true for new books.) I use Amazon and Powells quite a bit for my own reading, and I can attest that the cost and convenience are often better than trekking to a store. Given how burdensome college costs are, I can absolutely see the appeal of saving a hundred bucks a semester on books. No argument there.

Of course, when a college revenue stream is diverted, the college has to adjust. The money that used to come in from the bookstore, but doesn’t anymore, has to come out of something else. And those local independent bookstores that relied on textbook revenues to stay afloat are struggling even more than they already were.

In a sense, the prices of books under the old system reflected a certain bundling. In paying a premium, you were either supplementing your tuition or effectively subsidizing the college town. With the book and the premium unbundled, the rest of the bundle has to either find new revenue or fade away.

I’ll admit to mixed feelings on this. The typical in-house bookstore is nothing glamorous, and wouldn’t be particularly missed if it went away. But its subventions to the college would be missed, and will have to be replaced one way or the other, either with tuition hikes or service cuts. You can pay now, or you can pay later.

The local independent bookstores, to me, would be a real loss. They’ve always functioned as social centers, hideouts, and guilty pleasures. Those of us of a certain age can tell tales of some of our greatest obscure bookstore finds. (Mine was a long out-of-print title by someone central to my dissertation. The copy was 99 cents, and it was wedged among random crap. It felt like prospecting and finding gold.) Those stores have nearly always been economically tenuous, and many of them have relied on a cut of local textbook revenue to get them through. With that largely supplanted by internet shopping, I suspect many of them will die.

I don’t think that raising tuition and killing independent bookstores was the intention of the Higher Education Act, but it’s starting to look like those will be major effects. I don’t begrudge students their online savings at all -- in their shoes, I’d do the same thing -- but even savings have costs.

Interesting point about the HEA's impact. Two additional (unrelated) thoughts: First, students at my school who have institutional scholarships are required to receive their books through the campus book store. Frequently these students have told me that they know they can get books cheaper elsewhere, but then they'd need to pay out of pocket, rather than using their scholarship awards.

Second, the info our campus bookstore posted about required textbooks this semester was woefully wrong. I almost said "laughably" wrong, but it isn't all that funny when 1/3 to 1/2 of your students show up to the first day of class with the wrong books, and many were purchased through online sites or used book stores that don't take returns. Even when they do take returns, it ended up being a major hassle for students. That's worse than the status quo ante. One can hope that this will improve, going forward, but so far it has been a problem.
"The local independent bookstores, to me, would be a real loss."
Except the vast majority of of independent textbook stores wouldn't really be great losses. All they seem to sell these days are textbooks, college-branded swag, and school supplies. Someone will still be selling these. There are a handful of exceptions, of course.
DD, I think you may be overestimating the impact of the Higher Education Act on the trend of buying books online. The same trend is just as rampant in Canada where no such bill has been passed. Even if professors kept secret the list of books necessary for class until the first day, students could and would still buy them online for less.

Back when I was doing my undergraduate work, the only time we ever bought books in the overpriced, out-of-the-way, wait-ages-in-line, treat-you-like-a-criminal campus bookstore was when we had to buy overpriced books full of photocopies of things ("coursepacks"), which were another cash-cow for the university (and probably for Access Copyright, which is something else entirely).

Perhaps the universities should stockpile used textbooks and sell them online themselves?
I think you raise valid points about the impact that the disappearance of college bookstores will have - namely the need for the loss in revenue to be made up elsewhere - but I think the loss of the bookstores is inevitable. This generation of students is used to doing a vast majority of their purchasing online, and it's only natural for that trend to extend into the textbook arena. It makes me think of Peter Drucker's exhortation to businesses to proactively obselete products/services rather than trying to hold on and hold on until it's too late and they're in a huge revenue losing proposition.
It seems to be coinciding with a trend of internet shopping that puts at risk *all* brick and mortar book stores. Which is really sad, because bookstores are so wonderful. I even like the dinky college bookstores here.
Of course, they may still survive through selling other things. Where else can you get emergency stocks of college sweatshirts and Giant Microbe plushies?
"Where else can you get emergency stocks of college sweatshirts and Giant Microbe plushies?"

And Uglydolls! Oh my!
Where I went to college we had a textbook rental program. Although you still needed to buy some books (mainly lab books. sometimes reference books that could be helpful in the future), the majority of your books were rented every year. I know we paid for that through our tuition, and our bookstore was owned by Barnes & Noble. I think it would help greatly if all colleges moved to this! It would increase the reusability of books as well, instead of having them sit on people's shelves until they decide to throw them away!
The cost of books is a conversation we have often at my CC and a topic that always seems to piggyback this issue is the quality of the material. Just to be clear, it's the quality of the content, not the physical quality that has us concerned.

It seems that a majority of the books offered by academic publishers are bloated with unnecessary fillers that drive up the cost and and dilute the content quality. I primarily teach Dev Ed writing courses and finding a book with material my students need, without the excessive exercises, and also in a non-workbook format (can't sell those back) is pretty near impossible.

Yes, we hear complaints from students about the costs of books, but we also hear plenty of gripes about the quality.
Our bookstore already sees books as a minimal part of its function. Apart from the first few weeks of classes, when the textbook annex is open, the "bookstore" has one small section of books -- mostly campus bestseller types. Otherwise, it's food, supplies, and campus swag.

My students have been buying books online for several years; and I routinely have students tell me that the book hasn't yet arrived...
Internet sales have actually been a help to used bookstores, especially in recent years, by nationalizing their audience. Instead of hoping someone will stumble on that book for 99 cents, they can post it online and get something closer to true value for it. Speaking as someone who just last night was able to pick up an out-of-print 1964 book from across the continent that one of the contributors to a textbook I'm editing really wants me to use a story from.
My university bookstore routinely under-orders books. So if I have eighty students enrolled, they're buying a lot less. Yes, some of the is covered by the students who buy through other venues, but I get students who're frustrated that the book they've already paid for (through the online form) is out of stock when they come to campus.

Campus bookstores actually make my job more difficult as I scramble, a month into the term, to come up with a substitute for a required text they ordered in minimal quantities. It's no fun to tell students that since the bookstore didn't order enough of the inexpensive and helpfully modernized text we're using for their first big assignment (despite my direct requests!), they'll have to make do with a 16th century translation that's in the public domain and, so, is available.

Insult added to injury? At the end of the term last year, the bookstore sent me a scolding notice. Seems one copy of the inexpensive text ($22CDN) that they'd stocked for a survey course hadn't sold. I was warned that I'd better adopt it again and quickly so that it wasn't a drain on the bookstore's resources!
Our campus bookstore is a definite revenue center. It marks up the textbooks significantly on retail. And it ensures clientele by requiring all students to buy a non-refundable 'book slip' as part of tuition.

But you're right, if my little private hand-to-mouth uni wasn't extracting money that way it would have to do it another way. I just feel sad that one of the genuinely valuable costs of higher education, the books, comes that much more to look like an arbitrary expense to be avoided if possible.
The college bookstore is the only department students seem to be able to get information from even though it is not their responsibility. Other departments do know pick up the phone which is very frustrating! Education is expensive and not for all....there shouldn't be remedial courses in college!
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