Sunday, August 18, 2013


Anything to Declare?

Textbook costs have been a major issue for decades.  I remember being shocked at the cost of books when I was a student, back when they were printed on papyrus and delivered by dinosaurs.  Students then sometimes had the option of trying to find used books, but that was pretty much it.  

In the age of electronic resources, I’ve become a booster of Open Educational Resources.  I think we’re at or near the inflection point where it becomes possible for students to get through a majority of classes without actually buying books, assuming the faculty are on board.  Free options have become markedly better over the last few years, and I know many professors are concerned about book costs for their students, so I’m optimistic that we’ll get there.  From a student perspective, money saved on books is the equivalent of a tuition cut.  

But we’re not entirely there yet, so book rentals have sprung up as a sort of transitional option.  They’re still physical books, in most cases, but students can pay to use them just for a single semester and then return them.  As a student, I might not have done that with the courses I cared about most, but would have been happy to do it for the courses I only took to fulfill distribution requirements.  I suspect I wasn’t unique in that.

The appeal is obvious.  Rather than paying full price and then taking their chances on selling it later -- which doesn’t work if the publisher changes editions in the meantime -- you can take the savings upfront.  When students are living week to week, an upfront savings is a very real thing.  

Some college bookstores, including my own, have textbook rental programs.  But they aren’t the only places that do.  Amazon does, too, but with a catch.

I did not see this one coming.

Apparently, depending on the original source from which Amazon sends the book to the student, some rentals are invalidated if the book is moved from the original state to which it was rented.  

Here in New England, where most of the states are small and people cross state lines every day, this could be a real problem.  Even for students who live in-state, which most do, it’s not unusual to have family or other obligations in neighboring states.  Can you imagine getting a bill from Amazon for a few hundred bucks because some tracker in your Bio book alerted Amazon that you had left it in your car when you visited your friend in Connecticut?  

Very weird.  

Apparently, the issue for Amazon is dodging state sales taxes.  I won’t pretend to understand the ins and outs of that as it applies to rentals, but I’ve never heard of travel restrictions on physical books.  The surveillance aspect alone is creepy enough, without even getting into the victimization of low-income students.  (Though it does offer opportunities for enterprising sorts in trenchcoats: “hey...could I interest you in some hot Intro to Econ?”)

It reminds me of the old DRM debates in the oughts.  DRM, or digital rights management, was a set of self-destruct mechanisms built into various software in an effort to prevent people from using it in unauthorized ways.  In the early days of iTunes, for example, you didn’t get raw mp3’s.  You got digital music in a more specific and trackable form, for which you had to get permission for each new device on which you played it.  The goal was to prevent piracy, which digital copying made easy.

But DRM was clunky, intrusive, and insulting, and the market rejected it.  Instead, the market moved away from “ownership” of music altogether.  The companies that clamped down on piracy succeeded mostly in destroying their own business model.  Now even Apple has had to move in the direction of a streaming service.

My guess is that the “no books across state lines” rule will have a similar effect on rentals.  It’s clunky, intrusive, and insulting, and it will simply hasten the move to OER.  Would you rather pay a hundred bucks to rent an Intro to Bio textbook that threatens to nail you for a three-figure fine if you leave it in your car when you go visit your aunt, or pay nothing at all for something that you can access anytime, from anywhere?

It’s a bit of a no-brainer.

I’m disappointed in Amazon for doing this, but I suspect it won’t last long.  Instead, it will merely hasten the transition to something we really should prefer anyway.  How Amazon will make money off OER isn’t clear to me, but it’s really not my problem.

In some disciplines (engineering, computer science, mathematics come to mind) you're going to buy the textbook because it becomes a reference book later in your professional life, so the rental model doesn't make any sense at all.
Would you rather pay a hundred bucks to rent an Intro to Bio textbook

How about $1.99?

(link to Canada store, but price same everywhere.)

This is one of the best textbooks I've read, and the price is more than reasonable. Now if we could just get the same for some other sciences…
IIRC, a few courses are testing out some OER books at my CC this year. They make a lot of sense for gen-ed classes that make up the bulk of what we teach at a CC.

Folks like Amazon can make money by selling the hard copy version of OER books, since the free version is purely electronic. I don't know if they are available "forever" on a Kindle, but that might be another market for a publisher. This does sound like a low-margin business to me, however.

When it comes to keeping a book, the electronic version is just like a rental: it expires after a fixed time.
Whoa! I had no idea - I'm nowhere near a state line, but something like 10% of our students commute daily over the Canadian/US border, which I assume wouldn't work for Amazon rentals either. I can imagine some strange conversations with the customs officers though...
I've been in the textbook business for 15 years or so, and I might be able to illuminate a few things.

It's not strictly true that all ebooks expire. Most do, but some pubs actually sel a lifetime license with updates. For certain disciplines, this may make the ebook a superior product.

Pricing on ebooks and rentals are generally priced so that the profits of the various entities in the supply chain are preserved. That means that over the long term, on average, they're not a better deal. But students don't live in the aggregate, and often not in the long term.

A rental may not be a much better deal than buying a used book and selling it back at the end of the term, but rental gives you that savings right away (instead of a small wad of cash at buyback), and it removes a lot of the uncertainty from the transaction.

There is a danger in doing national rental instead of local that your rented book will be due back before you've finished your finals. Many of the rental companies will work with you on that, but I always advise students to check a calendar before renting.

As far as the states go, avoiding nexus is probably a factor, but the article does say that Amazon is using some third party rental companies, and that some of these rental providers only serve certain states. The companies in question might have non-compete agreements in place that keep them out of those states, and Amazon is trying to work from within those agreements.
@Michael, some students can't sell the books back at the end of term because the pub decided to release a "new" edition (which is rarely significantly different from the previous ed) and the college will not purchase older editions. I see this happen with my students all the time. So I can see renting over buying and taking the chance you can't sell it back. (And some schools require us to have a text, particularly CC's in my state, even if the instructor doesn't find it necessary.)
From the tone of your post, it sounded as if Amazon was putting a GPS tracker in the textbooks so that they would know when you took one across a border. In fact, they are unlikely to ever know where you've taken the book provided only that you return it from the same state you received it. Even if you send it back from out of state, they might waive the fee.

This doesn't seem like a "trap for the unwary." It seems much more like some boilerplate necessary to satisfy state taxing authorities. Those same tax authorities that keep telling me to pay "use tax" on my Amazon orders.

If you can point me to the article in which Amazon has charged those penalties on hundreds of students, I'll apologize and eat some crow.

Your disappointment with Amazon is misplaced, IMO, it should be with the bewildering and pointlessly complicated tax system.
I don't see what's "clunky" or "spooky," and I can't figure out what "surveillance" you're talking about. Amazon's conditions sound like legal ass-covering to me. I highly doubt they really care where you take the books.

In fact, I'd say your DRM analogy is backwards. DRM-free music files still have restrictions, it's just that the restrictions show up in the terms & conditions document.
To me, the really interesting questions surround what's going to happen to authors. No one writes a textbook for the fun involved. And it's not clear to me how textbook authors are going to make enough money (I don't mean Greg Mankiw, millions of dollars a year, money either) in a world of on-line resources...because I'm really not crazy about textbooks being loaded with advertising either.
"Apparently, the issue for Amazon is dodging state sales taxes."

There's speculation about this in the article, but the only person who suggests this is the case does not seem to have any real knowledge about sales taxes, nor is there any explanation about how a weird rule like involves sales taxes at all.

And it makes no sense - for one, if you are violating a state's sales tax law, requiring the student to buy the book won't help you with whatever law you are supposed to be violating.

Second, and more importantly, people buy things and rent things and carry them across the borders all of the time. This may trigger the requirement that they pay use tax in their home state, but it certainly imposes no obligation on the seller to collect taxes for your state of residence if he he sees out-of-state plates on your car.

I can't think of any way in which sales taxes can explain this. It's much more likely that the company actually renting the books is only allowed to rent them in certain states, presumably due to distributorship arrangements, which routinely grant exclusive territories to certain distributors.
I just helped my son get his books for his first semester of school. We managed to get all of his books (5 classes, 1-4 books each) for about $150. We got one on Amazon, and no issues about taking it across state lines. It does help to know how to shop around; the same books, in same condition, would have cost about $400 more at the campus bookstore.

As a professor, I try to keep textbook prices in the realm of reasonableness for my students. This semester, every book I require can be purchased(used) for under $35, or rented for less. One book I'm using is widely available online for about $1. (OK, $5 if you include cost of shipping). I'll still have students who tell me they can't afford it. Happens every semester.
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?