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.