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.