Wednesday, July 14, 2010

How the college book biz works

Posted By on Wed, Jul 14, 2010 at 12:30 PM

Woo hoo! College textbooks are damn expensive. I know, I used to buy and sell them ... both as a student and as a manager of two college textbook stores, one in Montgomery, Ala., and another in Atlanta, Ga. But, that was more than a decade ago. Even then, however, the industry was trying to figure out how to rent textbooks and still turn a profit.

There are some books that, as you college students already know, you're guaranteed to get about half of your money back on during book buy back season at the end of the semester. These are your English and History 101 types of books. There's a huge demand for them since everyone has to take those classes.

You get into graduate level classes, however, and there isn't much demand for the books. For a class of 25, the campus bookstore will probably carry 12, the off-campus bookstore will likely carry 10 and both will figure the other three will be picked up either from other students or online. And, they're probably right.

It used to be, when I ran off-campus book stores, our main competition was with the campus store. We would fight with them to get accurate book information for each class. We would snoop through their stores for pricing information, and they would do the same to us. (Everyone wants to be known as the low-cost leader.) And, during buy backs, we would do our best to offer $1 or $2 more than the other guys.

Book buy backs are essential in the college textbook industry because that's where the money's at. The stores get the books from students less expensively than they get them from wholesalers and publishers. Plus, there are no shipping charges. But where there's profit, there is usually also risk.

The risk in buying books back from students is several fold: the book may be usurped by a new edition (everyone, besides the author and publisher, hates it when that happens), the professor or department may change their mind about which book to use at the very last second and there's always the possibility the store will over-buy the books and then not be able to unload them all to next semester's students.

But, more often than not, it's more profitable to buy books back from the students. So, in my mind, renting the books makes sense. Or, at least it's an experiment worth trying (finally). For one thing, it means the stores will hand out less cash at the end of the semester. Instead, they'll simply hold their hand out, take their book back and re-stock it.

Here's an example:

If you buy a $100 book, take good care of it and turn it in at the end of the semester for $50, then why not just pay $50 to begin with?

It sounds easy, but it's going to be a challenge for the school's store to manage. And, I have a lot of questions. Like, which books are for rent? What happens if the book gets lost or damaged — would you then owe the store the full amount? What about old editions or out of print books, do they qualify for this program?

It will be interesting to see how this program pans out, and it will also be interesting to see how the off-campus bookstore, Grays, responds.

The sad news for students, however, is any savings they realize on their textbooks probably still won't make up for the extra $708 they'll owe for tuition this year. Wa.wa.wa.

This lady's got a few more ideas about how to save money on your college textbooks:

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