My textbook rant: The college bookstore people respond

What do you think? Am I jumping the gun here, or are college bookstores expensive anachronisms?

Did you know that there is a National Association of College Stores? It's a trade group that, not surprisingly, represents a whole lot of college bookstores. More than 3000, actually. And, again, it's not terribly shocking that they objected to last week's post suggesting that you buy all of your books from some place other than your college bookstore.

Before I share the response from their Director of PR, Charles Schmidt, I do have one correction to make to that article. As Follett was quick to point out,

Follett’s Rent-A-Text program actually offers the greatest number of books for rent than ANY other on-campus retailer, including Barnes & Noble.

This fall, more than 750 college campuses around the country will be offering textbooks for rent through Follett’s Rent-A-Text program. Textbook rental saves students 50% or more off the price of a new textbook and is rejuvenating business among campus bookstores.

Fair enough...my mistake. And my point remains the same. It seems almost conspiratorial that available electronic texts are rarely posted on college bookstore sites unless they are available through specific partnering organizations or publishers. And I can't tell you how often I've seen syllabi suggesting that students look elsewhere for their books to save money. Maybe I'm missing something though. Here's the full text of Charles Schmidt's email.

Dear Mr. Dawson, While I realize the point of your blog is to help students, and their parents, save money, I believe you do your readers a disservice by perpetuating the common misperception that buying textbooks online is always better and always cheaper. That’s just not true. You also do your readers a disservice by not considering the “value” aspect of any transaction.

You could have made at least a passing mention of the dangers and uncertainty of purchasing textbooks on the internet. Often the lowest price found online is misleading (what about shipping costs?) and may point a student to the wrong book, wrong edition, or a book in poor condition or missing required supplemental materials. (Unlike with general book titles, the value of ISBN as an accurate identifier of course materials has declined significantly in recent years.)

In addition, the standard for identifying the condition of a book is self reported on marketplace sites and a seller’s definition of “slightly used” might be quite different than the buyer’s.

While it IS possible to find the correct course materials from online sources, it is important for students to understand that their college store is the only source that guarantees them the correct textbook and accompanying supplemental material that a faculty member may require (new OR used). College bookstores also have clear, plainly documented return policies (Oh, I know, you never dropped a course during your college career).

As to the markup that you claim makes bookstore-sold textbooks so expensive, let me enlighten you: The college bookstore makes a profit of only 6.3 cents from every dollar spent on a new textbook. In addition, college stores pay employee salaries, electricity, heat, and other overhead.

And then there’s the buying local benefit. When a student makes a purchase from the campus store, they can be confident that a portion of that price will be returned to the campus through scholarships, paying the salaries of student bookstore workers, etc. This can’t be said for money spent at an online site with a company based halfway across the country.

Listen, I’m not saying that in all cases the college bookstore is cheaper, but neither is it always more expensive, as you claim. A study by the Florida Office of Program Policy & Analysis and Government Accountability found that students purchasing new college textbooks online saved an average of only $2.15 per item. In fact, online prices were HIGHER for 27% of the textbooks examined by the study.

With the explosion of rentals this fall (rentals are being offered by 1,500 of our 3,000 members this fall) college stores will be even more competitive, while providing the value they always have.

-- Sincerely, Charles Schmidt, Dir. of PR National Association of College Stores

Talk back below and let me know where you stand. From my perspective, it's time for the entire model to change, meaning that those employees at the bookstores (whether student or otherwise) will need to retool and redeploy, just as every other employee must do when faced with obsolescence. I'd happily pay an ex-bookstore employee 10% of my kid's total book cost to comb the Internet for me, seeking out the best deals and the most electronic books given a list of courses. What do you think? Am I jumping the gun here, or are college bookstores expensive anachronisms?