Massachusetts Daily Collegian

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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Students look for alternative options when buying textbooks for class

As students head back to campus at universities across the country this week to start a new semester, one industry has historically stood to make great profits around this time.

The publishing industry has held a near-stranglehold on students’ checkbooks at the start of semesters in the past, as students are expected to spend more than $3 billion on textbooks in total this January, according to market research conducted by the online textbook retailer eCampus. The average student spends $700 on textbooks each semester, according to CEO Matt Montgomery.

ECampus is an online textbook retailer with the mission of providing the “easiest, fastest and cheapest way for college and university students to rent textbooks, buy textbooks and sell textbooks,” according to its website.

Montgomery said the eTextbooks they sell are replicas of original textbooks in digital form.

He said these digital eTextbooks typically sell for half of the price of a new textbook in print, providing students with a cheaper alternative to buying the physical book at the new price.

“ETextbooks will continue to grow, but we have seen the rate of growth slow somewhat in the last 18 months,” said Montgomery.

Montgomery said he has seen more and more students seeking alternatives to buying their class materials new at conventional school bookstores.

“We don’t see eTextbooks dominating anytime soon, but rather, we anticipate a mix of alternatives containing new, used, eTextbooks and rentals.”

Ken Kahler, manager of the Textbook Annex at the University of Massachusetts, said last year that his store only sold 70 percent of the books it ordered. He said sales are declining because there are a growing number of options available for students looking to buy class materials. He said the rise of resources like digital books gives students more resources than merely the textbooks available at the Annex.

However, Kahler said the Annex offers over 100 digital books and around 700 titles available for rental. Kahler said the rental program saved students over $400,000 just in the fall semester alone.

The way the process at the Annex works, according to Kahler, is that professors and departments determine what books and editions the students in their classes will need for the upcoming semester. Then, Kahler said, the professors will contact the Annex with the list of required materials, and the Annex will from there determine where to order the needed materials.

Kahler said the Annex looks for the cheapest options it can find when ordering books to save students money. He said the Annex first looks for what he called “buy-backs,” which are used books students have returned to the Annex for money. The Annex then goes to wholesalers, which he said are used book vendors, and lastly the Annex contacts publishers. Kahler said contacting publishers is the most expensive option for acquiring books because publishers only offer new books to order through the Annex.

“We’re trying to do everything we can to save money for the students,” he said.

When it comes to the price of the textbooks, Kahler said the publishers set all prices.

Students who want to get money for their books at the end of each semester can expect a maximum of 50 percent of the new price, whether they sell back a new or used copy.

Kahler said the amount of money a student selling back a book will get is determined by “supply and demand on a national level.” Kahler said the market value of the books is determined by the Follet Higher Education group database.

Kahler works for Follet through the Textbook Annex. He said it is a national company that runs over 900 bookstores, like Notre Dame, ASU, Boston College, UMass Lowell and UMass Boston.

Although the Textbook Annex has been a conventional destination for students to buy textbooks for class, some students and teachers turn to local bookstores instead.

Mitch Gaslin, textbook manager for Food for Thought bookstore in Amherst Center, said around 150 different classes order their required class materials through Food for Thought per semester.

Gaslin said professors may prefer to order through the local bookstores to support local and independently-owned businesses, as opposed to book businesses owned by large chains.

According to Gaslin, buying from local businesses helps keep more money in the Amherst community than large industries.

Gaslin also said teachers might order through Food For Thought because of the diverse media the store offers.

“We deal with a whole range of different departments…there are certainly some that we do more business with than others,” Gaslin explained.

Gaslin said the departments that seem to frequently order through Food for Thought are African American Studies, the School of Education, Sociology and Women Gender and Sexuality studies.

Gaslin said Food for Thought tends to carry more books that focus on social sciences.

Professor of Sociology Jennifer Lundquist prefers to avoid the Textbook Annex.

“My experience with the textbook industry is just that – it’s an industry. And industries have a profit margin to be met. Sometimes quality is compromised to this end, and I dislike the endless edition generation where very little is changed across one edition to the next,” said Lundquist.

“Textbooks can be extremely useful, especially when they have methods sections that are tailored to apply their substantive chapters, but I find that they are often far too expensive to be worth the cost.”

Lundquist said she herself has authored a textbook in the past and said her publishers worked to keep the cost down by publishing in paperback with no colors and by keeping the editions to a minimum.

Lundquist’s alternative to requiring textbooks is to assign material available online at little to no cost.

Some students look for alternatives to the Textbook Annex because they are wary of what they see as high prices for books.

Rhye Hutchinson, a junior hospitality and tourism management major, said she typically spends $200 on textbooks each semester. She prefers to buy from the Annex for convenience but said she has used the online textbook rental site Chegg in the past.

Janelle Driscoll, a senior psychology major, said she spends between $150 and $300 on textbooks per semester. She said she orders her books through or other websites and tries to avoid the Annex because she said it’s “too expensive, and when you try to return your books you never get nearly as much money back as you spent.”

Sanjay Singh, a junior economics major, spends around $300 on books per semester. Singh said he buys his books mostly off of friends and online. He said he also buys from Food for Thought and said the Annex is his last resort.

Nancy Pierce can be reached at [email protected].
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    Brian CanovaJan 22, 2012 at 7:53 pm

    Great piece