Monday, January 19, 2009

Does Your College Book Store Bite?

Seriously, I want to know.

Okay, I know that this is not an academic blog, but I don't have an academic blog. I also know that at least a couple of you work at or attend colleges. So I want to know, is this just a problem for our little school, or is it endemic? No, really, I want to know.

The college bookstore has one reason to exist: sell the required books to the students. That's it. We professors decide what books to assign in our classes. The bookstore orders them. The students buy them.

Now I understand the bookstore's problem. They are caught between students who increasingly attempt to buy their books at at discount via the Internet and distributors who will no longer graciously accept returns without penalties. I get why the students try to get their books via the Internet. It costs less, and besides, the bookstore always runs out of copies.

Always. Every freakin' semester.

And that friends, is the heart of the problem. Every semester, in every class 10-20% of my students don't have the right book for the first two weeks. Generally, there is at least one student limping along with an out-of-date edition asking me what she should do since she doesn't have all the readings on the syllabus.

I'm tired of it.

Maybe our problem is worse than other schools because we contract our bookstore out to B&N. If the college owned it we could just decide that the bookstore existed to serve the students (shocking!) and it did not matter if it did not turn a profit. We would stock enough books, period.

I have high hopes for something like the Kindle for textbooks. I really, really do.

Many of the textbook publishers now sell electronic versions of their texts from their own web sites. Students can read it on-line or print out one copy. That at least allows all the students to get the book they need when they need it, but everything on an e-reader would be more portable and generally much more cool.

I want it. The brick and mortar college bookstore is failing, at least here. It is time to move on.

And that is my non-foster care rant for the day.


  1. Maybe our problem is worse than other schools because we contract our bookstore out to B&N. If the college owned it we could just decide that the bookstore existed to serve the students (shocking!) and it did not matter if it did not turn a profit. We would stock enough books, period.

    A-f*cking-men sister! Testify!

  2. Yes, it's a problem. Even worse for me was shelling out a fortune for a useless book and then having the professor admitting on the first day of class that we really didn't need it at all.

    I think it's a conspiracy. :P

  3. The bookstore here ("the Harvard of the North", they claim) generally seems to have enough of the actual textbooks; the problem is the coursepacks which THEY print. They never, ever print enough copies (and, it seems, they do this on purpose). Thus not everyone can acquire the coursepack prompty. And printing new copies takes much longer than one might expect.


  4. Our bookstore has a POLICY of not ordering enough books. They told me what the percentage was once. I forget ... maybe it was 2/3 of the enrollment? Then they special order for remaining students who pre-pay.

  5. I've done the brick-and-mortar school and the online school, and I much prefer online. There were some classes that required textbooks, but most of work was through an e-reader. It was so much easier (and cost effective).

    It's ridiculous the amount spent on hard copy text books that are no good after one class. Save a tree (or a forest) and do it all electronically.

  6. Price and availability were always an issue here too. There is a textbook store that opened (the semester after I graduated) that is competition for the University store, but it is still a little outrageous. I always went to class the first day without any of my books just to make sure I didn't buy any unnecessary ones, because we all know how well they sell back.

  7. Just about all college bookstores that I know of are contracted out to Barnes and Nobles. The University of Texas has a "co-op" bookstore, but I'm not sure whether it technically exists to serve the university or whether its co-op features are just to engender the continuing goodwill of the community. (It returns some money to students and also gives funds for student organizations and things like that.)

    My law school actually has a pretty cool book exchange run by the Student Bar Association (the law school version of student government), where students sell their old books on a consignment basis via the SBA. That way all parties benefit--the SBA gets their cut, the students selling the books get some money (assuming their books sell), and the students buying books get them at prices cheaper than the bookstore. Of course, this model is better suited for law school, where the curriculum is pretty standard and first-year students take almost all the same courses.

    In undergrad, I always wished professors made their syllabi available before the beginning of the semester, so I could buy my books online and have them ready before classes began. But they almost never did. Even when they made a book list available, it wasn't clear which books we'd need as soon as classes began and which we wouldn't need until later in the semester. (This would have been useful because I would have known which books I could have bought online.)

  8. The student association does a book swap, but the publishers come out with new editions quickly, mostly to undercut the used market of course.

    I would make the syllabus avaiable early if we could have a system for it. My worry about it is that students will get the wrong edition or translation of a book. It really is difficult if we are not all using the same version.

    And of course that is a major down-side for the Kindle.

  9. We always had enough books, even of the one math book that was out of print and mostly copy-edited proofs, moderately full of typos. The prices were ridiculous, though. I still bought new, since I knew I'd use the books a lot and would want nice copies.

    The most understanding professors were up-front about what books we needed and what editions worked and had a couple copies on reserve at the library. I know people who made it through bio classes three hours at a time, checking at the front desk like clockwork to make sure they could keep their books.

  10. Well, the other downside of the Kindle is that there is no book to sell back, either. And since the costs and value of a textbook are in the contents and not in the paper and binding, it's doubtful that the Kindle version would be much discounted. So the used market would disappear and the publishers are spared the bother of new editions, so everybody wins except the student, of course, but nobody except the prof really cares about the cost to students (and often enough, the prof could give two sh*ts as well).

    What was really frustrating to me is that it's often difficult for students to get an accurate textbook list early enough to shop around for books themselves. You can almost always get a better deal online - is your friend - if only you could get a reliable list of the books three weeks early to give enough time for shipping.

    My advice is to study Eng. Lit., specialize in books that have entered the public domain and buy the Dover Thrift Edition of whatever is being read. If the prof gets tetchy about it, show up to class early, visibly reading On the Road. Note: this approach will fall apart if the prof ever sees you with a Starbucks cup. Lit departments all seem to have a serious hate-on for $5 coffee.

  11. I'm with Innocent Observer. As a student, I can't even tell you how often I had to buy expensive books and the professors never had us touch them. My nephew is currently in college and he was just complaining about the same thing. One class had $600 worth of books and used only one of the books. And, even though the books are essentially brand-new, he can't get hardly anything back for them.

    The whole system needs to be reworked -- from the bookstores to the professors.

  12. You know what would be really f**king cool? If the students could walk into class with their Kindle (or similar), the professor could go CLICK on a laptop, and presto, all the right textbooks are wirelessly downloaded to everyone's Kindles and the charge for the books added to the students' tuition bills. Easy as pie, everyone gets the right books, and you don't have to carry around seven thousand pounds of dead trees every semester.

    Sure, this would change the economics of textbooks in many ways -- used textbooks would cease to exist, for one thing. But technically speaking, this isn't that hard, and really the only thing standing in the way is publishers' reliance on an outdated (and not working) business model.

  13. The bookstore at the college I went to was like a vampire. Sucked the lifeblood out of the students. Turned a profit at the students expense. There isn't any winning with college bookstores I think.

  14. UGH. I started class yesterday and didn't have any of my books yet, so I went to the bookstore to look at them. Two were over $100 each, USED, and the third was around $50. I'm lucky that the paralegal classes I'm taking only require one book per class, but that's still INSANE.

    I went to class, asked if a previous edition was okay, and then ordered everything I needed online once I got home. Grand total: something like $98.00. INCLUDING shipping.

    Every school bookstore I've ever seen has signs up saying "shop here and support your school!" Uhhh... considering how much of a rip-off it all is, NO.


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