Lower textbook prices overseas send U.S. publishers scrambling

by Nathan Hall

Would students buy their mandatory $100 textbooks online from a foreign bookseller if they could save $50 – even after shipping and handling charges?

U.S. textbook industry leaders think they might and are scrambling to prohibit what some students characterize as unfair price gouging by publisher monopolies.

Many cheaper international editions, for example, already bear stickers condemning their resale in the United States.

Bookcentral.com, an online textbook retailer that primarily sells foreign editions, posted a message on its Web site informing customers that a “large number” of titles were pulled as a direct result of pressure from book publishers.

“A number of publishers have actually taken measures to prevent us from sourcing our books from overseas (essentially preventing us from offering steep discounts to students on many popular titles),” the note said.

Mark Bergen, a Carlson School of Management marketing professor, said pricing variance is a trend not limited to books.

“Stereos, mattresses and whirlpools usually all have minor changes in their design so they’re not compatible with one another,” Bergen said.

Price segmentation – the phenomenon of a product being different prices in different places – is difficult to maintain, he said.

“It’s hard to regulate price discrimination, so I would imagine they might just cancel the practice so everyone would pay the same (higher) price,” he said.

Bob Crabb, the University Bookstores director, said his stores buy books from several foreign countries – including England, Israel and France – for cheaper prices that will in turn attract more student shoppers.

“This practice has been going on for decades and the visibility is up lately because of the media, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call this price gouging,” Crabb said.

“Pricing a small part of a huge print run differently in one area makes sense if the foreign wholesaler is buying at what the market will bear there,” he said.

Before coming to the University nine years ago, Crabb was a vice president with Barnes & Noble, overseeing the company’s B. Dalton chain.

Crabb said although the textbook markups are higher at the University than at his old job, international price comparison sites might soon seriously affect all U.S. book sales.

In a prepared statement, a representative for the National Association for College Stores said the trade group, which has been in talks with the Association of American Publishers, discussed the pricing issue in detail at its board meeting last month.

Becky Weidner, a prospective applicant for University graduate German studies, said she buys books from the U.S. version of Amazon.com, although it has drawbacks.

“You have to know fairly far ahead in advance what books you’ll need for your class so they can come on time,” Weidner said. “Cheaper is better, but you have to be pretty organized to do it right.”

Michael Frey, a sophomore at the Carlson School of Management, said he has not bought any textbooks from an overseas Web site yet, but might consider it because “it sounds like it’s cheaper, and I wouldn’t have to make another trip to the bookstore.”