More options for cheap books on campus

New bookstore on campus might help drive competitive pricing for textbooks.

JP Leider

As textbook prices continue to increase, so too does the incentive for students to find an alternative to retail.

While the ideal textbook – one in mint condition and dirt cheap – might prove a bit elusive, viable options exist online for those willing to put in the time and take on the risk of purchasing from unknown sellers.

A gaggle of sites allow users to buy or sell used and new textbooks, some free and some for a fee. Armed with the unique ID number, or International Standard Book Number, of the book in question, students can find a used or new textbook online steeply discounted from retail.

However, inherent risks exist in shopping online, which could become multiplied in shopping for version-specific textbooks. Incorrectly advertised editions, abnormal or poor quality and the possibility of nondelivery are among the major threats and difficulties a student might face when purchasing textbooks online.

But savings on new and used books, as well as international editions, might be worth the risk.

International editions of textbooks are anywhere from 50 percent to 80 percent cheaper than regular U.S. editions, according to Lisa Stevens, vice president of marketing for the online textbook marketplace Abebooks.com.

Although they are often branded otherwise, international editions may be sold and purchased in the United States, she said.

International editions, which normally have the same ISBN and content as U.S. editions, generally are softcover. Paper, print and binding quality often differs between U.S. editions and their international counterparts.

“They don’t generally contain the CD-ROMs or extra techie materials that some of the new textbooks carry, and the page numbers may be a little bit different,” Stevens said. “But for all intents and purposes, they are the same textbook.”

While international editions may prove a frugal purchase for students up front, students can’t sell them to the University Bookstore at the end of the semester.

This is bookstore practice because many U.S. wholesalers won’t buy back international editions.

Such was the issue for marketing and supply-chain management junior Anthony Buhr.

“Overall, it’s been good at the front end when I buy the book, but when I am done with it, it’s harder to sell,” he said.

Although international editions might prove problematic to sell, Buhr said, getting books online is a “great option.”

“It should be looked at if you have the time,” he said. “But when you’re short on time, finding a book online may be a bad option because it can take a few weeks for you to get your book.”

Buhr said that while he generally buys books online, he didn’t this semester as prices at the Coffman bookstore were comparable.

Bob Crabb, director of University Bookstores, said that although many options exist for students, the University Bookstores are convenient and students can get what they need.

“If you go to the Web sites, sometimes they say it’s a different ISBN, but it’s ‘close,’ ” he said. “Whether it’s close enough, you don’t know – you don’t want to buy a book that’s not tied to the syllabus.”

Prices at th­­e bookstore are “pretty close to what you’d get on the Web,” Crabb said.

The bookstore takes a 25 percent margin on all new books, which is consistent with the college book industry, he said.

Crabb said he wouldn’t blame a student for trying the online outlets available for purchasing textbooks.

“If they can get the books significantly cheaper, and it’s worth their time and effort, more power to them,” he said.

Even as the advent of online textbook exchanges provides students with an ever-increasing number of options, store owners, too, have more and more outlets for their products.

Jim Cummings, owner of Cummings Books in Dinkytown, said online textbook sales have become a large part of his business.

“For me, dollar-wise it’s as much as a third, and volume-wise it’s a tiny fraction,” he said.

Cummings said he has about 50,000 used books in his store and about 1,500 on the Web.

“It’s a tiny percentage, but it’s worth putting it online.”