Why Can’t I Buy My Book Any Where But the Bookstore? Part 1

As back-to-school time gets closer and closer, many students will seek the ISBNs of the books they need for classes. This generation of college students has grown up with Internet shopping and they have been well trained to understand barcodes and SKUs and ISBNs and other retail codes that identify product.

But to the shock of many of these well-informed students, they will not be able to buy certain books anywhere except the school bookstore, no matter how accurately they record or scan an ISBN and how many places they try to shop it. No, they’re not crazy, they’re just in a bind. For many years, publishers and bookstores have been pushing customized editions as such format (even if modified only on a single page) increases sell-through for both parties by creating exclusive product sold through an exclusive channel. Both publishers and bookstore managers will argue that it lowers the cost for students . . . but does it?

The easy answer is to agree and say yes, yes it does. I mean, if a publisher looks at a $175 list-new print textbook, the company (in collaboration with a specific professor and institution) can produce a slightly modified custom edition and sell it for $145. This book will have a unique ISBN and be relevant only to the course and school for which it was specifically produced. So the discount is a nice savings and theoretically the student is paying for what s/he needs and not what s/he does not need. In many cases, this is how the argument is made to the professor and it is how the idea for customized content is sold.

The issue is the bigger picture. Simply put, customized editions don’t have buyback value because they are such limited-edition one-offs particular to one course, professor, institution, etc. In addition to a student being unable to purchase a custom publication anywhere but the official university bookstore, s/he can’t sell it back anywhere, including the bookstore most times! The best the student can hope for is a peer-to-peer transaction if another student on campus is taking the exact same course with the exact same professor and the book hasn’t been modified again. Bottom line: without custom, the student has the competitive world of the Internet to both buy and sell a book with a globally recognized ISBN. In the custom world, the student is forced to buy this book at the bookstore for the full retail price (however discounted based upon customization) and hope that the stars align and the bookstore or another student on campus is using that exact same customized edition next semester. Spoiler alert: not likely given that it all hinges on professors using the exact same material AND submitting adoptions before buyback.

Check back in later this week for part 2 on Why Can’t I Buy My Book Any Where But The Bookstore!

  1. Heh.

    I said much the same back in February. Glad to see I’m not alone.

    • Rich Hershman
    • August 8th, 2012


    Its important to recognize that there are good custom materials and bad custom materials just as is the case with bundling and unbundling, particularly in the context of affordability. College stores have long opposed faculty adopting bad custom textbooks and many have implemented faculty selection procedures that attempt to reduce faculty from selecting bad custom textbooks. For example, see City College of San Francisco bookstore procedures for faculty adopting a custom textbook.

    In addition, this post is misleading in that it not really accurate in implying the school bookstore having a lock on the sale of these customized textbooks in that the reason why the customized textbook, which remember is designed by the faculty member and the publisher, is these other online textbook sellers just choose not to stock them. They could if they wanted to. In a few cases they do. Certainly off-campus private college bookstores who are focused on serving students in their community stock and sell custom course materials.

    If online booksellers are serious about wanting to serve all students and all courses, then they need to stop focusing only on the most profitable books to sell and make available all the materials faculty are designing as required -just like campus bookstores are required to do.

    In contrast some digital offerings are only available through certain purchasing channels, often not through a college bookstore because they are blocked from selling such offerings.

    Another thing that is lacking here is customized material while a double edged sword that may limit resell opportunities, besides a possible lower upfront cost (which may or may not have a lower net cost), the custom material attempts to address the specific needs of the course and reduces student complaints of having to buy a number of books that are not fully utilized. In fact student surveys have consistently ranked this concern as a significant concern ranking near cost.

    I look forward to part 2 and a more complete picture of customized content.

  2. Jeff, completely agree, and we wrote about this on our whitepaper, found here: http://rafter.com/thetruth/assets/pdfs/Rafter_The_Truth_About_Textbooks.pdf

    • Edward
    • August 29th, 2012

    Wait… bookstores are encouraging the customs. I don’t know a manager who likes them. I was in this business for 12 years (until 4 years ago) and we loved our used books. This is the only product I know where the person selling and the person buying have almost no input into the product they exchange. The professor and/or department makes a choice, informs the store who provides for the student. Very few bookstore managers get into those decisions, especially in leased stores. Those of us who tried to get sway professors can not compete with the offers from publishers or blackboard or online testing and grading.

    We created the issue though when we got too good at used books. This is an industry that does not play well together. The bookstore and the publisher are troublesome bed mates. Bookstores would prefer used, cheaper with better margins, publishers want to sell new.

    Want to see good cost control of books, visit Appalachian State University. They do not have the complaints that other schools have on the cost of textbooks.

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