WEB UPDATE: Options abound for textbook shopping

Posted Thursday, Aug. 4, 12:27 p.m. The approach of the fall 2005 semester means lines of students will soon be snaking their way through the GW Bookstore, snapping up copies of English anthologies and physics lab books that will fill their minds but might empty their wallets.

While students gripe at the price tags when waiting for the next cashier, others are stocking up on their scholarly books at home over the summer, finding their texts for half the price with a click of the mouse.

Online booksellers such as amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com and the aptly named Web site half.com provide students with alternate, and often cheaper, options for their book-buying needs. And while the GW Bookstore sells used textbooks at a reduced rate, many online sources allow students to exchange books directly between each other, eliminating the costly bookstore middleman.

Some students who took English 072 over the summer paid $103.50 at the University bookstore for a brand-new version of the required Harper American Literature textbook. The bookstore’s used price was $77.75; half.com’s asking price was $29.08 for the same book.

In addition to offering cheaper rates, Internet booksellers deliver books straight to your door, which may provide a relief to the strained backs of students who are forced to lug their purchases to their dorm rooms. These Web sites also provide more opportunities for students to sell their used books, even after the GW Bookstore has stopped buying back older editions.

But the online textbook market is disadvantaged to the campus bookstore in many ways, said Phil Christopher, director of bookstores at New York University. Christopher said the strongest reason to buy textbooks on campus is that college bookstores stock their shelves with the exact books students will need for their classes.

“We have (the right books) in stock, and (students) can’t get them anywhere else,” he said.

GW senior Bill Mallison said that although he buys the majority of his books online, he still finds himself purchasing texts at the GW Bookstore each semester.

“I always get stuck buying one or two textbooks from the bookstore because they’re new or not in widespread circulation,” he said.

Some students also said online marketplaces take a long time to deliver and sometimes send the wrong edition. And unlike online sites, GW’s bookstore allows students to pay for books with Colonial Cash.

No matter where they get their books from, some students still questioned why textbooks are so costly in the first place.

“A lot goes into the pricing of a textbook,” Christopher said. “There’s this conception that somebody is making a lot of money on textbooks, but that’s really not the case. At least the college bookstores don’t see it, and I’m not sure the publisher is seeing it either.”

According to a 2003 study by the National Association of College Stores, Inc., 11.6 percent of income from textbooks goes to the author, 7.1 percent goes to the publisher and 4.5 percent goes to the distributor, while the remaining sales profits cover production costs.

Cliff Ewert, a spokesperson for Follett Higher Education Group, the company that distributes textbooks to GW and 900 other universities, said that college textbook costs run higher than other book prices because they’re “far more complex to create.”

Ewers said that the relatively small demand for textbooks requires expensive, limited print runs. Because the content of many textbooks can quickly lose relevance, new editions must be printed every few years. He added that textbooks also require higher production costs for graphics, licensing fees and high quality printing materials.

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