Choices Abound for College Textbooks
August 23, 2012 by Jada.Bradley
The idea that college students would line up at their campus bookstore to choose between new books and older books with yellow “USED” stickers has become so last century. Not only because students can order books online, but also because some textbooks can be sent straight to a digital device. I spoke to Elio DiStaola, Director of Campus Relations for Follett Higher Education Group, one of the oldest operators of college bookstores in the country. I then went to The George Washington University (GW) Bookstore to meet with store Director Bob Blake and Textbook Manager Steve Duesterhaus. These interviews gave me a better picture of today’s book-buying landscape.
When I asked about how digital books were changing the game, DiStaola said that “digital” has many definitions in higher education. It’s not just e-books, as some people think. He pointed out that as long as there is a physical element, people don’t think of something as being digital, but that even a physical book can contain digital elements. “Digital has been a part of [the] college bookstore for more than a decade since it includes CDs, DVDs and URLs that contain information students need for class.”
He says that the college e-book business has grown exponentially, but “today we’re still primarily a print business.” Each discipline moves at its own pace, although subjects like Calculus have moved to digital quickly, because these kinds of texts are not likely to be completely re-written. Also, distance education is growing and students who are not attending classes on campus may be more interested in digital formats. However, many students choose to order their books online rather than via a traditional bookstore.
Turning new books into used and rentable books
Used books have long been available to college students, and students could opt to sell a used book back to a bookstore. However, they still had to buy a book and own it (at least for a while). This all changed with the advent of textbook rentals.
DiStaola, who has been with Follett since 1998, says that he has noticed a shift starting in 2008, in that consumers have been more price-sensitive. With that in mind, the company invested $130 million in building a rental system that Blake says allows them to transfer books as needed among Follett college bookstores across the country.
DiStaolo and Blake both say that students who intend to re-sell books to Follett are asked to return books in a condition that would allow another student to use them (in other words, they ask you to keep the book free of markings and highlights as much as possible, but are not super-strict about it). Blake adds that other rental agencies have stricter guidelines than Follett.
As we discussed in The Newest Trend: Textbook Rentals, there are a lot of companies (including most recently, Amazon) getting into the textbook rental game, and DiStaola says the competition is “super-healthy for students and it keeps us sharp.” He cited research from last year that indicated that 15% of students went the entire term without purchasing materials. The company is interested in working with colleges to find ways to make course materials affordable.
With that in mind, Follett is launching includED™, a pilot program that operates on the idea of charging a flat fee that would guarantee students all of their required materials for one price. The program was developed to try to address the need to offer lower costs (via economies of scale and bulk orders) and the need to improve academic success. The program has not been launched, but it will be interesting to see if it’s a game-changer.
Books: A la Carte
Over at the George Washington University bookstore, I sat down with the managers right in the store, where tiered levels separate items like stationery, novels, backpacks, sweatshirts, and textbooks from each other. Blake and Duesterhaus say that digital books are “on the cusp.” A case in point: in 2010 they had 50 digital texts available; in 2011 that number jumped to 250; this year the 2011 figure doubled to 500. Still, they say that for their industry, the e-book explosion similar to the recent one in the general book world hasn’t happened (yet) since now there is more availability than demand. And, unlike commercial books, many digital college course materials are still pretty expensive.
However, they think that once digital course materials are more integrated into K-12 education, the college co-eds of the future will expect digital options everywhere. While some teachers may be happy about the growth of digital options, these changes are not faculty-driven. Rather they are connected to demand, and publishers’ desire to cut down on production costs, not to mention environmental concerns.
At the GWU bookstore, Blake and Duesterhaus explain that there are two kinds of textbook options: general and native. The general category includes paper books that have been converted into a digital format; native (as in ‘digital native’) describes books that were never part of a printed text.
The options at the bookstore truly exemplify what DiStaola told me during our phone interview: “College students have more options than even before.” Blake says, “To be competitive, we have to have a lot to offer, ” and that “it’s very a la carte now.”
Duesterhaus also discusses the peril of all of these choices, “It can be challenging to know what’s the best choice.” He gave an example- a student who takes a three-semester calculus sequence may realize by the end of taking the courses that buying the book would have cost less than renting it for each semester. Blake adds that since they are pretty flexible on returns, buying a book at the bookstore means that you can resolve any issues in-person.
So while there are a lot of options, quite a few fit college students’ impulses well. Blake explained that the Inkling “Pick 3″ program lets you buy a digital text, three chapters at time. This is perfect for students who aren’t sure they will stick with a class. It is also an economical choice for those who are short on cash; you can pay for a textbook a bit at a time. Students can also buy unbound textbooks, an option that Blake says works perfectly for those who want to pay less for paper books or who don’t wish to carry large tomes around. You can carry the parts of the book you need in a binder and leave the rest at home.
Of course, when I made my trip to the GW bookstore, I noticed that it wasn’t just students who were surveying options for course material… parents are also a big part of the book-buying equation. There was storage space for online orders that were ready for pick-up, and it is likely that some of those orders were paid for by students’ parents.
Two parents (who were also GW employees) happened to compare notes on the kinds of course materials their children preferred while I was there. A father whose daughter is a junior at LaSalle University said his child definitely did not want anything digital. Conversely, a mother getting books for her son, an incoming freshman at GW, absolutely wants everything digital if possible. (The mother had to get him one paper book since one of his required texts was not offered in a digital format.)
Today’s college bookstore is truly, as Blake says, a “click and mortar” operation!
About The Author:
Jada Bradley (jadabradley.com) is a Washington DC-based writer and educator who enjoys telling stories in formal and informal ways. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post and online. She holds Masters in Spanish Translation and is a great supporter of creative expression in the various forms it takes. She also writes about local cultural events as D.C. Cultural Events Examiner for Examiner.com. Her blog, In Other Words, can be found at inotherwordz.blogspot.com.