Harvard bookstore: Our prices are "property"

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61 Responses to “Harvard bookstore: Our prices are "property"”

  1. bcrowell says:

    Re #15 posted by Bill Adams,

    In liberal arts courses particularly, you don’t even need earlier editions by the same publisher; all “classic” texts in literature, history, psychology, etc. can be picked up dirt cheap.

    Yeah, but unfortunately this doesn’t work as well in the sciences. I teach physics. The publishers bring out a new edition of the standard freshman physics doorstop roughly every two years, even though Newton’s laws haven’t exactly changed much in the last few centuries. With each new edition, the numbers of the homework problems are changed around. It’s theoretically possible to get by with an old edition, and work out the permutation of the homework problems, but in reality my experience is that very few students do it.

  2. sirdook says:

    Aren’t ISBN numbers extremely easy to find if you have title and author information? Just search for the book on Amazon or on the publisher’s webpage.

  3. bcrowell says:

    Re #15 posted by Bill Adams,

    In liberal arts courses particularly, you don’t even need earlier editions by the same publisher; all “classic” texts in literature, history, psychology, etc. can be picked up dirt cheap.

    Yeah, but unfortunately this doesn’t work as well in the sciences. I teach physics. The publishers bring out a new edition of the standard freshman physics doorstop roughly every two years, even though Newton’s laws haven’t exactly changed much in the last few centuries. With each new edition, the numbers of the homework problems are changed around. It’s theoretically possible to get by with an old edition, and work out the permutation of the homework problems, but in reality my experience is that very few students do it.

  4. Bill Adams says:

    I know, BCrowell, I acknowledged that sometimes the old edition won’t do. Students in some concentrations will be unluckier in this than others — than most others, if they check.

  5. Anonymous says:

    the Harvard bookstore actually called the cops yesterday. today’s harvard crimson front page story: http://www.thecrimson.com/article.aspx?ref=519615

  6. Anonymous says:

    (My account setup email hasn’t arrived yet after 2+ hours, so I’m commenting anonymously….)

    Note that “The Harvard Bookstore” is a separate entity, unaffiliated with Harvard University (see http://www.harvard.com/); the Harvard University Bookstore is the Coop, which last I knew was shared with MIT.

    I wouldn’t want The Harvard Bookstore folks to get deluged with complaints that should be aimed at Barnes & Noble….

    JD
    http://rantingnerd.blogspot.com/

  7. consumatron says:

    Isn’t anything printed on or in a book the intellectual property of the author/publisher?

    So that means, if the Coop uses price stickers, they are pirating/plagiarizing intellectual property and selling it, stuck on the back of the books?

  8. Anonymous says:

    I don’t see anything wrong, or misleading, with describing the bookstore as “Barnes and Noble-run.” That means Barnes and Noble runs, i.e. manages, the bookstore. Describing them as “hired management” is just a longer way of saying the same thing.

  9. TomH says:

    I’ve read this thread with interest. I started the Crimson Reading program at Harvard last September, and have spent much of the past year thinking about these issues.

    First of all, thanks for all your comments. Just when I thought I was the only person who thought ISBN numbers were interesting…!

    Comment #5 posted by jccalhoun is right: Feist v Rural said a collection of facts, like a list of 10 ISBN numbers assigned for a particular course, can be copyrighted. In this case, however, it is the professors who assemble the collection of ISBN numbers and send it to the bookstore, and therefore the professors own the copyright. The bookstore cannot exercise any ownership (or protection) of that intellectual property.

    Comment #11 posted by drewstarr is also right: the bookstore has every right to eject us from their premises, and therefore they can stop us from writing down the ISBN numbers. That is the legal basis for The Coop’s new policy.

    Comment #12 posted by jccalhoun raises an interesting point. The Coop is a cooperative bookstore owned by its members, largely students. We could, in theory, elect student representatives to The Coop’s board and lobby for a change in policy. Stay tuned.

    Comment #14 posted by bcrowell suggests the cost savings for students buying online is small. An analysis of our spring 2007 data shows The Coop’s prices are on average 23% higher than the cheapest online prices. It’s understandable why, and some students are happy to pay the premium for the convenience.

    Also in response to bcrowell, comment #19: yes ISBN numbers are easy to find; and yes, we are now using course syllabi and isbndb.com… but multiple that by 2300 books, and suddenly sneaking into The Coop seems much more appealing!

    The solution, as pork musket hints at in #3, is for university administrators to politely request that campus bookstores publish an open source database of ISBN numbers – not because they have to, but because it’s the right thing to do.

    In the meantime, we’re appealing for students to engage in civil disobedience by emailing us the ISBN numbers for the books they’ve already bought from The Coop… crowd-sourcing at its very best.

  10. eenie meenie says:

    I’ve seen 2 sides of this issue at this point–first working in publishing, now as a grad student. It’s really a lose-lose situation; no one in textbook publishing is getting rich, students are going broke, and college bookstores (which–the Harvard Coop aside–are often wonderful resources in small college towns) are barely staying alive.

    Many of my classes have used xeroxed readers instead of textbooks, which are still expensive and generally leave me with an un-resellable pile of paper at the end of the term. And one of my classes posted articles online, which I found to be a pain in the ass.

    I think a well-written, well-edited, well-designed, up-to-date textbook is still pretty unbeatable, if rare. And all that writing, editing etc. is labor that ought to be fairly compensated. The Wikipedia model is all well and good, but I’m not sure it’s reasonable–or a particularly good idea–to expect our major educational resources to be the work of amateur volunteers.

  11. Anonymous says:

    OK, I’ll grant science changes every few years, but algebra has been done pretty much the same way for a thousand years, yet they keep on changing up the algebra textbooks. Mostly they just change the order of the problems, or replace more of the exercises with useless graphing calculator exercises (what good does it do you to be a trained calculator monkey if you don’t understand the theory behind it?). I keep up with mathematical journals, and I’ve never once seen an article on newfangled ways to solve quadratic equations, so I’m not sure why they feel the books need updating so often.

    Wacky Hermit

  12. Anonymous says:

    I think it’d be more acurate to say that the school’s booklist is what the store claims is protected.

    The reason on-campus bookstores are sensitive to giving out ISBNs is that they typically go through a lot of trouble compiling book lists for the upcoming term. They are usually the ones dealing with hundreds of professors to get the right books and get them in stock in the right quantities in time. I guess the problem is that on-campus stores aren’t always just stores — they are also resppnsible for compiling the book list and that is time+effort that goes to waste if they can’t also sell the books.

    It’s a messed up system, really. But in context the Harvard store’s actions are not really unexpected.

  13. Anonymous says:

    Over 800 college bookstores are leased out to Barnes & Noble and Follett Higer Education Group. Often, in my opinion having been in this industry for many years, you will find lease stores to hasve both higher prices and lower customer service.

    They have to give a certain percentage of sales back to the school, so they refure ot even carry items the students may need if the product does not make enough margin.

    When the store remains institutionaly run, they always have the student body’s needs in mind.

  14. Anonymous says:

    Before retirement I taught math. The frequent new editions in math textbooks infuriated me and the students. You don’t have to revise a freshman calculus text to incorporate all the new material that’s been discovered in the last year. In fact, the revisions were usually trivial — EXCEPT — that the publishers changed the problem sets. For the explanations and examples an edition several revisions old would be just fine. But, I could not assign homework problems by problem number unless all the students had the same edition. I am certain that the publishers knew exactly what they were doing in changing the one thing that would make a math text “obsolete.”

  15. Kevin says:

    @Drewstarr
    “The COOP is actually one of the few IRS recognized Cooperatives that still exist in the US (unrelated to agriculture, that is).”

    I’m an officer in another of the few IRS recognized Cooperatives, and I can tell you that they would prefer that we not exist.

  16. bcrowell says:

    Thanks for the informative post (#22), Tomh.

    An analysis of our spring 2007 data shows The Coop’s prices are on average 23% higher than the cheapest online prices.

    Wow! In that case, it sounds like the Harvard Coop’s markups are simply way out of line with the national average of college bookstores. That GAO report I linked to says that the average college bookstore markup is 30%. Since amazon’s markup isn’t zero, I can’t see how the Coop could be 23% above amazon unless the coop was charging a markup much, much higher than the national average. The price gap of $5-10 (on books in the $100-130 range) is what I found just by doing a quick, informal survey of some physics textbooks in my school’s bookstore, and comparing with amazon.

    Another possibility is that the “cheapest online prices” are prices that in reality can’t be found online. Just because someone managed to get a particular book on ebay or half.com for a particular price, that doesn’t mean that everyone can get it at that price. It would be much more relevant to compare the Coop’s prices with standard, everyday prices on amazon.com or bn.com. It would also be good to know what the Coop’s standard markup is. (If you ask them, they’ll probably tell you their margin rather than their markup. The margin is computed as a percentage of the retail price, the markup as a percentage of the wholesale price. Bookstores prefer to talk about margins, because it makes the numbers sound smaller.) This
    link says that the Harvard Coop’s markup was 25 to 28 percent, in 1998. Is their markup way bigger in 2007 than it was in 1998? If not, then I don’t see how your 23% figure can possibly be right, unless the online prices you’re comparing with are unrealistically low ones. A markup of 25-28% is wonderful — significantly lower than the national average.

    Some links with good information:

    http://www.calpirgstudents.org/textbooks

    http://www.dailynexus.com/article.php?a=12121

    http://media.www.ncatregister.com/media/storage/paper277/news/2005/04/09/News/Student.Groups.Tackling.HighPriced.Textbooks-2649068.shtml

    In the meantime, we’re appealing for students to engage in civil disobedience by emailing us the ISBN numbers for the books they’ve already bought from The Coop… crowd-sourcing at its very best.

    That’s not illegal, so it’s not civil disobedience.

  17. Jennifer Emick says:

    Hmm…maybe next time I’m pulled over, I’ll tell the officer my license is my “intellectual property.” Pft.

  18. Flying Squid says:

    Just a thought… could this be misinterpretation of a far more reasonable policy set in place to stop students using the store as a library rather than buying the texts?

  19. Anonymous says:

    Cambridge cops quell Coop confrontation
    http://www.universalhub.com/node/10547

    The Harvard Crimson reports:

    The Harvard Coop called police yesterday after three undergraduates collecting information for a student-run textbook-shopping Web site refused to leave the bookstore. The two Cambridge police officers who arrived allowed the students to continue copying down book identification numbers, which they did for two and a half hours before leaving on their own terms.

  20. Stephen Lindholm says:

    The prices may not be property but their building sure is. They have the right to eject people from the premises for reasons not prohibited by law, and there is no law protecting what the students were doing. (The bookstore couldn’t, for example, eject the students for being black, because racial discrimination is prohibited by law.) The legal conclusion is right, but the reasoning is not.

  21. BookGuy says:

    I’m probably going to get flamed righteously for this, but I’m going to step in and defend (some of the) book publishers.

    I’ve worked for several textbook publishers, most of them not-for-profit organizations and university presses, and the picture of wild makrups run amok that BCrowell prsents in #13 just isn’t accurate. Does it cost $50 to buy the raw materials and put a book on press? Sure, that’s pretty accurate. But it’s like arguing that a car should only cost $75 because that’s all that the raw materials cost. Books and cars aren’t put together by magic–a lot of work goes into them. Just one example: A hard science book can have 100s or 1000s of illustrations–the publishers have to pay somebody to create those from what the authors submit. Even scanning in the author’s hand drawn art would cost a ton of money.

    The other thing to remember is that a large number of the books that these publishers put out are for tiny print runs and a very small market. The senior-level circuit design class needs textbooks, but it’s tough to make any money off of just a small market, and it’s your big books (intro chem, calculus, what have you) that pick up the slack and allow the publishers to even print their smaller list titles. Does it suck that they cost so much, and at least part of the burden is shifted from one book buyer to another? Yes, it certainly does. But the idea that most textbook publishers are sitting around, lighting their Cuban cigars with $100 bills is just ridiculous. I should know, because they certainly paid me and my fellow coworkers and editors squat. (We do it because we love books, not money.)

  22. Anonymous says:

    By the time I had graduated, I was only getting a few books at the Coop. Almost all of my books were available at other used bookstores around the Square for much lower prices.

    Here is another question. Are Co-operative members technically part-owners? If so, do they own the “intellectual property” as well?

  23. Anonymous says:

    I’ve done some work for the textbook people. I can honestly say that rearranging the content of last year’s book into this year’s book without actually adding anything is not the sort to thing people do for the love of books. But that was the job.

    So you just take your paycheck and hope they have not yet added a new circle of hell for people who “repurpose content.”

  24. drewstarr says:

    I was a student director of the COOP (from MIT, the bookstore serves both Universities) from 2000-2002.

    First — a clarification. The COOP is not best described as “Barnes and Noble run.” B&N is the hired management for the COOP. Unlike most other college bookstores these days, B&N are the employees, not the owners. As such, B&N is not the appropriate target of ire here. The COOP is actually one of the few IRS recognized Cooperatives that still exist in the US (unrelated to agriculture, that is). It is owned by its members — mostly students — who receive a portion of the COOP’s profits (that which is not reinvested into the business) in the form a patronage rebate each year.

    I have emailed Jerry Murphy (who is a much more reasonable guy than one would expect given this apparent policy). If I hear back from him soon, I will post here in the comments. If it takes longer, I will submit an update to boingboing’s editors when I do.

  25. Anonymous says:

    They throw people out for doing a price comparison? Who do they think they are, Wal-Mart?

  26. HarryChiling says:

    You have to think of the other side, the book store has lights it has to keep on and employees it has to pay. The books sitting on the shelf are not free either. The bookstore sells it’s books for more than an online retailer, because they have carrying costs to cover for their investment in all those books that line the shelves. An online retailer does not have these same costs. I personally think that walkign into the book store and taking any nformation out of the store should fall into theft of services. If you don’t want to buy your books at the campus book store then just don’t go in there, but to use their service (yes the book store allowing you to flip through books and even read some of what you are buying is a service that an online retailer can’t provide you) and then complain that they threw you out for undercutting their business is just wrong. That’s just my take what’s yours.

  27. Anonymous says:

    campusi.com also will search through multiple online booksellers and will allow you to search through the traditional means (author, title, isbn, edition, etc) and will also display known discounts and shipping costs so you can see what truely ends up being cheaper. I haven’t used crimsonreading before but it sounds similar, just thought someone may like an additional resource.

  28. Anonymous says:

    I’ve worked (for a very short time) for a publisher — while it’s true that they don’t like the used book market, it’s also true that the way the business works right now means that almost all the risk falls on the publisher’s shoulders. If they print 10,000 copies of Professor Z’s new super excellent Physics book and all the other professors say “eh, Newton’s laws haven’t changed that much, so I’ll just let my students buy used,” Professor Z gets to keep his advance, and the publisher either destroys the books or donates them. Yeah, it’s a write off, but it kind of stinks. They take back unsold books from the bookstores, they take back anything that was damaged in transit… and they use things like the 15th edition of an incredibly popular book on public speaking to subsidize projects that are very helpful for a very small minority (example: last I checked, all those high school teachers waiting for a nice, US educator market copy of Don Quixote, unabridged, for advanced Spanish learners, were still stuck with an excerpt-only edition from more than twenty years ago.) For every bizarre new-punctuation math book, some other subject is *finally* getting a second edition (the authors of my Russian textbook — which went six years and a cultural revolution on both the US and Russian sides between editions, and that last edition treats the internet like it’s a new idea — are retired, and who knows when we’ll get a third edition.) If you seriously want all your books at cost, you’re also going to be reduced to everyone ordering things online and routinely making silly computer-generated errors (it’s often not clear which book a prof wants) and, you wouldn’t get new editions when you need them. That wiggle-room in the price is not making editors and customer service representatives rich and lazy: it’s making sure that the companies have the incentive and ability to react to changes in the market.

    To say nothing of the fact that while Chapter 1 of that introductory Physics book probably doesn’t need much updating, the stuff in the back end (which, at least in my textbook, was based on recent discoveries) would be annoyingly outdated in a year or two. Most of my political science classes had supplement packets from research and events within the previous year — I had one Peace Studies class where things were changing so quickly, the professor decided which articles we’d study a few weeks in advance. And his print-on-demand books were expensive, because he had to get the rights from so many different copyright holders.

    And yes, it was thuggish, anti-consumer behavior on the part of The Coop to kick people out for doing price research. It’s often legal to be a thug, though it’s usually not the best way to make your customers like you, as far as I can tell.

    (BTW, I agree that a completely different model is needed, and in fact it’s starting to happen — but at the moment, the entire system is geared towards working in one particular way, and blaming the publishers, or bookstores, by themselves, is a little out of line.)

  29. Anonymous says:

    These people must be pretty blatant about it…I just use the voice memo record feature on my cell phone to record isbn #s…or the other option is to text it to a friend, etc…as far as they’re concerned, I’m using my cell phone. If you’re standing there staring at it continuously, you deserve to get caught I guess. Pretend you’re browsing and are looking at all the books in the area.

  30. drewstarr says:

    As promised, I’ve been in touch w/ Jerry Murphy, President of the COOP, and this was his response (which I have permission to reproduce herein). Full disclaimer: I worked with Jerry (in fact, I served on the committee that determined his salary and pay structure) for two years. From a sometimes-objective standpoint, it has been fascinating to watch the COOP respond to the challenges of operating a brick and mortar bookstore system within the realm of the online world. To put it in context, when I first became a patron of the COOP as a member my freshman year of college (1998), the biggest online threats were Varsitybooks and Bigwords — Amazon was not where college students were looking for texts at the time. Since then, I honestly believe the COOP has done all it can to provide competitive prices coupled with genuine service to its student-owners. They go through a considerable effort to get text listings from professors each semester from both the graduate and undergraduate programs at Harvard and MIT and their desire to capitalize on that effort (which is unique to the COOP — professors are not yet going out of their way to make their text requirements easily known to students in advance) is understandable. Anyhow, Jerry’s response follows:

    “As to the crimson article and blog activity (I did read the blog and saw that you would be contacting me), the COOP’s position is not that ISBN numbers or prices are intellectual property, but that the list that we compile of the books adopted is our property, to be used in whatever way we choose. We currently don’t publish the list per say, but post the info in the book stacks to help students find the books for the courses.

    We understand that students comparison shop and check the list and copy ISBN’s that are posted with the books. That is ok on an individual basis, but we have had a concentrated effort by groups who come in and spend inordinate amounts of time copying the info not for individual shopping comparison purposes but to for competitive reasons. It is not just students looking for this info, but other booksellers who want to capitalize on our efforts in aggregating the book list. As you put it, “normal consumer activity” is fine. When we see a group effort scouring our stacks, that is not “normal” and is a disruption to the normal flow of business and service in the store.

    The COOP stands by its prices based on our service and convenience. We don’t profess to offer the lowest priced textbooks around, though we certainly are within the average pricing of a college bookstore.”

  31. Glenn Fleishman says:

    In Feist v. Rural the Supreme Court said a collection of facts can be copyrighted (the selection and omission constituting unique efforts), but that the facts within that set cannot. So if I create a list of 10 book prices with their ISBNs, my list is copyrightable, but none of the information within it can be protected. Pretty straightforward.

  32. Anonymous says:

    Ah yes, university staff… I remember that at my university’s diner, the university police would sometimes single out people that looked like students and ask them for an id to prove they actually were students, because apparently only students and personnel were allowed to eat there. All others, children, pensioners, construction workers, could eat there without being harassed.

  33. bcrowell says:

    Eenie meenie (#30) wrote:

    And all that writing, editing etc. is labor that ought to be fairly compensated. The Wikipedia model is all well and good, but I’m not sure it’s reasonable–or a particularly good idea–to expect our major educational resources to be the work of amateur volunteers.

    You want to compare with wikibooks (http://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Main_Page), not wikipedia. Also, there are several separate things, which shouldn’t be confounded: (1) the wiki model versus the single-author model,(2) amateur versus professional, (3) books that cost money verus books that don’t (“free as in beer”), (4) proprietary books versus books that are under a permissive license such as Creative Commons (“free as in speech”), and (5) economic rewards to the author versus no economic rewards.

    I’ve argued in this article that the wikibooks model is basically a failure when it comes to college textbooks; and of course you don’t want a college textbook written by amateurs — that would be silly. (Citizendium is an example of a wiki-based encyclopedia that doesn’t allow amateurs to contribute.) However, that doesn’t mean that free-as-in-beer and free-as-in-speech are also failures. Check out theassayer.org, and you’ll find quite a large number of free-as-in-something college textbooks.

    Finally, it’s incorrect to assume that just because something is free, it can’t also produce rewards for the author. Boingboing.net is a good example of that. You and I aren’t paying one red cent to use it, but it produces a ton of revenue for Cory Doctorow. Red Hat lets you download their Linux distribution without paying any money, but they make money from it (by charging for support). I’ve made money from my own physics textbooks, which can be downloaded for free. One very common model in the world of free books is to make the book available for free in digital form, but make a profit from printed copies. In the world of traditional textbook publishing, very few authors make any significant amount of money. If they were just looking to make a buck, they would have been better off just moonlighting at McDonald’s.

    Re #25 posted by BookGuy:

    I’ve worked for several textbook publishers, most of them not-for-profit organizations and university presses, and the picture of wild makrups run amok that BCrowell prsents in #13 just isn’t accurate. Does it cost $50 to buy the raw materials and put a book on press? Sure, that’s pretty accurate. But it’s like arguing that a car should only cost $75 because that’s all that the raw materials cost. Books and cars aren’t put together by magic–a lot of work goes into them. Just one example: A hard science book can have 100s or 1000s of illustrations–the publishers have to pay somebody to create those from what the authors submit. Even scanning in the author’s hand drawn art would cost a ton of money.

    Here
    is an interesting study that really does back up the notion that publishers are profiteering, at least in some cases. He shows that the prices of upper-division and graduate physics textbooks have gone up much faster than inflation in recent years. That isn’t because ppb costs have gone up that money (they have, a little, but not, as he documents, anywhere near that much). It also isn’t because the publishers are paying editors, illsutrators, etc.: most of these books are old standards like Goldstein’s mechanics and Jackson’s E&M. The rapid increase in prices is simply profit-taking by the publishers. I also don’t see how you can put an innocent face on exploitative practices such as new editions every 2 years for a subject like calculus (to kill off the used book market), or books shrinkwrapped with useless trinkets (to prevent returns).

  34. jccalhoun says:

    Don’t most college bookstores allow you to order books online or is it just ours? Wouldn’t that allow people to find out the prices without setting foot in the store?

    I always wait until the class syllabus is handed out and buy the books online anyway. The last time I set foot in our college bookstore was when I realized I had forgotten to buy a book the weekend before I was supposed to read it.

  35. Anonymous says:

    The Coop does not allow buying online. They’re just evil. Evil!

  36. Anonymous says:

    The publishers actually strike deals with professors, encouraging the professors to always use the newest edition in order to garner better profit.

    Tell me how to get one of these deals!

    On second thought, don’t! It would be a gross violation of our ethics code.

  37. Anonymous says:

    The people referencing Feist are overstating the case for protection of these lists. In Feist, the court said,

    “We conclude that the names, towns, and telephone numbers copied by Feist were not original to Rural and therefore were not protected by the copyright in Rural’s combined white and yellow pages directory. As a constitutional matter, copyright protects only those constituent elements of a work that possess more than a de minimis quantum of creativity. Rural’s white pages, limited to basic subscriber information and arranged alphabetically, fall short of the mark.”

    Feist Publications, Inc. v. Rural Telephone Service Co., 499 U.S. 340, 365 (1991).

    If garden variety phone book listings don’t cut it because there is no originality in these listings, then a collection of a dozen or so ISBNs probably won’t either.

  38. Anonymous says:

    I’ve been posting my experiences with college bookstores, not as a student, but as the one who actually pays the bills, on my website, http://www.steamingpileofcrap.com. The short form of that is, even state universites are in on the textbook scam, at least if you don’t have an Amazon Marketplace account. SUNYIT bookstore total: $410, Amazon Marketplace total: $250, and I’ll be able to recover lots more of that than I would selling the books back to the bookstore when the semester is over.

  39. vonpokemon says:

    I used to work for a college bookstore and we freely gave out ISBNs. The students are going to get their hands on them anyway, and if it helped generate even the merest goodwill we were happy to have it – people were going to hate us enough when buyback came around at the end of the semester.

    And as far as getting older, cheaper editions, I say go for it. The publishers actually strike deals with professors, encouraging the professors to always use the newest edition in order to garner better profit. It’s a great game of You Scratch My Back that even made bookstore employees upset. The bookstores actually make a better profit off of used books, so even they would prefer to keep one edition over several semesters.

  40. Anonymous says:

    As a current MIT student, I have to say that the COOP is one of the better-run university bookstores I’ve been to. That said, I would still never buy a textbook there. The used-book market online is just as convenient, and the single-digit rebates do not come close to compensating for the mark-up they add.

  41. jim says:

    College bookstores ought to be charged under the RICO Act. This “intellectual property” stunt is just another facet of the big gouge.

  42. jccalhoun says:

    “The publishers actually strike deals with professors, encouraging the professors to always use the newest edition in order to garner better profit.”

    If this is true then I am owned some money because the publishers just change editions every year or two whether I want them to or not which not only forces the students to buy new editions but me to go back through all my notes and lesson plans to see if the material that I liked is still in it, if the new material is any good, and change my syllabus. I would be a lot happier if professors did get a kickback or if they would stop coming out with new editions with minimal changes.

    On the other hand I do get a fair amount of books that I didn’t ask for sent to me and I just sell them on Amazon. Thanks book publishers!

  43. Jamie Sue says:

    The university I attended in Kentucky would not disclose ISBN numbers or prices. They would not allow taking notes in the book store and covered the ISBN numbers on the books with little colored stickers.

    I personally feel that campus bookstores are a racket and should be treated as such. I believe that they should have to disclose the ISBN numbers of all books required for a course.

  44. Josh Michtom says:

    I seem to remember someone else running into a similar problem several years back when they wanted to record and compare prices at Wal-Mart: As soon as Wal-Mart managers saw them taking notes, they got the boot. They solved this problem by carrying in a hidden audio tape recorder and having loud, deliberate conversations about the prices (“$3.98 for kitchen size garbage bags? That is a fine price, don’t you think?” “Yes, but it is not nearly as much of a bargain as paying just $4.25 for this large box of Special K cereal!”).

  45. Anonymous says:

    every textbook will be cheaper, including shipping cost, if you order used online. on average, on the order of ~30%. so i just order all my books online used. not knowing ISBN numbers shouldn’t deter you; i’m sure your profs won’t keep the texts a secret. the real problem is the wait time for the books. so figure out your books early or borrow from library or if it’s a tech textbook use the reference library.

  46. bcrowell says:

    Some folks here seem to be directing their ire at the wrong target. It’s the publishers who are to blame for high textbook prices, and for other abuses like frequent new editions used to kill off the used book market, and shrinkwrapping books along with other junk so that they can’t be returned. Although this particular policy of this particular bookstore sounds idiotic, in general college bookstores simply are not the main reason for high textbook prices. This GAO report says that the average markup for college bookstores is about 30%. For example, if you buy one of those ridiculously overpriced physics or ochem books for $140, then the wholesale price the store paid was about $108, and the bookstore marked it up by 30% of $108. That $32 markup may sound like a lot, but the bookstore has to pay the rent, meet payroll, etc., and part of what you’re paying for is convenience. In the past when I’ve compared amazon.com prices to prices at the bookstore at the college where I teach, usually the difference has been fairly small — maybe $5 or $10 on one of those $140 books. (This is after taking shipping costs into account.)

    So sure, if the college bookstore’s convenience isn’t worth $5-10 to you, then by all means buy it from amazon or bn.com, but both the college bookstore and the online retailers are paying the same insane $108 wholesale price, and it’s the publisher who’s making out like a bandit. The paper, printing, and binding price of that lavishly illustrated, 1000-page color textbook is probably something like $50 (depending on the length of the print run), which is a lot less than $108. What you’re getting for the extra $5-10 at the bookstore is convenience. You can walk into a single store and get all your books, and find out easily what books are required for all your courses. You might be able to find used copies of some of them. If you drop a course after the first meeting, you can return the book. If you drop the course later in the semester, or want to sell the book back after the semester is over, you can do that, too, albeit for less money. You don’t have to wait for the book to be shipped to you. All of those conveniences cost the store money to offer.

    The really cool solution is free textbooks, which are starting to gain more and more traction. See theassayer.org for some examples.

  47. Anonymous says:

    This is nothing new. For decades stores of all kinds have not allowed people to enter their store and write down prices for the purpose of giving those prices to the competition. I don’t know why the President said the prices were intellectual property. They shouldn’t be subject to copyright and they are obviously not patented or trademarked. That leaves trade secret, which should be destroyed by the fact the prices are on display to the public.

    Nevertheless, a store is private property and the owners can prohibit activity such as writing down prices to give to the competition as they see fit. Your option is just not to shop there.

  48. Anonymous says:

    Funny that the COOP seems to be claiming ownership of the ISBNs as well, since those are actually registered by the publishers. If anyone “owns” them it would be the publisher of record, not the bookstore.

    Also, both the Harvard and Yale bookstores are managed by Barnes & Noble, yet the Harvard bookstore doesn’t let you view any required textbooks online, while Yale’s lets you not only view the booklist, but gives you prices for used and new copies and lets you buy them directly. For whatever reason, Harvard’s bookstore has decided to not implement this feature of the Barnes & Noble website software.

  49. Crunchbird says:

    The solution . . . is for university administrators to politely request that campus bookstores publish an open source database of ISBN numbers – not because they have to, but because it’s the right thing to do.

    If you think the University should compile the assigned reading lists for all courses (with ISBN numbers) and make that list available to anyone who requests it, I might agree with you. The idea that the bookstore should be required to provide information to help people comparison shop “because it’s the right the to do” is simply ridiculous. The book store is in no way, shape or form obligated to help you save money, whether they’re a co-op or not. You could build a relationship with every professor on campus, get them to provide you with their syllabi, and do the work of looking up the ISBNs and pricing information, but instead you’d rather just have the Coop do all the preliminary steps for you.

    Also, students sending you ISBNs for books they’ve already bought isn’t civil disobedience. Civil disobedience actually requires that some law or rule be broken. It sounds like you’re trying to develop a useful service for your fellow undergrads, but don’t be surprised if the businesses you’re trying to steer customers away from don’t line up to help out.

  50. Anonymous says:

    I’m sure that the ISO would be surprised to learn that Coop considers ISBN’s to be its intellectual property.

  51. bcrowell says:

    And as far as getting older, cheaper editions, I say go for it. The publishers actually strike deals with professors, encouraging the professors to always use the newest edition in order to garner better profit. It’s a great game of You Scratch My Back that even made bookstore employees upset.

    Like jccalhoun, I’m a college professor, and I’ve never had any such money offered to me. Vonpokemon, do you have any facts to back this up? It sounds extremely unlikely to me. There is absolutely no reason for the publisher to pay professors money in order to get them to adopt a new edition. In my experience, all the publisher does is to announce that the 7th edition is going out of print, and from now on, the only edition that will be available from them is the 8th. Nobody has a choice: not the students, not the store, not the prof.

  52. pork musket says:

    After my first two years of school, I stopped buying the books at the beginning of the semester and just bought them as needed. All my professors typically agreed that the book prices were outrageous. Most of them were happy to give me all the ISBN numbers or let me borrow their book for a brief period to identify differences between old (i.e. cheap) editions and the new one. The differences usually ended up being organizational changes rather than material.

  53. Anonymous says:

    I just quit using textbooks for my classes. There are plenty of free sites out there that provide my freshman comp students with grammar rules, readings, etc…. I sell all the review copies I get and buy skis.

  54. Alex Rollin says:

    I was thoroughly excited to hear from a close friend that Laney College, a community college in and around Oakland, CA, facilitates and encourages the use of older versions of textbooks.

    He tells me that through some form of work on the part of the professors and the school, students for each course are notified about which versions are satisfactory for use in the course.

    He also tells me that one of his courses was allowing up the last 5 versions. Amazing! He got his books for $5 dollars!

  55. Ford MF says:

    One way bookstores and publishers (since the people who make the book don’t make any money if you buy a used copy off eBay) have been circumventing this is with custom texts, which are standard textbooks that are abridged or rewritten in some way (often by the professor teaching the course) specific to that particular course in that particular semester. That way, it doesn’t matter a good goddamn if you have the ISBN or pricing information, there isn’t an alternative outlet for the books. They were specially printed and the only copies in existence are in your school bookstore.

  56. Anonymous says:

    Yes, I wholeheartedly agree – anyone who’s attended a 4-year university will fully attest that college bookstores are a racket, and the prices are usurious. Buy used books in older editions and International Editions!

  57. Anonymous says:

    @BCROWEL

    On professors in general, I do agree, I think a lot of them are very amenable to older editions and helping students. Others, though both write and require their own textbooks for class.

    It’s a tough sell, though, for me to blame a publisher, when a professor decides what book will be used for a course. And if a course was truly being taught and not recited from a book, I would think the choice of the text should rest much more with the student.

    There are a lot of publishers out there, and a lot of textbooks for each subject. Requiring a bundled textbook with extras is not done by the publisher.

    As for price lists, at state-funded universities are they allowed to hide the information of books they require? At least the ISBNs should be freely available, but maybe things have gotten worse lately.

    As for disclosure, I work at an online book price comparison service. It’s pretty interesting how backward-thinking, protective, and defensive the bookstore staff is when you see them at conferences. We have offered to display their prices alongside the Amazons and B&Ns, even to share (our) revenue with them and help with selling old stock, and none of them are ever interested in talking, and generally become abrasive in a hurry. They are locked in a single mindset and they refuse to either see or accept change.

    What’s funny is that for new books their prices are usually about $5 extra and are right on campus. So there’s no real reason to be bashful or private about it.

    In any case, their businesses will eventually end up exactly where they deserve– in the toilet. Not today, not tomorrow, but one day. You just can’t expect a business with that much protection and collusion and defensiveness involved to survive.

    Morgan
    http://www.directtextbook.com

  58. Anonymous says:

    I’m a prof as well. I intentionally specify the use of an old edition in my syllabus to help students on cost. The problem is that my Uni bookstore will stock the old edition (per my instructions) and then try to sell the book ($120 new) for $100. Only my, shall we say, less gifted students fall for this and buy them. The majority show up to class having spent $20-30 on half.com

    The drawback for a lecturer is that the publisher will discontinue access to online support for the old editions. But if you’ve taught the course for many years, this barrier is irrelevent.

  59. Bill Adams says:

    If you’re just looking for the same ISBN at a discount outlet, you’re still getting robbed.

    I hardly ever bought a new book at Harvard after the first year. There is the occasional book for which no earlier edition doesn’t exist, and occasionally an earlier version won’t do, but more often it will, and it was usually available in the used book stores around the Square. (That was a long time ago, but even if those stores are gone now, used on Amazon will give you an even better selection.)

    In liberal arts courses particularly, you don’t even need earlier editions by the same publisher; all “classic” texts in literature, history, psychology, etc. can be picked up dirt cheap. It’s true, you’ll have different editorial notes and glosses than the other students — bring up these points in class participation, as if from your own vast side-reading on the subject, and completely cow the teaching assistants, sometimes even the professor. It’s fun!

  60. Paul says:

    The wholesale price of the textbooks is the problem. Publishers and campus Bookstores need the money just as much as online retailers do, and students also need money.

    Crimson Reading’s operations sound quite similar to what some particularly tech-savvy students at my university did in creating a database that tracked what books students were willing to sell, and what books were needed for a particular course.

    The bookstore in response began putting little stickers over the ISBN’s. This was as effective as peeing into a forest fire.

  61. Anonymous says:

    I would have logged in, but the registration thingy is acting a little batty.

    Anyway… why are people wasting their time in a bookstore, writing down ISBN numbers when those number are easily obtainable online, either through your University library, or via Amazon, or probably hundreds of other places, WorldCat springs to mind.

    While it’s really dumb to consider the ISBN “intellectual property” (and if it is, it’s not the property of the bookstore selling the book), it’s not worth your time taking notes in the store when you could do your comparison shopping and ISBN searching all at the same time.

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