August 27, 2010

Why Amazon hasn't replaced the college bookstore

As college classes begin soon, tons of students will get fleeced at the college bookstore for new and used textbooks. They can usually find the books at Amazon for around a quarter of the price at the bookstore, so what gives? Why hasn't competition driven the college bookstore out of the textbook business?

The answer is that colleges do not force their professors to publicize the reading lists for their courses on the web before the semester starts. You have to go to the brick-and-mortar bookstore to see what books are required for what classes. By the time you do this, classes are only a few days away or have already started.

Professors don't wait to make use of these books, so if you try to shop around at Amazon or other textbook retailers, you'll be out of the loop and probably will never catch up (the average student anyway). It takes several days to find a good deal, plus 4 to 7 business days -- so you're looking at the second week of classes at the earliest, perhaps even later if your search time reflects 4 classes with 8 books each. Rather than risk falling far behind right up front -- and all while feeling helpless, rather than just lazy -- they shell out the big bucks for overpriced textbooks.

The simple solution is to have professors post their reading lists on the web, integrated into the online course catalog. An entry would tell you the course number, name, prof, room number, etc., and then have a link that brings up the reading list. This would have to be in no later than, say, 2 weeks before classes start. Hell, it's not as though they don't already have the reading list made up by then. That would give students plenty of time to find cheap textbooks at Amazon or wherever else, and bypass the college bookstore.

If professors decided not to use a book that they had already committed to on the list, they would have to reimburse the students, either financially or perhaps giving them all A's or throwing a party for them. (Or maybe Amazon would have a refund program if students could show the book had been de-listed.) Professors could add books to the list, but they would not be allowed to make use of them in class until two weeks after classes begin, again to give students time to find cheap copies. And really, if you're adding something so last-minute, how central can it be anyway?

That's how it would work, roughly, if students paid for education on their own. They would not accept plunking down tens of thousands of dollars just for the privilege of getting ripped off every semester at the bookstore and being at the mercy of professors' whims regarding reading lists. Colleges that offered better customer service in this way would eliminate competitors of similar academic quality. As it stands, though, the customers have no way to tell the producers what they do or don't want. They more or less take whatever crappy treatment they get and hope for the best.

As much as I loathe the helicopter parent phenomenon, at least they create some kind of feedback and punishing power to the producers if they're screwing up. Unfortunately parents seem to care more about ensuring that the college is spoiling the kids enough, rather than that the college isn't taking them and their kids to the cleaners. It's like medicine and hospitals -- parents put total trust in the doctors, administrators, and so on, and hope that their kid is getting treated nicely. They don't commit heresy by asking if this or that is really worth paying for.


  1. Oh it's much worse than that. I work in IT at a community college. We get a nice cut from the college bookstore and we are instructed to make it hard for students to find out which books are needed for a given class. It's only thanks to a new law that the ISBN numbers show up on our website at all.

  2. Possible solutions or amelioration:
    1. Pre-register for the desired classes.
    2. The professor must contact the bookstore with his list of books so that the store can order in a timely manner: (a)student should contact bookstore to determine what is on order; or, visit bookstore in sufficient time to order for classes; or (b) send a proxy to determine required books.

  3. traveling boho8/27/10, 7:47 AM

    Why not do what I used to do? Order everything online (preferably used) and buy books from the bookstore as needed until the order arrives. Then when they get there, return the ones you bought. Most university bookstores have a two-week return period.

    Or just read the books on course reserve at the library. If the class isn't too big this can be workable, though inconvenient.

  4. Could it also be because many college students may not have credit cards or other means for making online payments?

  5. If you paid for express delivery you'd still get them the first week of class and save a bundle relative to bookstore prices.

  6. Many colleges are now renting books out to their students, for about 50 - 100 depending. Stout does this, and there are online lenders as well. Savvy students will not get their a88 handed to them


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