As students turn to the Internet to look for better deals on textbooks, the UofA Bookstore continues to implement programs aimed at driving down prices and keeping itself the number one source of books on campus. But addressing textbook prices isn't easy.
"It's a very complex set of problems, like a spaghetti ball," said Frank Farias, executive director of the UofA Bookstore.
"We're trying to pull out one strand at a time."
Textbooks are not yet printed on the backs of hundred dollar bills, but they're still expensive. The UA Web site's estimated cost of attendance places books and supplies at $1,000 per academic year.
That holds true just about everywhere. The national average that students spend on textbooks is $995 per year, Farias said.
Tuition, housing and food are still more expensive than textbooks, according to the estimated cost of attendance. But after paying for those basics, forking over $500 a semester can be a dagger. To help ease the squeeze on students' wallets, the UofA Bookstore has developed a patchwork quilt of ways it addresses textbook costs. Even so, more students are going online for books, forcing the bookstore to get creative.
Jeff Sherwood, CEO of BigWords.com, a textbook price comparison site, said that traffic on his site has gone up 40 percent in the last year. BigWords searches booksellers' Web sites like Amazon.com and calculates the cheapest price a student can get by ordering from different vendors. BigWords subsequently makes a commission on sales that are made from its referrals.
Even the UofA Bookstore is turning to the Internet to buy its books. The bookstore has hired students to scour Web sites likes Amazon to buy any books that are used in UA classes. Farias said that the goal is to lower the average price for students who shop at the bookstore.
Sherwood said that was an "interesting" way to put it.
"If they're buying the cheap books online, they're trying to sell those same books for more money. It's getting rid of the competition," he said. "I don't want to disparage the campus bookstore, but I think that with so many online companies competing for students' business, you can find better deals online."
Farias said that Internet booksellers have not yet seriously impacted the UofA Bookstore's bottom line.
"We see some migration to Amazon, but not so much that it affects us. It could affect us, but I think that the reason it hasn't is that we're showing we are doing everything humanly possible to help students," Farias said.
The UofA Bookstore has implemented a number of recommendations made by the Arizona Board of Regents' Textbook Task Force in June 2007, as well as a mix of its own programs to address textbook costs.
Textbook rentals, for one thing, are available for some of the larger classes. Perusing the UofA Bookstore Web site shows that an organic chemistry textbook costing $198 can be rented for $79.25, less than half the purchasing price.
The bookstore also has a Classifieds section on its Web site, allowing students to sell their old textbooks to other students online. Last Saturday, 4,779 books were listed as for-sale.
Textbook buy-backs are also an important part of helping students save money on books. To make sure that the UofA Bookstore can offer the most money for used texts, Farias said that incentives have been created to encourage faculty to submit their textbook orders on time.
Timely ordering is essential for the UofA Bookstore to be able to offer students a good price on their used texts.
"The faster we get that information from faculty, the better chance we have of getting the book used and offering higher prices for students selling it back," said Cindy Hawk, associate director of the UofA Bookstore. "If we know we need it, we can keep it on campus."
If the bookstore does not know that it will need a certain textbook, it can only offer the national wholesale price. Unfortunately for students, that might mean the UofA Bookstore can only offer $12 on a $100 textbook instead of offering $50, Hawk said.
"We can't just speculate on what books a professor will need," Farias said.
To help this, the UofA Bookstore has put into place the Faculty Textbook Adoption program. If an academic department turns in 85 to 100 percent of its orders on time, the UofA Bookstore gives the department $25 per order in store credit to spend on classroom materials.
David Martinez III, an education senior at UA who sits on the board as a student regent, said he thought the UofA Bookstore's efforts represented "a step in the right direction."
"The UA has made really great progress, but there's a lot more to do," he said.
As far as the Internet goes, Farias said there were other benefits to shopping at the UofA Bookstore instead of online. For one thing, the bookstore is the only store institutionally mandated to carry every book required at the UA. Also, the bookstore provides funding for student government, commencement, faculty fellows and other programs. Money spent on campus stays on campus.
"Any profits at the bookstore are returned in the form of some kind of service," Farias said. "Our money doesn't go to some corporation bank in New York; it stays right here. We do a lot of things that students may not realize the bookstore is behind."
Nicole Allen, campaign director for Make Textbooks Affordable, a coalition of student government associations and student public interest research groups, said that there are pluses and minuses for online shopping versus the campus bookstore.
"(The Internet is) definitely one option to consider; a lot of times students can find books at lower prices online. We always advise students to shop around for the best price - campus bookstores, off-campus bookstores, online," Allen said.
But the problems with shopping online can be that you don't always get what you order, she said. If students aren't careful, they may buy the wrong edition or pick up a textbook that is supposed to be bundled with other materials, like CDs. Also, shipping can be a dice roll depending on the company.
Allen places a lot of the blame for high prices not on campus bookstores, but on the peculiarities of the textbook market.
Textbooks are not ordered by their actual consumers. There is a third party involved. Professors order the textbooks they need to teach their classes, but students pay for them, Allen said.
"It doesn't act like a normal market…. It's kind of like prescription drugs. The doctor prescribes the drug that's most appropriate, and the patient has to buy the drug they prescribe," she said.
Also, because textbooks are intellectual property, it's difficult to comparison-shop, Hawk said.
"The textbook industry is very interesting because one publisher publishes a book. You can't go someplace else. It's not like buying a UA T-shirt, which you can get from different companies. There's only one place to buy that ISBN number."
"It's a complex issue… There's no real silver bullet," Allen said.