Textbook Counter-Scam

I wanted to write something about a New York Times article I saw about students importing textbooks from other countries and reselling them in the US. I saw the article last month, but I never got around to reading it until now. The New York Times has it archived, but they want a few bucks to read it. Somebody posted the whole thing on his website in blatent disregard of 17 U.S.C.
The book importing is controversial because the publishers set different prices depending on the market. Some people think this is unfair, so they buy books from oversees. I’ve actually never thought to check amazon.co.uk for a text book. I always do a lot of shopping around, but usually end up a half.com. I figured that everything in England is more expensive than it is here. (When living in England in 1999, I saw an article about buying CDs from the US at huge discounts over the US prices. This idea is nothing new.)
I’m sympathetic to companies for pricing things differently in different markets. I certainly would not want some poor kid in Indonesia to have to pay the same $60 I might pay for a textbook. On the other hand, I don’t want to have to pay $1000 for a book just because it is required for class.
My real complaint is that I don’t think universities do enough to encourage competition among booksellers. I was surprised when I arrived at BU that our bookstore is actually a Barnes & Nobel. I guess a lot of schools have private booksellers. I had never heard of such a thing before law school. My college (UC Santa Barbara) had it’s own “University Bookstore”, and the community had an independent seller. It’s my understanding that the bookstore at the University of Washington is a non-profit that actually refunds any profits to the customers at the end of each year.
I don’t like being pushed to shop at Barnes & Nobel. There seems to be an assumption on the part of the school and B&N that I’m going to go in there an just blindly pay any price for books that my professors happen to have assigned. I have to go in there each semester just to find out which books are assigned. To me that’s like requiring voters to stop by a particular party’s headquarters to find out where their local polling place is. Sometimes Barnes & Nobel charges even more for a law textbook than they charge for the same book as a “professional book”. No wonder people look for alternatives.
If we’re going to tolerate booksellers adjusting their prices to fit the market, then we shouldn’t also give one bookseller full control over the market (ie exclusive rights to sell at a particular school – or even exclusive access to booklists at a particular school).

One thought on “Textbook Counter-Scam”

  1. The crazy thing about B&N is that you can order the same textbook on bn.com at a price that is substantially less than the campus bookstore. Moreover, if you buy one of those B&N Reader’s Advantage cards, you cannot use it at the campus bookstore. My guess is that the difference between the retail (web site) price and the marked-up (campus bookstore) price is to reimburse B&N for the exclusive rights fee they pay to BU. BU is making money at the expense of its students, not at the expense of B&N.

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