We are the OccupyTheBookstore/Texts.com team, back to talk about the college textbook industry
We are the Texts.com team, here to answer your questions. We did an AMA in January where we talked about our OccupyTheBookstore Chrome Plugin and the legal threats we were facing at the time. We had an awesome and wide-ranging discussion about the specifics of our technology, the nature of Follett’s challenges, and college textbooks as a whole.
With back-to-school season upon us, we wanted to take this opportunity to answer questions about the college textbook industry, and give the community a forum to share resources and savings-tips.
Feel free to AMA about custom editions, access codes, international versions, open-source initiatives, bookstore consolidation, publisher oligopolies, etc. We study this industry every day and would love to try and share some valuable insight!
Pretend that I am a lazy college student who doesn’t want to do any research of my own. Why should I pick you guys over Chegg?
Chegg is great. Amazon is great. You’ll do better than 80% of your peers by simply using one of those services.
We compare prices from every retailer, so that you don’t have to. You’ll have a similarly-easy experience using our site, but you’ll piece together the best deals across the whole spectrum of retailers to save some money.
You’d be surprised how often the go-to stores are not the best option. They switch their prices up a lot in order to lull you in to thinking they will obviously have the best price then sneak in total ripoffs. You are better off knowing all the info every time.
So then you guys are like… Progressive but for books. Right?
Precisely! There are other services that do this (BigWords, SlugBooks, etc), but we offer a few unique aspects to our service–
- Our whole service is built around a free student textbook exchange (no fees or commission), and,
- We also include every instance of open-source, older, and/or international versions that we can find to give students the clearest possible picture.
I’m a senior in high school, what should I look out for when buying text books for the first time?
1) Confirm that you actually need the book. You can talk with professors, upperclassmen, TAs, etc., and figure out whether you’ll actually be using the book.
2) Try to find a free version of that book. Whether it’s from your campus library, a local college, or any other source, you’ll obviously save money by being creative. OpenStax College and some other open-source initiatives also provide a growing number of free alternatives.
3) Determine whether an older version and/or an international version will suffice. If it’s approved by a TA or professor, you can usually get a great deal by going with one of these alternatives.
4) If you decide that you must purchase the book, try to buy the book from a fellow student. Buyback services offer notoriously shameful prices, so they’ll be super eager to sell their book at a fair price (and give you a deal). Facebook Groups are probably the most commonly-used manner of accomplishing this at this point.
5) Finally, if you must buy the assigned book, compare prices from services like Amazon, Chegg, ValoreBooks, BookByte, Biblio, etc. Use a price-aggregator (such as Texts.com), or one of the many-other awesome services, IE Book.ly, CampusBooks, BigWords, SlugBooks, etc. Doing so should highlight the best possible deals.
Definitely DO NOT default to simply going to the campus bookstore. Though they will very-occasionally have the best price on a book (IE a commonly-used paperback frequently assigned), you’ll very rarely get the best deal for an expensive hardcover textbook.
Hope that helps!
I’m a university professor. I also have ties to the publishing industry, so I know how bullshit what they charge is. I do everything I can to make sure my students don’t have to buy any textbooks. Anything else I can do to help?
Convince your colleagues to follow your example. Write thought-pieces or op-eds explaining your insight and position. Promote the adoption of open-source alternatives such as OpenStax College.
Thanks for your help and understanding!
Why is it that International Editions are so much cheaper? Do publishers figure they can charge Americans more because college kids are all loaded with money? I once got the international edition of a text that the bookstore wanted around $200 for. It was a while ago, but I want to say I paid around $30. The only difference was that the cover was red instead of blue.
You’ve basically hit the nose on the head. Publishers will argue that there is substantial cost to develop this material, and that they have to charge what the market can support (IE USA pays more, Int’l pays less).
Int’l editions are generally printed on cheaper paper, with soft covers rather than hard. The differences might include an altered book cover (IE Red v. Blue), different ISBNs, changed pagination, or difference between imperial/metric units. They also generally won’t include the supplementary materials (access codes, CDs, DVDs, etc.).
Buying/selling international editions is also completely legal under the First-Sale doctrine!
I’ll be honest and say I straight up pirated most of my college textbooks. I understand that someone worked to make these, but the value I get from these, required, books is laughable. My freshman year cost $500 in textbooks I used maybe a dozen times total. What is your opinion on this sentiment, ignoring my methods if you wish?
The sentiment makes complete sense, plain and simple. And you’re part of a growing trend of students that are pirating their textbooks.
That said, publishers and bookstores are going to continue re-doubling their efforts to make that increasingly difficult. Whether it’s custom editions or one-time access codes for required supplementary materials, there probably won’t be complete coverage using that method.
Our goal is to provide the maximum amount of information, giving you all legitimate outlets to find the books that were assigned. Whether it’s from another student, using an older/international version, or an open-source / digital alternative, our goal is to give you the complete view to make an informed choice.
That said, I understand your position and I think it’s clearly a consequence of the insanely spiraling prices. Just recognize that you’re (partially) contributing to a positive feedback loop: fewer students buying? raise the prices!
Are you a for-profit company? How do you make money?
Yes – thanks for bringing that up, we definitely want to be transparent about the fact that we’re a for-profit startup. We earn a commission when a student buys a link at a partner site (such as Amazon or Chegg) through one of our affiliate links. It doesn’t affect the student price (IE you’ll get the same price if you went through us, or there directly).
Our goal is to provide a really user-friendly and free student textbook exchange, where students buy/sell books directly. We also then want to highlight every-possible open-source alternative, and/or older/international version that might save students some money. If and only if you must buy that book do we want you to head to one of our partners to find that book. In short — we only make money when we find you a good price.
Your previous AMA mentioned some legal trouble–was that ever resolved and if so how?
After the AMA and ensuing media frenzy (WSJ coverage, NYT, LifeHacker, etc) we were contacted by the EFF who expressed interest in possibly defending us if Follett followed through with their threats. We also received many legal opinions and advice that centered around the fact that any court deeming us guilty of damages against Follett would be setting a horrendous precedent.
Because we only modified information in the end-user’s browser, made no extra calls to the Follett server, and were completely opt-in, it would have been very difficult for them to press a case.
I’m happy to say that we haven’t heard from them sense!
Several of my college courses required the purchase of texts and or software written by faculty themselves or faculty they are closely associated with. The subsequent edition changes they made were largely superfluous. Is there some sort of professional ethics body that can control this? Do I literally need to try to pass an act of congress to address this situation?
It’s hilarious that you mention an “Act of Congress” to address this.
In fact, the Higher Education Opportunity Act, Section 112 Textbook Provision is designed specifically to address this practice.
It mandates the following:
1) Disclosures: Publishers are required to provide faculty members with the following information: The wholesale / retail price of the textbooks Copyright dates of the previous three editions Description of any “substantial content revisions” between editions Available alternate formats (ie paperback / unbound) and the associated prices
2) Unbundled: Publishers are required to unbundle any textbook with it’s supplementary material. This ensures that if a book contains supplementary material (IE a CD or an online access code), that any/all items may be purchased separately — each component individually priced.
3) Custom: Finally, publishers must also make all of the above information available for custom textbooks.
Unfortunately, enforcement of the spirit of this legislation is hard to see or feel. Perhaps the publishers are in fact of connecting with faculty on changes, or unbundling, etc.; but if the faculty is acting as the gatekeeper and self-dealing, it doesn’t accomplish a whole lot.
Do you have a chart like this softdrink one that shows the layout of the publisher oligopolies?
No, but we should definitely make one! It is crazy consolidated, and you would just never know unless you took a very close look.
Pearson, Houghton Mifflin (owned by Cengage), and McGraw hill are the big players. It seems like they’re constantly making acquisitions, and/or buying/selling/trading different divisions amongst each other.
Pearson also has a near comic-book-villain death grip on the K-12 educational materials, and are the folks behind the dreaded MyMathLab access codes.
Wholesalers are similarly consolidated. For instance, a businessman named Leonard Riggio owns massive (controlling?) interests in both B&N College and MBS Direct, two of the largest textbook wholesalers in the industry. There are only a few others in that group that do meaningful business.
Follett, which runs ~50% of college bookstores, just acquired Nebraska Books to expand that even further.
Does Follett run anything else beside bookstores?
Follett is “full stack” in that they have their own wholesaler/distribution arm, college bookstore operators (their biggest business), their own eCommerce site, and have started working on their own digital e-reader. Read their hilariously awful reviews here.
I sometimes like to use ebooks these days unless I can find the physical book super super cheap, do you guys compare those prices too?
Yes – we do compare prices for digital versions and eBooks, though we probably don’t have quite as much coverage as we do for the more-typical print versions. There are a number of new/emerging eBook platforms, so we’re constantly adding them to the site.
A really interesting emergence has been “digital rentals,” sometimes offered through companies such as PackBack (who actually did an AMA a while back). The thing you have to keep in mind that eBooks and digital rentals generally don’t have a buyback market, so you shouldn’t expect to recoup some of the cost by reselling that book back.
College textbooks are a good target because it comes straight out of the student’s own pocket. But what about K-12 school textbooks? Those are also way overpriced and marketed through a system that is largely seen as corrupt or at best filled with cronyism. This is a huge drain on the already faltering and limited education funding. Do you guys see yourselves expanding into improving that system in the future? Do you know of any organizations that are promising in that arena?
Honestly, this is out of my direct line of expertise. I have done some research, and been excited by the fact that some states/districts posts their entire required curriculum. My eyes lit up at the thought of creating really-solid price-savings tools that could be marketed to parents.
Unfortunately, I noticed that the vast majority of the required books were custom editions (usually from Pearson) that were only available for purchase at the school bookstore.
I’d love to learn more about this; and definitely partner-up with a like-minded company and/or expand into this arena soon. It’s so frustrating to think about all of the public money going to the publishers, taking resources away from teachers and other educational resources…
How does it handle multiple editions of the same book? And not just “3rd, 4th, etc”, but I’ve seen books that say “Edition for Name of local College“. Does it group all editions of the book together, or will it fail to find editions not marked the same way?
Okay, so there are two things to be mindful of:
Past Editions are automatically cross-listed on our site. Check out this example and then scroll to the bottom. Obviously there will occasionally be meaningful differences between editions (totally changed problem sets, etc.); but, more often than not, the changes are fairly cosmetic. We’re constantly trying to find better ways to crowd-source this type of information, to give you the confidence to go with a much-cheaper past version.
Custom Editions are a totally different beast, and an incredibly obnoxious problem that is really expensive for students. Bookstore and publishing reps will do their best to convince professors to opt for a “cheaper” custom edition, where they will remove superfluous content or stitch together material from different books.
While this sounds good on the surface, it eviscerates the resale market for this book, and creates a monopoly-scenario where you are forced to buy the book from them.
Custom editions (combined with access codes) are one of the tools being leveraged by the publishers to combat the growing used textbook market. Because they only make money on the first sale (and not when books are bought/sold from companies like Amazon and Chegg), they have been “innovating” to develop what is effectively Textbook-DRM.
What are the actual markup levels on textbooks? Are they in the ridiculous 4 digit percentages?
Yeah, the final retail markup is not that bad. They do vary, but generally the problem is not the final markup, but the various levels of distribution and the markup at each phase. The author, publisher, retailer and any middlemen each have to take a cut and because they replace editions so often and trick/pressure students into needing the latest one, they consistently have leverage to charge what they want.
What’s the most expensive book you’ve ever sold?
We didn’t sell it (though the commission would have been great…) but we did see this on our site:
(scroll to the bottom)
Can I also sell my books through your website?
Yes! We provide both buyback comparisons to show you offers from textbook purchasers such as Chegg, Amazon, Cash4Books, ValoreBooks, et. al., and also offer a free student exchange where you can list the books on your campus.
Heya I’m the owner/creator of the web app Textbookly. Always makes me happy to see more faces in this field, hopefully together we can help end the struggle! How are you doing today? How did you get started?
Hey there — your site looks great! I know that the owners of TextbookSpyder and Book.ly are also somewhere on Reddit.
We’re definitely all in this together, spreading the word and pulling students away from the campus bookstore, and/or blind usage of a single site.
I got into this 2.5 years ago after meeting /u/bhalp1 in /r/nycjobs. I bought the Texts.com domain name way back in high school, so was happy to put it to good use.
What is going on with the college education system and its relationship with textbooks?
Honestly, this is a pretty big question. I think that college / higher-ed has become huge business, buoyed by an arms-race for student interest and cheap student loans. It seems people will pay anything, take on any debt, etc., to go to school. I think there’s a certain element to that fact having buoyed educational materials and their rising prices. But again, these are big questions that might be out of my pay-grade.
What made the textbook giants become so powerful over the last few years?
Consolidation, locked-in market, principal-agent problem, monopoly/oligopoly.
What can professors, students, or departments do to take some form of actions?
Embrace open-source materials, and create exchanges where students buy/sell with each other. Say no to custom textbooks, access codes, etc. Force teachers to teach! and lessen the reliance on up-sold / exclusive online content and testing platforms.
What is the future of textbooks? Do physical books still exist in 10 years?
I think that there are some known unknowns. I think it’s inevitable that publishers will introduce and grow a B2C (straight to consumer) model, instead of relying on traditional wholesalers, bookstores, and e-commerce. I think that digital textbooks are an inevitability — never a good idea to bet against the growth of technology.
That said, professors are loathe to change. Publishers and bookstores are doing big business on physical textbooks, and students still dramatically prefer print vs. digital.
I would think that we’ll see a glide-path over the next 5-10 years with physical books losing market share to digital, but not a complete takeover.
It’ll really depend on how the publishers choose to strategically proceed, and the growth/pressure (or lack thereof) of disrupting forces: IE open-source textbooks, etc.
Can you share some #s on how many users you have? How many people bought a book using your site/app? How much does this type of business generate in revenues/profits?
We have around 30k downloads on our Chrome Plugin, though it weaned down a tiny bit after a recent update. Hoping to pick that up again as we head towards Fall back-to-school.
We have over 15k users on our core platform; which, again, we hope to dramatically expand as we refine our business development strategies, partnerships, and overall product. We think that we’re just finding product-market-fit with a tool that students authentically enjoying using and benefitting from, so we’ll need to double-down our efforts to raise awareness and focus on growth.
The site is used by many non-users, who simply use us for price-comparison (and not the exchange).
The commissions differ by retailer, but are usually in the range of 4-8% depending on the volume you’re able to push. We’re an incredibly seasonal business so it’s hard to give you accurate numbers (and I obviously want to protect our privacy a bit); but suffice it to say that w’ere still fundamentally a small/growing company making small/growing revenues.
Do you foresee a way textbook publishers could make money otherwise on a more scale-able platform where they could charge less and provide more value? If so, what do you foresee being the ideal way?
This is a great question.
I think that one of the fundamental issues is that publishers are simply so big/bloated. They have these huge margins to protect, and anything short of billion-dollar revenues is failure.
I think that the’ll need to eventually focus on fewer overall offerings, make them better and cheaper, and find a new way to connect with students.
It’s just going to be insanely difficult while they operate as these huge mega-corps. They’re always going to need to come out with bogus new editions, or slam a custom edition / one-time access code to try and recoup money lost to the used textbook market.
I have a question about your system for comparing prices, is it possible to also compare prices from across college campuses, it some cases (although highly unlikely) that the College book store have a cheaper prices on books, do you also compare prices e for rentals?
We do compare prices for e-rentals; though, as I mention in another answer, because so many of these services are controlled directly by the publisher, or are exclusive for custom access codes, etc., we don’t have the best coverage.
We also don’t display campus bookstore prices because they don’t (generally) offer an API / data-feed of that information. It would be a lot of work to cross-list that for every bookstore, though we’re definitely open to the idea as it would improve transparency.
Do you see yourselves potentially getting into making textbooks and e-editions in an effort to further help with the costs required? I always wondered who you might talk to in order to try to get a textbook made at a much lower cost for distribution.
That falls outside of our core focus, at least for the foreseeable future.
We’d rather support the up-and-coming startups trying to do that with free and enthusiastic distribution to our users and through our services.
How do you feel about pushing for acceptance of open source textbooks?
Super supportive and hopeful that open source textbooks break through.
In fact, we cross-list and integrate them onto our site whenever possible. Even though we don’t make money when students use one of those resources, we want to be known as the resource that people can trust to find you the best deal.
Why did you choose the name “occupy the bookstore”?
We liked the grassroots / insurgent-y feel to the name — “power to the people” and all that. We also enjoyed the play on words in that we are “occupying” the campus bookstore website, and subverting their power through transparency.
I realize there are some problems with the name, but that was our reasoning.
You guys are pretty clearly a for-profit. Given that, are you going to be donating any proceeds to professors and other highly qualified individuals working on open-source texts?
Correct, we are for-profit. I mention it elsewhere, but we are still a scrappy startup that isn’t yet profitable. We probably won’t be donating profits (there are none) for the foreseeable future.
That said, we are the first price-comparison site to highlight open-source alternatives right alongside the normal listings. Obviously, we make no money when students choose those options, so it’s quite literally costing us money. But we’re happy to do it because it gives students a better experience, and might mean a smaller piece of a much bigger pie (if we become the trusted / go-to resource for textbook shopping).
We have a great relationship with the OpenStax College team, and are actively working to integrate new open-source initiatives.
So while we probably won’t be sending them money, we’ll still support them the best we can.
Are we allowed to advertise on IAmA now? According to the rules “Obvious nonsense or advertising will be removed”, why isnt this considered obvious advertising?
That’s a legitimate question.
There’s an obvious and irremovable element of self-promotion here, and I won’t pretend that exposure for our service isn’t an incentive to take the time to do this today.
But I’m also doing my best to spur discussion and provide insight on a timely topic that we know a lot about, that will hopefully save students money over the next few weeks.
I think that the questions of promotion within /r/IAMa is an important conversation (IE the recent blackout / Victoria drama), so I definitely think it’s legitimate to raise this as an issue. I hope you don’t think we’re being subversive or exploitative.
As a textbook company, what is your companies biggest flaw/ greatest drawback to overcome?
Seasonality, the fact that we rely on affiliate commission to make money, and that we churn our user-base every year.