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The Dartmouth
February 25, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Textbook Wars

I find it interesting that the National Association of College Stores is suing the online bookstore, Varsitybooks.com. The claim of the Association's lawyer is that, " students are being misled regarding [the discounts on books]." The misleading statement in question is Varsitybooks claim that students may save up to 40 percent off "suggested list prices."

The Association obfuscates the issue by claiming that retail prices are only suggested, and each bookstore imposes their own markup. Therefore, the 40 percent figure quoted by Varsitybooks is illegitimate, since it depends on the bookstore in question. This verbal slight-of-hand is quite stunning, and insults the careful reader.

So, are students really being deceived by Varsitybooks ? I think a wise student would do comparison shopping -- examine the prices at the local bookstores and online retailers. From there, factoring in shipping and other miscellaneous costs, a student should find the best store to buy their books from. I have found that the online retailers consistently beat the bookstores by a wide margin. Even if I chose next day air shipping, I could buy a semesters worth of books far cheaper than at the bookstores.

I think the root of this problem is competition. College bookstores have traditionally had large profit margins and little competition. Now, facing online retailers who do not have the same overhead associated with traditional bookstores (employees, rent, etc), the traditional bookstores are doing their best to fight back. However, online bookstores still must maintain inventory, purchase and maintain systems, pay connectivity charges, and have staffing at some level. If the online stores are capable of doing this, stay in business, and still undersell the college bookstores, someone is reaping a much larger profit, and it isn't the online store.

I ask, how many students, during their first year, are hit with serious "sticker shock" when they realize there semesters worth of books total more than $300? Quite often, during my undergraduate days, I found totals over $400 were not uncommon (semester, not quarter). However, most students are unaware of the alternatives other than trying to borrow the book from another student or scrounge up a used copy. It seems the bookstores are trying to maintain the lack of alternatives, or dissuade students from pursuing them. I could provide quantitative data showing my savings over a variety of semesters, but I will suffice to say, savings of around $15-20 a book over the list price of $70, ($25+ for the $85 "bookstore price") is a good low estimate for the savings when buying on line (for one classes book total: $115 on line, $160 bookstore). It should be known I have never used the Varsity site because their prices are much higher than other online retailers.

The Dartmouth book store's claim (Dave Cioffi) that "if you're a Dartmouth Bookstore member and you take away the postage, the prices are basically the same," is an outright lie. Ignoring the dichotomy the bookstore presents ("spend money buying a store membership to save money on books"), this claim is patently false. Such subterfuge only serves to confuse the student body, and take away their right/ability to shop and spend their money where they see fit, and in this case, the cheapest source available.

I was happy to see that the Amazon/Barnes and Noble case was settled out of court with the agreement to "compete in the marketplace," not the courtroom. Selection and choice are key parts of a free market society. However, it seems the college bookstores don't agree with that. They would rather see high profit margins and little competition than to face up to the fact that they grossly overcharge students for textbooks.