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The Dartmouth
March 4, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

The Truth About Textbook Pricing

As a Dartmouth alum, class of 2005, and the current general manager of Wheelock Books, I feel that students deserve to have some honest and concrete information regarding what The Dartmouth has called "exorbitant textbook prices" and "the local practice of overcharging students for used textbooks and offering minimal 'buyback' compensation" ("Used textbook exchange to begin in '06," Oct. 5).

Textbooks are expensive. I remember how hard it was to spend money it took me months to earn all in one day buying books for classes. But students should recognize, as I have been working hard to supply textbooks to the college, that there is an important difference between overpricing and charging fairly for an expensive item.

I would like to offer students some reliable information about the facts of textbook pricing and the policies we have at Wheelock to reduce the cost of books.

First, here is some information about the new books. In bookstores that charge list prices for new books, approximately 80 percent of the price of each book goes directly to the publishers. Bookstores that charge list prices are thus able to keep about 20 percent of what students pay for a book.

At Wheelock, we all remember how expensive textbooks were when we were students. So we do not keep nearly the 20 percent that we could. Instead, by discounting new books well below the list price, 50 percent of our potential profits are returned to students (about $50,000 per term). The remaining 50 percent of the money pays for shipping, my salary and keeps our building lit and heated in the cold Hanover winters.

I can tell you honestly that "exorbitant ... prices" are not originating from our markup. The prices set by publishers will only be affected if concerned students and professors speak up and ask that textbooks be priced more affordably to bookstores.

A common misconception about the used books we sell is that they all come directly from Dartmouth students through buyback. In fact, the majority of used books sold in the store are processed through national used book companies, who set both the buyback and selling prices for used books. When a student comes into Wheelock Books and sells "The Color Purple" for $2, the used distributor purchases the book from us for $2 and sells it to another bookstore for $10. Whenever we are able to cut out the middle-man (i.e., the used book companies) we pass those savings directly on to the students. If we know that "The Color Purple" is being used for a future class at Dartmouth, we give the student $10, the same price that we would have to pay for the book from the used distributors.

It is true that the buyback prices set by used book companies tend to be quite low. The buyback process is meant to be a service that allows students to recoup a small amount of money for books that they do not want to keep and do not wish to go to the trouble of selling in a manner that would give them a higher return.

My staff and I encourage students who are concerned with getting the most they possibly can for their texts to explore other options, and we often provide suggestions for where else they can look to sell back their books. We also offer students $1 in store credit (Buy Back Bucks) per title in addition to the buy back price during reading week. Over the past year we have given over $20,000 in store credit to students as a way of offsetting the low prices provided by used book distributors through buyback.

The Student Assembly has proposed an initiative that will support students' attempts to get more money for used books by selling them to each other. This is a great idea. Buy backs run through stores are not intended to replace or match such transactions.

However, such an initiative on the part of the students should not cause them to devalue the services that a local bookstore provides -- a reliable place to find all their books, a returns policy that takes into account cancelled books and classes, and a source of employment and information about classes and Dartmouth life.

While online shopping and other options are becoming increasingly attractive to many students, the demanding nature of the Dartmouth ten-week term and diverse liberal arts book list means that this college benefits greatly from a team of dedicated people whose sole commitment is to provide books to the College. Hard-to-find titles, specific editions, foreign imports and out-of-print titles -- these can be difficult to obtain individually. And recognizing the popularity of online ordering, we match or beat Amazon.com's prices.

We do not want students to pay more than what is fair for the work that we do. While publishers and used book distributors control the majority of a book's price, local bookstores do have control over their margins and can choose to allow students to share in their profits. At Wheelock, we take this opportunity seriously -- hence the discounts, building on stilts, metal shelves and plywood counters. But I would ask students to remember that paying my salary and the salaries of the students and graduates who work with me everyday is in no way "exorbitant" or an "overcharge."

A future article in The Dartmouth would do justice to students by including not simply unsubstantiated accusations but hard facts about the varied options for purchasing texts with an inclusion of the benefits and downsides of each.

Students deserve information so that they can make informed choices about purchasing. Here at Wheelock Books we are happy to provide it. I challenge The Dartmouth to do the same.