Canton and Potsdam college students find renting textbooks may not always save money
Thursday, September 30, 2010 - 2:24 pm

By CRAIG FREILICH

More college students are renting textbooks than in the past, but it may cost them more, not less, according to some local bookstore managers.

Stores have for a long time bought back used books from students, and resold them for a lot less than full price, as long as the book is still in demand. But recently, book rentals at less than full price have come on the scene, presented as a way to deal with the “sticker shock” students face when shelling out hundreds of dollars a semester for textbooks.

“The difference between buying used books and renting is this: renters are paying more for the book,” says Kyle Matott, owner of The Computer Guys, which sells computer products and services along with college texts on Clarkson Avenue in Potsdam and on Rt. 68 near the SUNY Canton entrance.

“With new books, you have the difference between buying it new, say for $100, and selling back at the end of the semester, and getting $50 back,” Matott says. Net cost: $50. “That same book might rent for $75,” he says, costing the student – or the parents -- $75 for the use of the book.

But John Hennessey at University Bookstore, Clarkson University’s store on Market Street, says the company that operates the store, Follett Higher Education Group, has rental prices that can save students “up to 55 percent of the investment for a new textbook.”

Buybacks – when the store buys a textbook back from a student – are typically at “50 percent of the purchase price, depending on the need for the following semester,” Hennessey says. “The value could change, for instance, if a new edition comes out” making the last edition obsolete.

Rentals Can Be Bureaucratic

Bob FitzRandolph, manager of St. Lawrence University’s Brewer Bookstore on Park Street in Canton, says, “Rentals are just a different take on the used book business, with a lot more paperwork and bureaucracy, and it’s not really a viable option for us, except in limited numbers.”

The Web has also opened up opportunities for comparison shoppers. The e-book trend has been growing, but the bookstores serving the four colleges in Canton and Potsdam say the old words-printed-on-paper books are still favored by faculty and students.

“For us, it’s not changing as rapidly as the headlines would have you believe,” he said.

“A lot of places are doing rentals. We are not,” says FitzRandolph. “But rentals are still available online – it’s not like they’re unavailable to our students. We have an aggressive used book business. The vast majority here use those.”

FitzRandolph explained that selling a used book and buying it back after the student is done with it is simpler for the store and might save the student money in the long run.

When a student buys a book, there’s one transaction and it’s done. If the student wants to keep it, nothing else needs to happen. If a student wants to sell it back to the store at the end of the semester, that’s another single transaction, and it’s over with.

To rent a book, the student pays the rent up front, and the transaction remains open until the end of the semester when the student must decide either to return it or keep it. Either the book is returned and the initial deal is closed, or another transaction to make it a sale is made. The buyback price, and the rental return, are subject to adjustments if the book is damaged. And some bookstores might not buy back a book if they don’t need it – for instance if the professor is switching to another book the following semester.

Adds the Computer Guy’s Matott, “For parents, it might be all about the initial investment” – how much they have to pay at the beginning of the semester, in which case it might make sense to fork over $25 per book less at the start of classes. In essence, people renting sometimes don’t take into account that even those buying used books can frequently sell them again at the end of the semester.

Jan Robbins, book manager at SUNY Potsdam’s College Store, says Matott’s figures renting books being more expensive could be about right, but a $100 book “might rent for $25, and it might not. The market hasn’t sorted out the price question yet.”

“I think rentals are good for the student, but not necessarily for everyone else,” she says.

She says her store hasn’t begun rentals yet, but probably will start with a few core courses next semester.

E-Books, Downloads Increasing

Robbins says even buybacks at the store “are diminishing due to competition that didn’t exist before” – online booksellers like Amazon that also sell used textbooks. “And students can sometimes buy books more cheaply than I can buy them from the publisher.”

And e-texts, she says, “are growing, and will continue to grow. Each semester it’s larger, but so far it’s a minor, miniscule part of my business.”

“Their impact is trivial right now,” agrees Brewer’s FitzRandolph. “Where electronic books are available now, and so are hard copies, students prefer the hard copy. Students who buy an electronic book will frequently come back for a hard copy. It doesn’t have real acceptance among students yet.”

FitzRandolph says the e-book market will grow, “but right now, students are not comfortable with it. It hasn’t caught on at all at my store.

“We’ve sold 30 percent more used books this semester than in the past,” he says.

One reason, he explains, is that while an electronic book might be less expensive, “at the end of the semester it has no value compared to a hard copy which can be sold back to the bookstore.”

Where FitzRandolph has seen growth in electronic books is not so much in full texts, but in the subsidiary materials in a shorter form.

“That has reduced the amount of material students buy from us,” and he says it has affected the bottom line, “a little.”

Robbins explains that students acquire the rights to e-books one of two ways: they pay at the bookstore for a code they can enter online that permits them to download what they need, or they pay the online provider directly.

At SUNY Canton’s College Association Bookstore, Textbook Center Manager David Akins says, “We’re in the computer era, and things are going to change. E-book purchases are still much more popular than rentals.”

He says whether or not professors want e-books for their students can sometimes depend on whether or not they want laptops in class –“and not to have to wonder if they’re looking at the material or at something else, but as long as students have access to the material, they generally don’t care.”