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Students Find Ways to Fight High Cost of Textbooks

Times Staff Writer

USC junior Kristen Louis is a savvy textbook shopper.

She has tried to save money by purchasing books through an online discount retailer and from a Web-based, student-run “swap” service on campus. When she can, Louis borrows or exchanges books with friends and acquaintances.

“I’m in college, I don’t work, and I don’t have a whole lot of money,” said Louis, a philosophy major from Oakland. Cutting her spending on textbooks, she said, “is one of the best ways I can save.”

Students’ frustration over the high cost of college texts, along with their willingness to turn to the Internet and elsewhere to find better prices, is fostering book-buying alternatives.

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“You can’t blame the student for trying to find the best bargain,” said Albert N. Greco, a Fordham University business school professor who has studied the college textbook business.

Some campuses are using Internet-based “book swap” services, which create marketplaces for students to buy and sell used texts among themselves.

Online book retailers have been making inroads into the college textbook business for several years, sometimes by offering discount prices.

Some resourceful online shoppers have saved money by ordering from foreign Web sites that sell English-language textbooks for less than their U.S. counterparts.

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Another option for reducing California college students’ book expenses is envisioned by Assemblyman Paul Koretz (D-West Hollywood), who has introduced legislation to prod community colleges and public universities to offer textbook rental services.

The available alternatives now account for a small fraction of what Greco estimates is the $6 billion that U.S. college students spend on new and used textbooks each year.

Concerns about textbook costs were highlighted in a report in January by the California Student Public Interest Research Group.

It found that students surveyed in California and Oregon were spending an average of $898 for books this school year. The average cost of a new textbook, the survey found, is $102.44.

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CALPIRG’s study blamed publishers for the high costs, saying that they often release unnecessary new editions and frequently bundle texts with unwanted extra materials, such as CD-ROMs and workbooks.

The textbook publishing industry defended its practices, and some observers questioned whether CALPIRG’s findings had somewhat overstated actual costs.

Still, students appear increasingly interested in alternatives to the traditional college bookstore.

The student government at Cal State Dominguez Hills last fall launched a book swap service that can be reached via a link from its Associated Students Inc. page on the university’s Internet site.

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David Gamboa, president of the university’s student government, said that about 600 students had bought books through the site so far.

By putting buyers and sellers directly in touch, he said, the service cuts out middlemen, and both parties get better prices.

Gamboa said student leaders, in another effort to reduce costs, were urging professors to keep older books on their reading lists, so that students would have more opportunities to buy used copies. They also have asked professors to avoid textbooks packaged with workbooks and CDs.

At USC, student government also offers an electronic book-swapping system, and two other free Internet-based swapping services set up by students have been introduced this year.

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One of those services, BookDonkey.com, was launched by business major Caleb Inman and computer engineering major Hunter Francoeur as what they called a “social entrepreneurial” project to help fellow students. Inman and Francoeur said they eventually might try to turn their service into a for-profit business by marketing the technology to other colleges.

Louis, the 20-year-old philosophy major, said timeliness and convenience were important advantages of BookDonkey.com over online book retailers.

With BookDonkey.com, she said, the student does not have to wait for deliveries. “You can just meet somewhere ... and exchange the books,” she said.

Louis said she had sold an organizational behavior text through BookDonkey.com for $50 that she could not sell back to the USC bookstore, apparently because it was an international edition that was somewhat different from the U.S. version.

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She also used the service to buy an accounting textbook for about $60 -- about $70 less, she said, than buying it new from the campus store.

Still, BookDonkey.com remains a tiny enterprise, with about 200 books sold so far.

The USC bookstore, by contrast, carries as many as 5,000 titles and generates book sales of more than $10 million annually. The existing services, as well as earlier, failed swapping efforts, have never diverted much business from the bookstore, said Mark Ewalt, an associate director in charge of book sales at the store. “It isn’t much of a factor for us,” he said.

Textbook rental programs have been offered at university campuses in Wisconsin, Illinois and other states.

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The aim of the CALPIRG-backed Koretz bill is to push the state’s public colleges and universities to offer students the option of renting books at 50% or less of the cost of buying.

Still, experience suggests that this option might have limited potential.

Pierce College in Woodland Hills, which is part of the Los Angeles Community College District, offered book-leasing from 1999 to 2001. It is planning to resume the service when its bookstore moves into a new building in January 2005.

But during its previous two-year run, the program was expensive to operate, mainly because about 45% of the participants failed to return the books and the school was not always able to collect the students’ penalty charges.

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In addition, students’ savings proved modest.

Larry Kraus, the college’s enterprise manager and the originator of the book-leasing program, said students would pay $65 to lease a book retailing for $100.

Yet Kraus said the book-renting program helped students by ensuring that they would not be stuck with expensive books that could not be sold back to the bookstore.

“It’s not the end-all. It’s not the magic bullet,” Kraus said. “It’s just another option for students.”

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