Textbooks made more accessible


From e-books to rental services and online marketplaces, students now have diverse options




With an expanding array of outlets for purchasing textbooks, students will encounter more reasonably priced options when buying course materials this semester.

Additionally, a law enacted over the summer aims to make textbooks even more affordable for students. Effective July 1, the Higher Education Opportunity Act included a mandate that all “bundled” course items be sold individually, that college and university professors publicize a list of requisite textbooks for their courses before classes begin and that book publishers disclose pricing information when offering textbooks to professors.

These stipulations — in addition to a clause encouraging colleges to disseminate information on all of the options for buying textbooks — bring national backing to campus-wide efforts to reduce costs.

Online Options

The Undergraduate Assembly and the Interfraternity Council have partnered to launch the Penn Book Bazaar, an initiative to make textbooks more affordable for students.

By visiting the Undergraduate Assembly’s website, Penn students can list textbooks they want to buy and sell in a Craigslist-style marketplace, according to College junior and UA Secretary Cynthia Ip. Once students connect with one another on the website, they settle on a price and make the exchange in person.

“We’re eliminating the middleman costs of bookstores,” said Ip, who used her web development background to create the program. “People who are selling can sell for a higher price, and people who are buying can buy at a lower price.”

Ip added that she expects the Book Bazaar to put downward pressure on other outlets’ prices. “I think most Wharton students would agree that competition is good in the market,” she said.

Though it does not buy or sell textbooks on its own, BigWords.com is also finding ways to help students save money.

According to BigWords.com CEO Jeff Sherwood, the website — which now has an iPhone and iPad application — allows students to compare prices from all online textbook venues at one time.

In determining the best-priced options for students, Sherwood added, BigWords.com evaluates book rentals, e-books and international editions. It also takes price, seller’s reputation and available discounts into consideration — and allows students to actually purchase those books from within the app.

Temporary Transactions

There are also several options for students who prefer to discard their textbooks at the semester’s end.

This semester the Penn Bookstore is debuting a textbook rental service.

The program allows clients to rent books for only one semester at 45 to 50 percent of the cost of purchasing a new textbook.

“It’s the same book, the same usage, a fraction of the cost,” Vice President for Business Services Chris Bradie said.

Students can also convert their rentals into purchases within the first few weeks of the semester, according to Business Services Spokeswoman Barbara Lea-Kruger.

At the same time, both the Penn Bookstore and the Penn Book Center continue to offer buy-back options in which they purchase textbooks from students after they’ve been used.

Digital Deals

Despite developments in the e-book market, such as this year’s release of the iPad, textbook vendors are divided about the digital book’s potential to eclipse tangible course materials.

Bradie acknowledged that e-textbooks have been experiencing increasing interest from the media and that the Bookstore’s e-book offerings have grown tremendously in the past year.

The number of e-books available to students depends on how many textbooks are sold by publishers in digital form, Bradie said.

Nevertheless, this year the Penn Bookstore offers ten times as many e-books as it did last year — and that number increases every week, he added.

The Penn Bookstore is also now offering NookStudy, a free downloadable e-reader which allows students to access e-books on their computers, as opposed to on a Nook or Kindle.

On the other hand, vendors such as the Penn Book Center choose not to offer any digital options because of their clientele’s preferences.

“Our book market is different,” Penn Book Center owner Michael Rowe said. “We don’t have a lot of classic, $200 textbooks anyways.”

Moreover, he added, many of the Penn Book Center’s offerings are not as widely available as mainstream textbooks, so they are not published in digital format.

Ip, who discussed e-books on the Student Technology Advisory Board last year, said she thinks some students still prefer tangible books to digital copies. Despite today’s increasingly digitized industry, she said, “there’s still a need in the market for a physical textbook.”

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