Textbooks or tablets, the evolution continues

Michelle Reuter

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As the semester comes to a close for students, it is once again time to decide what to do with the textbooks they purchased back in January. There are a number of options, each with its own advantages and drawbacks.

The cost of the university textbook has been a point of indignation for students for decades. There’s a reason for this. According to a recent study by the American Enterprise Institute, textbook prices have increased 812 percent since 1978. That leaves increases in housing (325 percent), healthcare (559 percent) and even tuition in the dust.

Students are often frustrated with prices when they buy their books at the beginning of the semester and more so if they choose to sell them back. Buy-back rates are dependent on a number of factors including, whether or not a professor has ordered the book for next semester and whether a new edition is about to come out.

“It really just depends on the demand,” said CSUN bookstore manager, Amy Berger. “Prices drop when a new edition comes out because professors are going to use the newest edition. I always recommend students talk to their professor about which edition to use. For example, ask the professor if they can use the last edition. It’s cheaper.”

How your textbooks and your bookstore work

The cost of producing a textbook is more than just paper and ink, though those are still some of the most expensive costs. According to the National Association of College Stores (NACS), the average college bookstore will receive about 22 percent of the money from the sale of that book. This amount will cover employee pay, operational costs like rent and electricity, with some left over for a profit.

The publisher walks away with 77.4 percent or over three-quarters of the cost of a new textbook. The NACS no longer gets specific break-down information from the publishers. Their most recent numbers are from 2008.

Back then, writers of textbooks got 11.7 percent of the sale of a book. Marketing accounted for 15.4 percent and the biggest chunk, 32.2 percent, went towards up-front expenses like printing costs, paper and paying the publishing company’s employees.

The biggest challenge with selling a text book is the market size. Unlike mass market paperbacks, textbooks have a limited audience. The last installment of the Harry Potter series has sold 44 million copies to date according to Nielsen BookScan. The average hardcover, full color textbook often only sells a few thousand copies. The cost of production is very high and the number of copies sold is low.

Since the profit margin on textbooks can vary by title and edition, universities often opt to hand over the business of buying and selling them to outside companies. Follett is a corporation that, among other things, manages university bookstores. They operate bookstores on more than 950 college campuses in the United States and Canada. The CSUN bookstore has been run by Follett since 1997.

In exchange for managing daily operations, Follett receives a percentage of each sale of bookstore merchandise, from textbooks to t-shirts. The percentage is negotiated every six years. Bookstore employees are Follett employees; they do not work for CSUN or The University Corporation.

Textbook options

When a student sells their book to the bookstore at the end of the semester they receive a percentage of the original wholesale price of the book. If the book has been ordered for the next semester by a CSUN professor, the bookstore will pay 50 percent of the wholesale price until the demand is met. If there is no order placed, they will still pay 30 percent of wholesale.

Of course, students don’t have to buy or sell their textbooks at the university bookstore. Many students prefer to find cheaper copies on-line at sites like Amazon.com, cheaptextbooks.com or chegg.com. There’s even a new student-to-student site, PostYourBook.com. This site allows students to buy and sell texts directly to each other, keeping down shipping costs and increasing the likelihood of finding the book your professor is using again next semester.

Then there’s the option of renting a text from the bookstore. If a student has no interest in keeping their book past the final exam, this can be a reasonable option that will save a few dollars. Of course, drawbacks include the cost of buying the book should it be lost and not having the book in the future should it be needed.

The future is…next fall

Tablets like the iPad and iPad mini are becoming more popular on college campuses. They’re portable, they can store a huge amount of information and their little keyboards turn them into tiny computers with touch-screens. Sales for Apple’s iPad hit 22.9 million units sold in the last quarter of 2012 according to Apple’s financial report.

Universities and professors have not been blind to this new rise in digital convenience. CSUN biology professor, Paul Wilson already uses interactive tools like videos and apps to enhance his e-books for tablets.

“We don’t want to be behind the times, teaching the slide-rule,” said Wilson.

His text for a field trip based class, “Plants and Animals of Southern California”, features interactive maps and videos to help students learn about 15 new species every week. He also uses an app called iBird to get students familiar with local birds by their appearance and their song. The app plays an example of each species’ song so students can identify them in the wild.

Wilson also uses another department-wide ebook to teach students how to use the complex confocal microscope. Biology students read instructional text and can watch a series of videos in which a professor demonstrates how to use different parts of the expensive machine.

Viewers can watch as often as needed and then take a practice quiz when they’ve finished. Once they feel ready, students may then take the official test with a biology professor to earn the right to use the microscope.

The digital book saves professors and students both time and money.

“Publishers print a book to sell or rent and make money,” said Wilson. “I’m not trying to make any money with this book.”

The university is joining the digital revolution this fall with the new myCSUNtablet Initiative. The plan is for several departments to offer classes that will require an iPad but no text book. Students will use their tablets exclusively for class study materials.

Since the cost of textbooks for one semester can be between $300 to $600, the cost of an iPad will be less than a semester of books. Students who don’t already have an iPad will be able to purchase one at the bookstore and pay over two or three semesters. They will be buying the iPad from CSUN, not Follett. Berger explained that the bookstore would only handle the transaction.

Professors will be free to decide what kind of digital content they wish to use. Some may write their own interactive e-books like Prof. Wilson, others may ask students to buy or rent an e-book online while thers may simply use apps and websites to build their instructional material.

“I don’t think anybody knows how this is going to land in September,” Berger said. “It’s still in the beginning stages and very exciting.”

Follett offers a number of digital options for students and faculty interested in using the new technology. Publishers often include CDs and online access codes to websites along with the traditional textbook. Follett sells the CDs or codes on their own as well as e-books in the Cafescribe and Inkling formats.

“We only sell solutions that can be used on any device from a phone to a desktop computer,” said Elio Distaola, director of campus relations at Follett.

Students said they are looking forward to trying out the advantages of the new technology. Tablets are far more portable than even laptops and more versatile with their touchscreens.

“I think I would use it a lot. I have a laptop now and it’s so heavy,” said sophomore Jennifer Lynn. She added that the payment plan would make the program very attractive since it would giver her time to save up and pay for an iPad.

“It’s an amazing idea,” said Amanda Abarca, sophmore, psychology major. “The technology makes everything so much easier. People are already using iPads all over campus and some people learn better with the interactive features.”

It remains to be seen how digital textbooks are going to change the financial landscape of the traditional textbook economy. The new tablet initiative at CSUN will be an experiment in more than just interactive learning.