Beating the Bookstore

Concordia Students Develop Alternatives to Sky-High Textbook Prices

  • Photo Brandon Johnston

Finals had barely finished when Matthew Bruna noticed the stack of textbooks that had accumulated in the corner of his room. If the editions weren’t already expired, he’d be lucky to find another student to buy them back.

That’s when the 24-year-old John Molson School of Business graduate got the idea to create studEtree, an application that enables students to buy and sell their textbooks with one another.

“The way the publishers of the books release a new edition every year is crazy,” said Bruna. “If they are not going to change the system, we are going to create an alternative.”

Undergraduate students spend about $800 to $1,000 a year in books and school materials according to the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada, which says costs can vary depending on the program of study.

Bruna is one of many young entrepreneurs who now competes with the university’s bookstores to provide students with an alternative to high-priced textbooks.

Another Concordia graduate, Gabrielle Jacques, 22, launched SwapMyBooks.ca in July 2014, a free website that provides students with a platform to swap, sell and buy textbooks.

“The bookstores are buying back the books for way too cheap because they already have over-stocks of books,” Jacques said. “They are making money off of the students.”

Jason Kack, general manager of McGill’s bookstore, explains that if they buy back books for their own store they pay 50 per cent, while 30 per cent is entitled when the destination is other universities and 10 per cent for wholesalers.

Students are also using Facebook groups as an alternative, but they can be difficult to navigate, Bruna said.

With all these new alternatives, university bookstores face new challenges. Kack says university bookstores are finding ways to be more competitive because “students are going elsewhere.”

Concordia’s bookstore, too, is responding to the issue. It recently submitted a survey to gather student opinions on course materials and customer service. As an incentive to complete the survey, students have the chance to win a $200 gift card.

“We are looking at how we can make a difference,” said Ken Bissonnette, operations and text manager of Campus Retail Stores at Concordia. “We are always at the top of any initiative.”

The Concordia Bookstore has had its own rental program since 2010, while many university bookstores in Canada work with a wholesaler, he said.

The program offers 60 per cent off retail prices and is growing every year.

“We are up to 1005 units of rental and the goal is to increase it from 200 to 300 every semester,” said Bisonnette.

The price is added directly to the student’s account on MyConcordia, so there is no point of sale for purchases with the program. The student signs a contract that tells them when the textbook has to be back in the bookstore. If the textbook is not returned on the due date, the charge of the full price of the book is put on the student account.

However, with the constant change of editions, most of the textbooks put on rental are for entry-level courses, for which demand is higher.

“The publishers are very greedy; they would change just a few pages only so that they can sell more,” Jacques, the founder of SwapMyBooks.ca, said, adding that teachers have the most sway in which books students buy and could avoid prescribing almost-identical new editions.

“Professors deals with representatives of the publishers,” said Kack. “Sometimes they are not even told what the price is.”

University bookstores, taking after American post-secondary institutions, are now trying their own alternatives such as e-books or e-packs, according to Kack.

For Bruna, these electronic versions go against the very idea of a book. “I think that a lot of students still like that idea of a [physical] textbook,” he said. “Students want to buy the book, but because buying an e-book version or a photocopy textbook is cheaper, they don’t.”

The McGill bookstore is working on including a price comparison with online retailers on its website, so students have more buying power. “Our primary purpose is to supply the campus with course material. In the end, it’s far more important to have credibility in that than to necessarily ignore what’s happening on the other side,” Kack said, adding that this will dispel the illusion that bookstores are always more expensive.

“It’s a market where everybody is trying to survive right now,” said Kack. “I don’t know what it is going to look like in five or 10 years.”

“The publishers are very greedy; they would change just a few pages only so that they can sell more,” Jacques, the founder of SwapMyBooks.ca, said.

“Professors deals with representatives of the publishers,” said Kack. “Sometimes they are not even told what the price is.”

University bookstores, taking after American post-secondary institutions, are now trying their own alternatives such as e-books or e-packs, according to Kack.

For Bruna, these electronic versions go against the very idea of a book. “I think that a lot of students still like that idea of a [physical] textbook,” he said. “Students want to buy the book, but because buying an e-book version or a photocopy textbook is cheaper, they don’t.”

The McGill bookstore is working on including a price comparison with online retailers on its website, so students have more buying power. “Our primary purpose is to supply the campus with course material. In the end, it’s far more important to have credibility in that than to necessarily ignore what’s happening on the other side,” Kack said, adding that this will dispel the illusion that bookstores are always more expensive.

“It’s a market where everybody is trying to survive right now,” said Kack. “I don’t know what it is going to look like in five or 10 years.”

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