- The Washington Times - Friday, August 11, 2006

Rohit Koppula roamed through the George Washington University Bookstore this week in search of books he will need for his upcoming classes. But he wasn’t going to spend a cent there.

“I’m just figuring out what books I have to buy exactly. Then I’m taking a picture of them with my cell phone, so I’ll know what books to buy online,” said the freshman who is majoring in pre-med at the university. “It’s cheaper online.”

Thousands of college students like Mr. Koppula will soon head online to purchase their books for the fall semester. About 23 percent of students bought at least one of their class textbooks online last year, according to a report by the National Association of College Stores.

But for the 2006-07 school year, about 35 percent of students will buy at least one book online, according to TextbookX.com founder Brian Jacobs, who cited an internal industry study.

Students have good reasons to avoid their campus bookstore. Textbook prices have tripled since 1986, rising at an average of 6 percent per year, more than twice the rate of inflation, according to a July 2005 U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report.

On average, students attending four-year public schools spent about $894 on books and supplies for the 2005-06 school year, according to the College Board, a nonprofit organization that tracks higher-education spending.

If Mr. Koppula bought all the books he needs from his campus bookstore, he would spend about $700, he said. But if he buys from online stores such as Amazon.com or EBay.com, Mr. Koppula said he could save about $150.

The number of Web sites that sell books from wholesalers or offer student-run book markets, such as CollegeBooksDirect.com or Collegetext.com, have soared in the past 10 years, according to Steve Loyola, president and founder of BestWebBuys.com. His Web site allows users to search and compare the best book prices of about 25 of these Web sites.

“They were rare in 2000. Now they’re pretty much maxed out,” he said, adding that booksellers probably find it easier to sell online than in stores.

As well as selling books from wholesalers at retail price, TextbookX.com offers an online marketplace where students can buy and sell from each other. Mr. Jacobs said the Web site has more than 500,000 users, and the number of books sold through the Web site increased 80 percent from 2004 to 2005.

The average listing price of a textbook on TextbookX.com retail store runs at $101. But students typically save about 54 percent when they buy used books from other students on the Web site, he said.

Students can save about 60 percent to 70 percent of a book’s price if they purchase a book’s international edition, Mr. Loyola said.

These copies are also offered on online stores, but only in the past two years have students become aware of them, he said.

Typically, publishers of science and more technical books make copies meant for overseas bookstores, he said, and the copies are supposed to contain the same material.

“No one would pay that price overseas,” Mr. Loyola said, referring to a $100 textbook price tag. “If you get a used copy of an international edition, I’ve seen savings at 90 percent.

“It’s the latest nuance in buying textbooks online,” said Mr. Loyola. “The books have existed for a long time. But the idea of them hasn’t. Every semester, it’s not only growing more popular as far as the sales, but more international editions available for sale are growing.”

Professors partly blame textbook publishers for making students avoid bookstores, said Martin D. Snyder, director of the department of external relations for the American Association of University Professors.

In the late 1980s, publishers started to frequently release new editions and sometimes stop offering older editions that were just as good, he said.

“That’s really the critical problem. In order to make a profit, publishers will update the editions every two years,” said Mr. Snyder, who is also a humanities professor at the University of Maryland. “Sometimes the change is just a new preface or new graphic. It’s a very sore subject for most professors.”

He said publishers are especially likely to make “glitzy and superficial” book changes for large sections of classes in order to “capitalize off that market.”

But if professors don’t like a book’s new price tag, they can just order from another publisher, said Bruce Hildebrand, executive director for higher education at the Association of American Publishers.

If professors weren’t requesting copies of the books, they wouldn’t be shelved at bookstores, he said.

The GAO report partly faults compact discs and workbooks bundled with a textbook as contributing to textbooks’ higher prices. But Mr. Hildebrand said these changes explain why it’s inaccurate to compare textbooks of two decades ago and the present.

“Students didn’t have computers 20 years ago. You gotta come into the 21st century,” he said.

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