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College Textbook Battle

by Wendy J. Woudstra   


In the days before the Internet, when I attended University, buying textbooks was a horrible experience. The only place to buy most of the required texts was the University bookstore, where the prices were outrageous, and the lineups to checkout could keep you (and 30,000 other students) standing around for hours. Most students would have appreciated having textbooks available at other stores, if only to avoid the crowds, but only the campus store got the list of textbooks from professors. The other bookstores in town were left in the dark.

Times are changing, however, and students no longer have to depend on the bookstore on campus to purchase their textbooks. Internet bookstores specializing in textbooks, and pending state legislation requiring schools to give booklist information to private bookstores, are opening doors to competition in the growing textbook market.


A number of states have recently put forward bills that would require colleges and universities to provide booklist and financial aid information to private booksellers.

The bill being considered in Maine, for example, requires the educational institutions to furnish private bookstores with a list of courses offered by the institution; instructional materials required or recommended for each course; the expected number of students to be enrolled in each course; opportunity to participate in student orientation sessions; access to student and faculty mailing lists; the ability to credit the purchase of course and instructional materials against a student's financial aid account; and the ability to accept student campus debit cards for the purchase of materials. In short, off-campus bookstores would be able to request all the information the on-campus store receives.

Legislators believe this is a more equitable way to deal with the $5 billion U.S. textbook market, and also one that will introduce competition, and drive prices down for students. College bookstores would counter that with the influx of textbook retailers on the Internet, they've got more than enough competition these days.

For many campus bookstores, the encroachment on their territory by privately owned bookstores is an insignificant nuisance compared to the threat posed by the Internet. Over the past few years over a dozen bookstores specializing in post secondary textbooks have appeared online promising huge discounts and no lineups.

It was the launch of Varsitybooks.com in August 1998 that set the world of college bookselling on edge. Later in the year, BigWords.com launched a similar service. Both used 'cool' and aggressive marketing tactics on campuses, running ads in school newspapers and radio stations, and hiring students to act as roving sales reps. By the fall 1999 semester, VarsityBooks.com had posted booklists for over 300 colleges and universities.

In early 1999, the major bricks-and-mortar college bookstore management companies jumped into the game as challengers to the Internet-only start-ups. In January, bookstore management giant Follett launched efollett.com, followed closely by the Barnes & Noble College Bookstores entry - textbooks.com.

The current fight for market dominance is between BigWords.com and Lexington, Kentucky-based eCampus.com, which launched its service in August 1999. Each claims to be the largest and most popular textbook site online - and both prove their point with statistics.

The online stores have been tight-lipped about their sales and profits thus far, but they say their sales are significant, and growing quickly. Forrester Research estimates that by 2003, the sale of books online will grow into a $3 billion a year industry. It is estimated that textbook sales online could represent about 10 to 15 percent of that amount.

The trade organization that represents most of the brick and mortar college stores in the United States, the National Association of College Stores (NACS), has launched several initiatives to help its 3000 members get online, but the organization admits that it has been slow to get on the Web.


The NACS has also been fighting against what it calls "false, misleading, and unsubstantiated claims" made by online textbook sellers. In October 1999 the NACS filed suit against VarsityBooks.com claiming its members were irreparably damaged by VarsityBook's advertising, which implied that campus bookstores overcharge students for textbooks.

NACS also took issue with VarsityBook's statement that it offers textbooks "up to 40% off" the suggested retail price. A press release about the suit on the NACS web site states that the advertising is misleading because "VarsityBooks offers only a small percentage of its books at 40% below the suggested price it has listed for the books."

VarsityBooks.com isn't the only Internet retailer the NACS is targeting - earlier this month the association's lawyers fired off letters to BigWords.com and eCampus.com, threatening legal action unless they change or substantiate their advertising claims.

The NACS believes that the retail prices on which BigWords bases its discounts are inflated, and that "only a small percentage of the textbooks listed on BigWords.com's site are available at 40% or more off the company's claimed retail price, let alone a price that student consumers would pay another bookseller."

NACS is also questioning eCampus.com's claims that it offers students textbooks at 50% off, and that eCampus is "the globe's largest college bookstore."

NACS seems to be targeting the online-only booksellers, since it has not pursued similar action against Barnes & Noble-owned textbooks.com, which claims to offer students discounts up to 50% through "The World's Largest Textbook Store," or efollett.com which claims to be the "largest online campus bookstore" in its press releases.

The NACS has also stressed the need for its member stores to educate the media about the importance of college stores, and to thwart the idea that buying online will save students money.

But as distressing as it might be for bricks and mortar campus stores, more students than ever are buying online, and many of those that buy online believe that they are getting a better deal there than they do from their campus stores.


Although many members of the National Association of College Stores have developed their own online shops, none hold a candle to the large, well funded textbook stores that are currently leading the pack. Those that hold to the idea that textbook purchases are best made exclusively offline will soon be left in the dust.

Today, 90 percent of the 15 million full time university students in the United States use the Internet, and 66% surf the Web at least once a day. According to a study done by the online research firm Cyber Dialogue, wired students spend more on books, movies and software online than other online adults.

Students Other Adults
Books 20% 16%
Software 16% 11%
Movies/Videos 11% 6%
Online students are more likely to
buy books, videos and software
on the Web than other online adults.
Source: Cyber Dialogue

And despite common perception of students as impoverished, more than 50% of students using the Internet have credit cards in their own names, and one third are actively buying online.

Student online purchases exceeded more than $600 million dollars U.S. in 1999, and that number will surely increase as more students use the Web, and as enrollment in colleges and universities continues to rise.

According to Cyber Dialogue, U.S. university enrollment exceeded 15 million in the fall of 1999, and is expected to grow to 18 million or more by 2004.

The future looks bright for textbook sales.

Unless college and university bookstores take to the Internet in a big way, their own future may not be so rosy.

by Wendy Woudstra