Making cents of textbook sales

By Alexandra Kukulka

Textbooks are a necessary expense for college students, but that doesn’t make their often astronomical price tags any more bearable. Adding to the financial woe is the often frustrating experience of selling books, usually for much less than what students originally paid.

But not many students know where that missing money ends up.

When selling books back to the bookstore at the end of the semester, the most a student can be refunded on one book is 50 percent of its purchased price if it is returned on time and in good condition, said Columbia’s Bookstore Manager Ann Marie Pausha. According to 2011 National Association of College Stores data, 77.4 percent of every dollar paid for textbooks goes back to the publisher, a nearly 20 percent increase from 2005, when the publisher received 64.7 percent per dollar

per textbook.

The textbook publisher, guided by instructor book forms, which state whether the instructor will keep the same book or change editions, dictates how much money students can get back for textbooks.

According to the 2011 data, 10.7 percent of every dollar goes toward bookstore personnel salaries,

which decreased by 9.2 percent since 2005; 7.2 percent for college store operations, which increased by 5.8 percent since 2005; 3.7 percent toward the college store income, which decreased 24.5 percent since 2005; and 1 percent for freight expenses, which decreased by 9.1 percent since 2005.

“A common misconception is that the college store makes a lot of money off of the sales of textbooks,” said Charles Schmidt, director of public relations for the NACS. “While the total revenues are high because it is their most sold product, their actual profit on textbooks is very small.”

Tim Bauhs, associate vice president of Business Affairs, said Columbia chose Follett, a textbook and school supplies distributing company, as the college’s textbook provider because of the various options the company offers for students to acquire textbooks, such as renting or purchasing them new or used.

For the bookstore to buy back a student’s book, the course instructor must submit a timely form stating whether the same edition will be used again, said Pausha.

“If I don’t get the book order in on time, and I don’t know if it is being reused again, I can’t just take a book back and give [a student] 50 percent back,” Pausha said.

To help students save money, the bookstore offers more rentals and used books than in previous years, with a high of 30–40 percent of last year’s total income generated through rented or used books, Pausha said. This is a significant increase from the 2010–2011 academic year, when rentals and used books accounted for only 10 percent of sales, she said.

While renting books is on the rise, online stores are also an option.

According to Jeff Sherwood, founder and CEO of, a text book comparison site, buying online can benefit students financially.

“ [finds] prices that are significantly cheaper than the college bookstore because we are searching online inventory,” Sherwood said. “There is just a lot more availability and the prices are a lot better.”

Selling books back online cuts out the middle man, the bookstore, Sherwood said. When the bookstore buys a book back from a student, it sells it back to the distributor. For this reason, students make less money off books in the bookstore, he added.

“[The bookstore] is unable to offer as much money as an online store that is going to resell the books themselves because [the bookstore] has to sell the book at a profit to the distributor.”

Students can also receive more money when selling their books online because, unlike the bookstore, online sites don’t have extra expenses such as rent to account for, Sherwood added.

However, when selling online, most stores do not accept badly damaged books, Sherwood said, although neither does the bookstore, he added.

Though Bauhs supports Columbia’s bookstore, he said he understands students may choose to buy their textbooks online.

“Students are free to shop wherever they want,” Bauhs said. “We believe that competition is healthy. The bookstore is one place that we believe provides a good value for a lot of reasons. It is a virtual guarantee of the right textbook.”

Jessica Rodriguez, a senior art & design major, said she purchased some of her textbooks online, but now shops at the bookstore after being sent the wrong book from one online source.

According to Rodriguez, the bookstore offers high quality products.

“[The bookstore] is easier to use because all the books are there,” Rodriguez said. “The workers also help you find the books and you are sure those are the books you need.”

In an attempt to decrease textbook costs, Columbia’s Student Government Association partnered with DePaul University during the fall 2012 semester to present legislation to Illinois government officials seeking to reduce textbook prices.

The Textbook Affordability Legislation initiative serves as a platform for students to sign letters, which were sent to Illinois representatives Jan. 24, proposing legislation to lower the cost of textbooks, said Kendall Klitzke, SGA president. The letters consist of four recommendations for decreasing the price, which include a textbook tax exemption and a textbook holiday that would require textbooks to be tax exempt for a short period of time.

“The goal is that [government officials] hear the students of Illinois out, pass some sort of legislation and address the issues of textbook affordability in the state,” Klitzke said.

If legislators do not improve textbook affordability, Klitzke said SGA will travel to Springfield, Ill. in April for Student Lobby Day, where students meet with state government officials to discuss important issues surrounding college students.

Illinois is one of 24 states that does not offer tax exemption on textbooks, Schmidt said. States that offer tax exemption include Iowa, Utah and Missouri, he said.