"We think the August pop is done. It’s a different world,” said Mark Mouser, manager of general books at University Book Store in Seattle. He’s not alone. With Barnes & Noble College Booksellers, Follett Higher Education Group, and Nebraska Book Company all pushing textbook rental, not to mention online players like Chegg.com and BookRenter.com, 2010 is shaping up to be the year of the rented textbook. Add to that digital textbooks, which, according to Jade Roth, v-p of Barnes & Noble College Booksellers’ books and digital strategy, are gaining traction for the first time, and college bookstores are facing new pressure to abandon old business models that relied on sales of printed texts.
In August, according to recently released figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, total bookstore sales suffered their biggest decline of the year, down 6.5% to $2.29 billion, driven in part by eroding sales of print college texts. Even the late August release of Suzanne Collins’s Mockingjay couldn’t stem the slide. In each of the last three years, August sales have been up: 0.4% in 2009, 5.4% in 2008, and 9.3% in 2007. Although the National Association of College Stores’ monthly flash report, based on sales at 50 stores, showed flat sales at university bookstores in August, the picture was worse at some campus-related general bookstores. The new Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA), which requires colleges to make course lists with ISBNs available at registration, contributed to students looking for the cheapest books possible. Talking Leaves Books, which serves several colleges in the Buffalo area, was one of many college stores to report that students used Blackberries to scan course books, then ordered direct from Amazon at the store, a consumer tactic not unfamiliar to trade booksellers.
As a result of intense price competition, Food for Thought Books in Amherst, Mass., which serves students at UMass and other regional colleges, took what collective member Carlos McBride described as “a serious hit” this fall. The store is now in the midst of restructuring and has been meeting with people in the community to discuss fund-raising strategies. At Brown University Book Store in Providence, trade sales were flat, but sales on the textbook side were down in single digits. “The erosion continues,” said director Steve Souza. “It was the biggest percentage down in quite a bit.” The school plans to implement a rental program for the spring term. “Honestly, the industry is pushing me, not the students,” said Souza, who has had to contend with full-page ads for Amazon in the campus newspaper advertising steep online discounts. Chegg, too, has been targeting schools with grassroots campaigns that include chalking and T-shirt giveaways promoting its rental option.
Wholesalers and college bookstore operators are fighting back with book rentals of their own. The number of stores offering rentals has quintupled to 1,500 this fall. In addition to enabling bricks-and-mortar stores to offer competitive pricing, rentals build foot traffic so stores can sell higher margin items like hoodies, sweatshirts, custom T-shirts, and shot glasses, as Charles Schmidt Jr., director of public relations for NACS, pointed out. B&N College’s Roth confirms that bookstores continue to serve as campus hubs. Many students rent or purchase from their schools’ Web sites, then pick up their orders at the bookstore.
This fall B&N College is offering a rental option at 300 of its 640 campus stores and will roll it out to another 100 in January. It’s also trying to expand its digital sales and began offering free downloads of its Nook Study software to read e-textbooks on Macs and PCs this semester. However, textbook rentals are still relatively small compared to new book sales. On average, Roth estimated, 25% to 30% of titles can be rented. Some students, especially medical students, prefer to own their books. Other impediments to rental include books with perforated pages that are easily removed and books with online components that might not be available to the next user. Faculty also have to commit to using the same book for several semesters.