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Ending the Tyranny of Expensive Textbooks

BookSwim gives students a Netflix-style alternative to buying exorbitant textbooks A few weeks ago I put in book orders for my Spring semester classes at Oberlin College. Before I did so, I checked to see how much they cost. This is a new habit of mine, ever since I published a paperback textbook for..


BookSwim gives students a Netflix-style alternative to buying exorbitant textbooks

A few weeks ago I put in book orders for my Spring semester classes at Oberlin College. Before I did so, I checked to see how much they cost. This is a new habit of mine, ever since I published a paperback textbook for Composition courses. When my book was first published, it cost $40. That seemed high, but fairly average for textbook prices. But when I checked its Amazon sales rank a few months ago (662,300!), I saw the price has risen to $70. There is a bit of voodoo economics in increasing the cost of a book as it gets older.Most realize that college tuitions have been skyrocketing for awhile, and are only getting higher. Textbook prices have kept pace with tuition. A paperback required by a professor for a History or Anthropology text might run you $70. Hardback textbooks for Economics and Biology retail for $100-$200 and sometimes more. Students are captive consumers: the books are required for entry into the course.Savvy co-eds have long had ways around shelling out for textbooks they cannot afford. Professors usually put one or two copies in the Reserve Room of their college libraries, and students can check them out for a few hours or days. Oberlin College is part of a larger consortium of Ohio libraries, so students here can check out textbooks from nearby schools and keep them for a few weeks, provided the books are available.Now there is a new option for reducing the cost of completing required readings. BookSwim, a Netflix-style book rental program, has added a textbook program through a partnership with BookRenter.com. Books are rented for a full semester (125 days) and the return process, a la Netflix, is simple.This seems like a brilliant, "why didn't anyone think of this earlier?" idea. To see if it would work for the students at Oberlin, I asked a few colleagues what they ordered for spring semester. An Art History professor ordered the oft-assigned Janson's History of Western Art, 7th Edition. The bookstore charges $144. Bookswim charges $61.06, plus shipping, for 125 days. The Mathematics Department requires Stewart's Calculus. The bookstore charges $207.95; BookSwim charges $61.15, plus shipping, for 125 days. Both were available as of January 28, which is impressive, since semesters have been underway at most schools for over a week.Students would not be able to write in their books, a potential downside (library borrowing comes with this same drawback, of course). Every professor I polled said they are fine with students renting books, though.Businesses like these do not address the root problem of high textbook prices-a complicated, thorny issue I will tackle in another column. The cost of BookSwim's rentals seems high, but these books are expensive to replace, of course. Used bookstores and online booksellers may be cheaper (for comparison, see the used Janson's History of Art copies available at abebooks.com. Also, students often sell their textbooks to the next year's crop through fliers and online classifieds, another way to be able to take notes in the margins, and keep the book for years to come, helpful when you want to reminisce about the good ol' all-nighters. Also, if your professor is like me, and orders books that are not commonly assigned, the books may not available in BookSwim (mine are not, but they retail for about $20 each).Despite these drawbacks, I give the program a tentative two thumbs up. I am not the market audience for this service, though. Students and recent grads are-what do you think?
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