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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

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Used book buyback policy raises questions

Every semester, Grinnell College students swipe their p-cards and open their wallets at the campus bookstore to spend hundreds of dollars on a semester’s worth of textbooks, both used and new. In the coming weeks, students will be faced with the option of exchanging their dusty piles of books for cold, hard cash.

Grinnell College usually has the Nebraska Book Company buy books from students at the end of each semester, paying the student typically 25 percent of the original price. The Nebraska Book Company then sells these books back to the bookstore for 50 percent of the original price, and the bookstore then sells it used typically for 75 percent of the original price.

This semester, Grinnell College spent $118,000 for the used books that it sold to students, and made a profit of roughly $13,000 off of those used books, according to bookstore manager Cassie Wherry.
Occasionally, when the bookstore knows that they need a certain book for a future class, it has a representative buy those books back from students, according to assistant bookstore manager Harley McIlrath. “In that case, the student is paid for his or her book the amount that we would have paid the wholesaler for the book,” McIlrath wrote in an e-mail to the S&B.

Students also find alternatives to buying new and used books, such as buying them online, or utilizing the Lending Library or Interlibrary Loan process.

Brita Higgins ’11 uses the Lending Library to lessen the full cost of textbooks. “I really like the Lending Library because if it weren’t for them, it would probably [cost] $300 a semester. It really saves my butt,” Higgins said.

Cammy Roberts ’10, who buys her textbooks online, uses the Nebraska Book Company at the end of the semester.

“I think why people go sell it to the third party is because they’ll buy books that certain people won’t need, because there are certain classes that don’t reuse books,” Roberts said. “So if there’s a separate corporation that’s like ‘Yeah, I’ll take your books,’ it’s nice to get $5 back.”

However, not every school has an unaffiliated buyer come in to purchase books at the end of the semester. Macalester College’s bookstore actually buys the books back directly from students for 50 percent of the original price, whether used or new.

“The methodology is that if [Macalester] needs it, we pay 50 percent of the new or used price, and then theoretically we turn around and sell it for 75 percent of the new price,” said Macalester bookstore manager Carey Starr.

Some students would agree that Grinnell’s bookstore should follow a similar system to that of Macalester’s bookstore. “I want to support Grinnell and cut the third man out entirely. The more money I can funnel into this system, the more money I can get out of it,” said Greg Rossi ’10, who also said that he usually cannot sell his books back at the end of the semester because “they’re pretty obscure books.”

According to McIlrath, the bookstore cannot buy back used books because there is no certainty that the books have the potential for resale.

“The reason that we do not buy our own books back because we don’t have any guarantee that we’ll ever use those books again,” McIlrath said. McIlrath also cited that constant new editions to books make it difficult to keep books, even used ones, for a long period of time.

Whenever used books are sold, the author and publishing company make no money. Thus, the publisher is only free from the competition of the used book market during the first semester that an edition is out. After that, the used book market begins to absorb profits, which attributes to the high price of textbooks. If the publisher profits only during the first time the book is sold, they must price the book higher since the profits from subsequent sales will never come back to them.

Henry Roediger, a psychologist and textbook author, wrote an article in the Jan. 2005 issue of Academic Observer entitled “Why Are Textbooks So Expensive?” in which he wrote that used book sellers are, “true parasites, deriving profits with no investment (and no value added to the product) while damaging their hosts.”

Students are the ones to pay the brunt of the cost, as they run into high prices when buying, and low prices when selling.

“When used books still cost a lot, that’s frustrating,” Higgins said. “If we’re only to get 25 percent of the original cost, it would be nice if they didn’t sell it for such a high profit.”

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