Most institutions of higher learning offer courses in creative writing—but if you want to hear poetry of the purest sort, find a student who’s been offered stock options by a dotcom business to sell its goods on campus: “I bought all of my books from VarsityBooks.com this year,” sings Hunter College campus rep Nicole Hobot. “I didn’t have to wait in any lines, and I saved money!”
Hobot’s unbridled enthusiasm aside, it was only a matter of time before the e-commerce tide rolled into the lucrative realm of textbook sales. Competing with corporate stores, both physical and virtual, has been an uphill battle for independents for years. But while privately owned general bookstores have been struggling to keep their territory, those that cater to the academy have relinquished their status with barely a murmur.
This is due, in part, to their dependency on the universities that support them. Increasingly, universities are earning extra money by leasing space to corporate chains such as the Follett Education Group, which has stores on 600 campuses. Academics and independent store owners are fearful that this trend forecasts the disappearance of a place that once concentrated on promoting an intellectual atmosphere, not just making an easy buck. But in today’s hooked-up world, any “e-tailer” can plunk down in cyberspace and begin selling wares, and textbooks have recently become a hot item. In response to the latest threat to its bricks-and- mortar members, the National Association of College Stores (NACS) filed a lawsuit against VarsityBooks.com, a leading online textbook retailer, claiming that VarsityBooks advertises textbooks at a 40 percent discount when it really offers only a small percentage of books at 40 percent below what it calls the “suggested price.” Cynthia D’Angelo, a spokesperson for NACS, argues that this promo is misleading and dupes student customers. A spokesperson for VarsityBooks says that the suit has absolutely no merit, and the company has filed a motion to dismiss it.
As cyber pioneers enter the tricky realm of academic politics, plucky sites have come up with a variety of creative ways to attain book lists for courses. For most online stores, the best way to infiltrate a college campus is through the students. BigWords.com, a popular online seller, enlists student assistance directly from its pages: “And if your professor hasn’t signed up with the Professor BOOKLIST program, tell them to do it now!”
And then there is the human touch. VarsityBooks employs campus representatives (enticing them with stock options) who try to sell the e-commerce option to profs and kids, with greater subtlety than the site can manage. Hunter representative Hobot attended a VarsityBooks marketing conference in San Diego at company expense. She was urged to pay close attention to school rules concerning advertising on campus. Hobot says that CUNY is fairly lax compared to other places; all she has to do is get her posters stamped by the student government. At the conference, she was also coached on how best to sell her product. Although the 19-year-old education major e-mails and speaks with as many professors as she can, she’s careful not to be a nuisance. “Professors have a big impact,” she explains. “A lot of professors are cool enough to say, ‘OK, I’ll check it out.’ But some, you know, are stuck in their old ways.”
Apparently, many professors at Hunter prefer Shakespeare & Co. to the overpriced Hunter College Bookstore, a Barnes & Noble-owned business. With horror, Hobot recalls having to wait in a Shakespeare & Co. line for an hour “just to get into the store!” For Hobot, no mere physical bookstore can beat the sheer convenience of VarsityBooks.
With no official link to professors, virtual textbook-selling businesses also pursue syllabi from public schools with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA was implemented in 1966 to enforce the release of federal agency records to the public). The majority of all FOIA requests are submitted by corporations, and physical textbook stores have been using this strategy for years. The National Association of College Stores provides a state-by-state list of Freedom of Information laws, known as “sunshine laws,” on its Web site.
Yet taking this route doesn’t always work. Matt Johnson, CEO of BigWords.com, complains that book lists found this way are often incomplete or out of date. He touts a program marketed by BigWords called “b-code,” with which a professor can update a course list and give information such as examination dates directly on BigWords’s site. The professor uses a four-digit code to access his or her specific information, then gives the codes to the students. The students use the code to pull up the professor’s page, which displays all the books the student needs for that particular course.
Programs such as this show how eager Internet businesses are to compete for the collegiate consumer market. Yet online transactions still have several kinks to work out. Shipping and handling charges often negate the money that is ostensibly saved by discounts. Sales tax is usually added as well. But in New York State, if a student walks into a bookstore and shows the salesperson a syllabus, he or she is exempt from paying tax. After considering these factors, most college-store owners agree that they still have an edge while battling Net stores for sales.
Even without fancy codes or the irrepressible Hobot, good indies die hard. The NYU Book Center, one of the few remaining independents, seems to have secured a hold on its particular market. Long before NACS’s lawsuit, NYU quietly began to outsmart the competition with its own Web site in 1997. Unlike BigWords, which has to push to connect with professors, the NYU site gets its information directly from the school’s registrar.
Professors provide the Book Center with a syllabus, and all that remains for the student to do is log on and tell the site who they are. A list of all the books they’ll need that semester will appears. The store also e-mails students to tell them when required out-of-stock books have arrived. Assistant director Phil Christopher rhapsodizes over the system’s efficiency. “The beauty of using the Internet for college campuses is that students and faculty can get us information quickly and find it quickly.”
Still, the lure of a deal is hard to beat—this is what drives shoppers online in the first place. Cliff Simms, owner of Labyrinth Books, an independent serving the Columbia University community, admits that textbook prices are inordinately high, but adds that publishers establish the price. And he’s quick to point out that this isn’t the only unfair financial drain on student wallets. “Tuition prices at universities are also too high.”