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The Daily Tar Heel

Sellers Say High Prices Necessary on Textbooks

Sticker shock.

"I think (textbooks) are too expensive," said sophomore Amy Way, who spent about $350 on books this semester. "They've always been that way, and it's something you deal with."

But John Jones, director of UNC-Chapel Hill Student Stores, said the Course Materials Department of Student Stores' pricing is in line with college bookstores across the country. Textbooks are simply an expensive item to produce. "They sell in low numbers," Jones said. "Typically there's a lot of time, expensive graphics, royalty payments and the need for publishers to make a profit."

All books are priced one of two ways at Student Stores -- either the publisher sets the retail price or sells the book to the store at a wholesale price. In either case the store makes the same profit.

Steve Thurston, manager of Ram Book and Supply on Franklin Street, said the store's mark-up varies. "We discount the book based on if it was in circulation or if we had to order them," he said, adding that the store buys a list of books from Student Stores and carries books for most undergraduate classes.

Arvind Satyam, a foreign exchange student from Sydney, Australia, said the $360 cost of his books surprised him. "It was more than at home," he said. "I bought a textbook last year at home and I've seen the same one here for two times as much."

Thurston said his store offers the lowest book prices in Chapel Hill. "UNC Student Stores' purpose is to put a book on the shelf for every student," he said. "My purpose is to be competitive and put more used books on the shelves."

Jones agreed that competition is not Student Stores' mission. "Ours is more service orientation," said Jones, who estimated that 95 percent of students buy books from Student Stores. "If you really wanted to maximize your profits, you wouldn't carry all books for all courses."

Student Stores is required by N.C. law to donate its profits to scholarships. Jones said the store only withholds what it needs for capital improvements. Jones said Student Stores usually gives between four and five cents of every dollar sold to scholarships. Jones said last year the store gave $1 million and should again this year.

Student Stores and Ram Book are in the business of both selling and buying back textbooks. Both stores buy books that will be used the next semester at 50 percent of the retail price. Ram Book also offers 10 percent store credit. Book condition does not affect the buy-back price.

Online booksellers, such as varsitybooks.com and half.com are an option for students, but most decide against it.

Satyam considered buying his books online, but shipping took too long. "Shipping was minimum two weeks, so it was worthless to me because I had work to do," he said.

But some universities do not dabble in buying and selling -- they prefer to rent.

Appalachian State University has had a book rental program since the 1930s, said Michael Coston, director of ASU's bookstore. Under the program, all full-time undergraduate students pay a $61 rental fee with their student fees that covers the cost of the main textbooks for each undergraduate course.

When students pick up their books from the university store, they whip out a pen instead of their wallets and sign a contract that states they will pay for the books if they fail to return them.

Coston said this does not include classes that are only taught once and books that are considered "consumable," like workbooks and lab notebooks.

"Students and parents say the big benefit is it saves a lot of money," Coston said. "It assures every student that they'll have the main textbook."

But the program requires that ASU keep the same textbooks for at least three years, a factor Coston said the faculty does not like.

But the UNC Association of Student Governments is looking into book rental for some schools in the UNC system, said ASG President Andrew Payne. "Rentals save students hundreds of dollars each semester and most people would agree book prices have skyrocketed," he said. "As tuition and fees increase, we are looking to save students money on books."

Greg Hall, UNC-Charlotte student body president, is pushing his campus to adopt a similar program. "We found out publishing companies are ripping students off and making most of the profits," he said. "It's unfair, and it's one of the last legal gouging systems left in America."

Jones said no one at UNC-CH is considering book rental as of now, partly because of the limitations it puts on classes. "It kind of comes up every few years," he said. "By the time you're in higher level courses it doesn't work because the faculty can't use the same book every semester."

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The University Editor can be reached at udesk@unc.edu.

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