Tired of Buying Textbooks? Rent them!

With the spring semester just underway, it’s likely that more than a few students are still reeling from the “sticker shock” attached to the textbooks they just purchased. For the uninitiated, the phrase is more description than exaggeration.

When I was a member of the Journalism and Mass Communication Department a decade ago, five of us collaborated to write a textbook. Writing Across the Media, I thought, was crisp, comprehensive and, yes, creative; it even came with an accompanying video of broadcast stories for instructors. But when I went to our bookstore and found the required text, I was appalled.

This paperback was selling for $48.65 in the spring of 2008, the last year it was used.

For that amount of money, I could have gone to Amazon and bought all three hardcover editions of Grapes of Wrath, For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Forty-eight bucks for a paperback! I found out that’s not unusual when it comes to college textbooks.

Now, there’s some relief at St. Thomas and colleges around the country: Rent-a-Book programs.

The St. Thomas Bookstore piloted a rental program four years ago and now almost 100 titles are available for students to rent. Bookstore manager Tony Erickson says 800 students are renting one or more books – and for about 45 percent of what they might pay to buy the book new.

Students who bought An Introduction to the Practice of Statistics paid $149 for the new textbook, $122 for the used version and $67 if they rented it.

“Each semester we will continue to increase the offerings to our students,” Erickson says. “With a new software program installed on our cash registers this past summer, renting textbooks to our UST students has become even easier than before.”

Senior Sam Dosch, a business major, is one of the students renting books, and he’s been doing it since he was a sophomore.

“I’ve probably saved a couple of hundred bucks,” he says. “It’s nice knowing you don’t run the risk of not being able to sell the book back if the university decides to discontinue use or to implement a new edition.”

Erickson says the publishing industry is dominated by large, multi-national corporations that need a steady stream of revenue to pay off their ever-increasing debts from their ever-increasing acquisitions and to meet the demands of their stockholders. “It’s now very common,” he says, “for textbooks to be reissued every two years with very little content change, other than the front cover, a few photographs and the page pagination.”

Students who rent textbooks agree not to write in them or highlight certain parts, and they must return the books by the last day of finals week. That’s not been a problem for Dosch, who says he keeps any notes he makes in a notebook. He says the books that he’s rented have generally been in good condition.

Dosch admits his memory “is a little hazy,” but he believes he’s bought several textbooks in the $200-$300 range and then resold them for one-quarter of that.

Erickson insisits his bookstore is not making bundles of money by selling new or used textbooks, marking them up only enough to cover his direct and indirect costs. In fact, he says, “it has been challenging, as all college bookstores have to be competitive with online sites that have little overhead and are purchasing books below our cost.”

Just for the record, my share of the royalties on that textbook we wrote that sold for 48 bucks came to a total of $1,400 – over five years.