As spring quarter approaches, students will once again take part in the ritual of searching for the lowest possible textbook prices. What they might not realize, however, is that the UC Davis Bookstore ranks among the best in the nation in affordability.
The UC Davis Bookstore sells the most used books of any quarter-system school bookstore in North America, said Chuck Kratochvil, director of the bookstore. Last year, the bookstore sold more used textbooks than new ones, which is “pretty amazing,” Kratochvil said.
The bookstore also sets its gross profit margin at 22 percent compared to 25 percent nationwide, resulting in lower prices for students, Kratochvil said.
“Affordability of books at large is important to us, whether they’re from us or our competitors,” Kratochvil said.
The bookstore’s price matching program has also been successful, Kratochvil said. Even though the program does not compensate for sales tax, the cost of shipping helps make up for the difference, he said.
Even with the explosion of online options to purchase new and used books, the bookstore has seen rising sales up until this year. Still, this year’s decline in sales – 2 percent for used textbooks and 1 percent for new textbooks – is probably due to the economy, not online competition, Kratochvil said.
The enormous success of the bookstore’s buyback program has also saved students cash. If a textbook is adopted the following quarter, the bookstore will buy it back at 50 percent of the new price. Since used books are priced at 75 percent of the new book price, students can significantly diminish their quarterly textbook costs, Kratochvil said.
But the success of buyback is a double-edged sword: publishers claim that they have to mark up the prices of new books to account for the fact that they do not receive any royalties in the used book markets, Kratochvil said.
Textbooks that are not adopted for the following quarter might still be able to be sold at a lower price to wholesalers. Or, a student can hold on to a textbook until the class is offered again, when the bookstore will pay the full 50 percent rate.
While some advocates of lower textbook prices have called for the implementation of more digital books and rental programs, buyback programs are more cost-effective, said Jason Lorgan, associate director of the bookstore.
“Digital products are not as expensive up front, but you can’t sell them back,” Lorgan said. The bookstore only sold about 20 e-books last year, he said.
Contrary to popular student belief that “the university” is the beneficiary of the bookstore’s operations, the UC Davis Bookstore’s profits help fund repair and upgrades of the Memorial Union as per an agreement with ASUCD.
Last August, the California State Auditor released a report on the affordability of textbooks, finding that UC and CSU bookstores need to increase the transparency of how they price books and where their profits go. The report also found that professors often submit their textbook selections after the adoption deadline, giving students less time to find used editions of books.
UC has been collecting information from campus bookstores over the past several months in preparation for its 180-day response to the audit. As the deadline for the campuses was Friday, UC’s audit will be forthcoming, said UC spokesperson Ricardo Vazquez.
“UC agreed with the recommendations that were issued in the report and believe they were helpful,” Vazquez said.
However, one issue the report failed to address was the role of financial aid, Vazquez said. UC’s aid package includes an annual allowance for books and supplies, which amounted to $898 in the 2008-2009 school year, he said.
At UC Davis, students spend an average of between $300 and $350 per quarter on textbooks, Kratocvhil said.
Such an amount is too high, said Levi Menovske, CalPIRG Textbooks Campaign Coordinator and a sophomore political science major at UC Davis.
“I feel like textbook affordability is a pressing problem for students. It’s not getting better, despite efforts of different groups,” Menovske said. “Publishers push prices to whatever they want them to be.“
CalPIRG’s focus has been campaigning for so-called “Open Textbooks“, or copyright-free, customizable textbooks that circumvent the publishing companies. Though 83 UC Davis professors have signed a CalPIRG pledge to support open textbooks, the campaign has yet to have widespread success.
PATRICK McCARTNEY can be reached at email@example.com.