The local community college in my area recently announced that it was planning on making some textbooks available for rental and as electronic books, in a move that is expected to save students up to $400 a semester. This is particularly welcome given the composition of community colleges' student body, with a large fraction of working adults who can't count on their parents to foot the bill and might have a family to support.
College publishers are notoriously reluctant to do anything that could reduce their considerable margins, so I don't have any great hopes regarding the future of the electronic textbook, although e-books could easily replace course packets (a collection of documents that copy services has traditionally printed for students at a fee after handling all the copyright issues.)
The idea of renting textbooks is intriguing, though. It is far from being new - it was already mentioned in 2003 in a New York Times article about publishers' practice of charging less for textbooks they sell abroad (foreign students are less willing to pay eye-popping amounts of money for their textbooks; publishers have adjusted to this situation by producing a soft-cover edition for the international market and a hardcover one for the US, although it is fair to say that any US student would be delighted to buy a soft-cover, cheaper book with the exact same information in it). The current economic crisis has lent a new urgency to cost-saving measures, and brought textbook rental back into the limelight.
The best overview article I have found on the practice is "New Options for Cheaper Textbooks" by Stephanie Kang, in the Wall Street Journal edition dated August 24, 2004. While it portrays publishers' efforts to make textbooks more affordable in a surprisingly favorable light (I have never heard or witnessed anything suggesting publishers were "aggressively pushing online versions of texts or
no-frills soft-cover versions"; on the other hand, it seems that the article was written at a time when publishers worried about legal intervention from Congress), it also mentions well-known practices such as "issuing new editions with a few
changes that make less expensive, older editions obsolete," which means that students cannot buy their book on the used market where the publisher does not get any royalties. This allows the publisher to keep sales strong on the primary market.
As an example, one of my favorite textbooks, Options, Futures and Other Derivatives, by John Hull, is in its 7th edition, which was published in May 2008 at a sticker price of $200 ($145 on Amazon). But, according to Amazon.com, the 6th edition was published in June 2005, the 5th in July 2002, and the 4th in January 2000. While the various editions do contain some (limited amount of) new material - publishers have to justify their actions - it is hard to believe the developments are so critical that they cannot wait two or three more years, dividing the number of editions by two. (Better yet: the publisher could put the new chapters on a password-protected site that students who bought the textbook would access for free.) But of course that would not be in publishers' interests.
It is not clear whether textbook rental will turn into a credible threat to publishers' bottom line, but it certainly seems on track to save students money. The WSJ article states: "According to the California Public Interest Group,
students will spend as much as $240 a year renting textbooks, compared with
the nearly $900 on average spent purchasing books." That one-to-three ratio is in line with the numbers my local community college came up with.
From the perspective of a revenue manager, the practice is interesting because it allows for the segmentation of the used-textbook market between students who want a cheap book they plan on keeping, and students who only care about having the book while they take the course. These groups' different willingness to pay translates into different prices. Sadly, segmentation usually translates into a price increase for one of the groups, unless the bookstore manager has suddenly become willing to decrease his revenue. (More on that at the end of the post, with the example of the psychology textbook.)
Adding one layer of complexity to the problem, campus bookstores also give students the option to purchase their rented textbook - and get a refund for their rental fee - if they make up their mind early enough in the semester (see for instance this Eastern Illinois University website). Other universities, such as the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, have incorporated the rental fee in their tuition. An obstacle to a widespread implementation of the program is that instructors must commit to using the same textbook several semesters in a row ("Teachers must use a text
for as many as three years before asking for a new one," from the WSJ).
In addition, it turns campus bookstores into inventory management centers of a scale they were not planned for ("Schools may spend
anywhere between $90,000 and $1 million a year on new purchases in rental
programs, while up to a third of their inventory may lay unused each
semester. Storing the books and making sure they are in good enough shape
for the next semester add to administrative costs.")
My local newspaper gives the example of a psychology textbook, which costs $133 new, $75 used and $40 rented. Assuming that the number of students who do not want to buy a textbook new remains constant over the years, the old price of the used textbook would have to be 40+35*r, where r is the ratio of people now buying used (not renting) over total number of people now in the secondary market (buying used or renting), to bring in the same amount of money as before. This number is between the two extremes of $40 and $75. Said differently, the old price of buying a used textbook, before the rental option was implemented, will be lower than its new price of $75.
The economic crisis might invalidate the assumption above that the number of students who do not want to buy a textbook new remains constant - instead, that number might increase. But that also would take sales away from the new-book market, further decreasing the bookstore's revenue. As an example, it is not too difficult to check that, if n is the total number of people now in the secondary market (renting books or buying them used), and n' is the number of people who used to be in the secondary market (buying their textbooks used before the rental option became available), (93n-58n')/35 people would need to buy their textbooks used to keep the sales at their previous level, if the used-textbook price does not change (that is, if $75 was the old price too). With an increase in interest to buy used or rent of 20% because of the crisis (from 100 to 120), you'd need to get 153 people to now buy used in order to bring in the same amount of money as before, but that's bigger than the whole secondary market of 120 people. A 10% increase yields an increase bigger than the whole secondary market too.
In other words, either the college bookstore voluntarily decreases its sales by decreasing the
price for students who want to pay less (by opting to rent their textbook), or it finances that cheaper option
by charging the students who buy their used textbook more.
But... these numbers were obtained assuming the total enrollment in the course
does not change from a year to the next. Community colleges have seen enrollment increase. There are many possible explanations for that trend, including the fact that parents prefer to send their offspring to a community college for a year or two to take care of the required courses at a bargain-basement price, before transferring to a four-college university for their junior or senior year; another possibility is that more high school or college students take a course or two at their local community college to get rid of, say, the introductory calculus course or the social science course required from all engineering students (not something they find critical to their studies, although it's good for them.)
So - and this is pure speculation, because I haven't seen any numbers - the segment of the community college's student body with the highest willingness to pay might be increasing. Since those students typically enroll at the community college near their parents' home, they pay the same tuition as the working mother of four trying to get her Associate's Degree, but they are somewhat less sensitive to price. Increasing the cost of their course materials by a small amount would subsidize the expenses of the hard-working parent trying to get herself a better future and make the rental option viable.
On the other hand, if the better-off students enroll in a community college as a short-term measure to fulfill requirements they don't really care about, they might end up renting their books, while the cash-strapped students who do need to keep the books as reference for the rest of their studies (and therefore will buy them used) will see their bill increase. This would be the worst possible outcome - making students who can afford to pay more pay less, and making students who really need to pay less pay more.
It'll be interesting to see how this all plays out.