BU Barnes & Noble to Rent Textbooks


Students this fall will be able to rent some textbooks from Barnes & Noble at Boston University at a 55 percent discount off the new purchase price, an initiative the University hopes will mitigate skyrocketing textbook costs.

IMG_0948Students this fall will be able to rent some textbooks from Barnes & Noble at Boston University at a 55 percent discount off the new purchase price, an initiative the University hopes will mitigate skyrocketing textbook costs.

“BU expressed interest in partnering with B&N on a rental program last year, and we encouraged its development and provided financial support,” says Peter Smokowski, the University’s associate vice president for administration. “BU and B&N recognized the need to offer students required course materials in the format and price students expect, all in one on-campus location.”

“Whether students are interested in new books, used, digital, or rentals, we want them to be aware that all of these options are now available through Barnes & Noble in a convenient on-campus location or online,” says Joseph Mercurio, BU’s executive vice president.

The rental program comes as booksellers face a federal law, effective this month, requiring publishers to disclose their prices when marketing their books to professors and to offer students books unburdened with price-boosting compact discs, study guides, and other paraphernalia. The law also requires schools to give students ample time to shop for the best textbook deals by disclosing at registration the textbooks required for each class.

Smokowski (right) says approximately 900 titles will be available for rent across the University’s schools and colleges. To be eligible for rent, a book must command large-quantity orders on campus and nationwide, have newer editions, have a history of frequent use, and be nonperishable. (Items such as study guides, workbooks, and lab manuals are excluded, Smokowski notes.)

For students who want to rent, the savings will be eye-catching. Smokowski offers three examples from courses at the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences:

  • The psychology text for CAS PS101 retails new for $147. Students who buy it through the bookstore’s used-books program pay $110; it will rent for $66.
  • The calculus textbook for CAS MA123 sells new for $226. It costs $169.50 used and $101 to rent.
  • And the microeconomics text for GRS EC701 retails for $129 new and $96.75 used. Renting it will cost $58.

Factoring in the store’s existing discount programs (selling used texts and buying back new texts from students at semester’s end), and assuming students rent rather than buy all the available rental texts, students collectively could save $2.6 million in the coming academic year, according to Smokowski.

The rentals, good for the duration of the semester, permit students to mark the books, just as they would if they bought them and resold them to the store under its resale program. Rented books will be due back at the store within 10 days of the end of finals. Students can rent the books using any tender accepted by the store, including financial aid and campus debit cards, but they must also show a valid credit card for security purposes.

“Students have been very clear that they want choices in price and delivery of materials,” he says. “We’re looking at a marketplace that’s in transition,” as online booksellers and digital textbooks troll for students’ business.
Given the low costs of digital texts, B&N is exploring that arena as well, he says. The bookselling giant recently introduced NOOKstudy, a text e-reader program that can be downloaded onto a personal computer or Mac.

“The software will enable the student to truly consume a textbook—take notes, annotate sections, and work in study groups with a class and professor,” Smokowski says. “The software will also enable them to store all of their e-books in their e-library and allow them to share this information on another device,” such as a Blackberry. While the cost remains undetermined, early indications suggest e-text titles will retail for roughly 60 percent of a new text, he says.

Textbook rentals have become a national phenomenon. The Newark, N.J., Star-Ledger cites a survey by the National Association of College Stores (NACS) that found the number of textbook-renting stores exploding from fewer than 300 last year to 1,500 this coming year. In greater Boston, Northeastern is also launching textbook rentals, Smokowski says.

Barnes & Noble piloted rentals at 25 other campuses earlier this year, generating “tremendous” student reactions, says Paul Maloney, a Barnes & Noble vice president of college stores.

At the BU Barnes & Noble, 25 percent of textbook orders placed within the last two weeks have included rental requests, says the store’s general manager, Stephen Turco.

“Anything we can do to offer students options will drive traffic to the store,” he says. Being able to provide a suite of options for students, with a multichannel distribution system at a competitive price, is great. It’s what the students want.”
Booksellers are reacting to college leaders’ and students’ demands for cheaper texts, as well as competition from online sellers and digital textbooks.

“We’re not going to lie,” an NACS spokesman told the Star-Ledger. “It gets the kids into the store, so they’re not buying online.”

In a Chronicle of Higher Education commentary earlier this month, David W. Lewis, an assistant vice president at Indiana University, wrote that the typical American student pays $1,000 or more annually for books. He concluded, “It is clear to anyone who looks at the state of textbooks today that the system is broken.”

This article first appeared in BU Today on July 29, 2010. Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

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