The idea probably occurred to us as we stood in a long line at Temple’s bookstore, waiting to plunk down a huge sum of money for textbooks: There has to be a better way. Every semester, we are left with heavier backpacks and drastically lighter wallets.
Many of us end up paying about $600 for a stack of four or five textbooks. Unless the textbooks are plated in gold, no one in any other circumstance would shell out this kind of cash. What if buying textbooks didn’t cost more than rent?
Lately, hundreds of entrepreneurs have taken this daydream and turned it into a business.
What if students exchanged textbooks among themselves, screwing over the monopoly
that is the college bookstore? Lately, textbook exchanges seemed to have popped up like potholes on Broad Street, and are usually just as useful as the campus bookstore.
The first problem with the textbook exchange is that it is so easy to start one. Consider the ones that already exist: Stuzo, Chegg, BooksU, Student Market and more. In fact, during the time it took you to read this much, someone probably started another book exchange. All it takes is a domain name and a gullible computer programmer for the framework to be established. Or so it is thought.
There is another problem that plagues most textbook exchanges. A community of students can’t be built overnight. The service
does not work if there isn’t a large pool of textbooks to search through. Most people won’t join a service if they are the only ones using it, thus the Catch-22.
Around the time the service realizes this, they start scrambling for users by resorting to typical “gorilla marketing” tactics such as littering campus with flyers and drawing in sidewalk chalk on the main walkways. Desperate student businesses might just be Crayola’s best customers.These small companies are ultimately doomed because bigger, smarter companies have monopolized the used book market.
The biggest giant in the business is obviously Amazon.com. Amazon is by far one of the most experienced retailers on the Web. Books are their bread and butter.
Another veteran of the used textbook business is eBay’s sister site Half.com. With the availability of these online retail giants, why would a frustrated college student risk even more frustration by using a lowly start-up business that three ambitious college kids created from their dorm room?Students need an innovative new idea.
It seems that all students can come up with year after year is a book exchange. It’s time for something new, not just multiple copies of the same failed business model.
The solution of the textbook exchange is just a temporary fix to the ridiculous cost of textbooks. Perhaps enterprising students would be better off creating a textbook publishing company that undercuts current businesses. Then we would be getting somewhere.
Usually any kind of market competition is a good thing. It lowers prices and keeps the top guns, like the campus bookstore, in check as customers can flock to other services. But we don’t need competition in the form of book exchanges; we need different avenues of textbook publication and distribution.
Either way, the exponential growth of textbook costs cannot continue indefinitely. There needs to be some sort of solution. There has to be a better way.
Sean Blanda can be reached at