Yalies compete to bring cheap textbooks

Faced with the Yale Bookstore prices, two different student-run organizations help make textbooks affordable for Yalies.
Faced with the Yale Bookstore prices, two different student-run organizations help make textbooks affordable for Yalies. Photo by Robert Peck.

Two groups of Yalies are trying to save students money on textbook purchases in two very different ways.

Founded last spring by Greg Hausheer ’13 and Chris Murphy ’13, two members of the lightweight crew team, Booksaver.com allows students to order through the site to receive the cheapest prices on Amazon and rental sites such as Chegg and CampusBookRental. The for-profit company has expanded to 438 schools and allows classes to be ranked by total textbook price. Another program that kicked off last year but only hit its stride this semester is the non-profit YHHAP-YCC Book Exchange, which collects donated books during finals period and then resells them cheaply next shopping period. Despite their similarities, both organizations’ founders say that they are not competitors and are both simply trying to help lower textbook prices for Yalies.

“As students ourselves, we know what it’s like to pay high costs for these books at the bookstore each semester, and we really wanted … to give [students] the most options when buying their course materials,” Hausheer said.

The two Booksaver entrepreneurs said they were inspired to create the website after both taking a course last spring that mandated a $240 textbook, and that they wanted to make textbooks more affordable for all Yale students. The two founders said they spent this summer in New Haven working on the venture and are now taking the year off to expand the company.

Booksaver was not the first organization to make cheaper textbooks their mission. Charlie Jaeger ’12 co-founded the Book Exchange last year with his roommate Ray Xi ’12, as a way to save students money and also raise money for charity. Jaeger said that the program is supported by over 100 volunteers and has raised over $10,000 this semester through book sales. He added that all proceeds from the organization go to charity. YCC President Brandon Levin ’13 said that the Book Exchange also received $1,137.07 in startup funding from the YCC.

“I saw that there was a lot of inefficiency in the market,” he said. “What a typical econ major quote that is.”

Although Booksaver is younger than the Book Exchange, its founders said they hope it will succeed by virtue of its simplicity and sociability. For example, Booksaver allows students to catalog required textbooks by author and course, whereas the Book Exchange only does the former, Hausheer said. Booksaver takes most textbook lists from OCI and is able to rank courses by total cost, Murphy said. He added that Booksaver earns a small flat rate commission on each sale that it refers to Amazon.com for purchase.

Murphy said that Booksaver also allows users to merge Facebook and their course selections, which shows which classes their friends are taking, helping them choose their own courses. Although connecting to a Facebook account is unnecessary to use Booksaver, 25 Yale students have linked their accounts to the site.

Despite their nearly identical mission, the two organizations do not consider each other as rivals.

“It’s very hard for anyone to compete with our low prices because basically everyone who works for us is a volunteer and we’re not for profit,” Jaeger, the co-founder and co-director of the Book Exchange said.

The Book Exchange usually resells books for 50 percent of their Yale Bookstore price, Jaeger said, and sells course packets for a flat rate of $5. Jaeger said he thought Booksaver was a good option for students who didn’t have time to sort through all of the online possibilities themselves and whose books were not in stock at the Book Exchange.

Hausheer agreed that the two were not in competition, adding that his company would be seeking partnerships with student organizations to help refer students to the site.

Although the two organizations have diverged in business models, the Book Exchange and Booksaver both started as non-profits last semester with links to the Yale College Council, which helped them advertise by sending emails and providing exposure on the YCC website. But Booksavr — the company’s original name — has since added an “e” to its name and changed to a for-profit business model, making it ineligible to be affiliated with the YCC, Levin said, adding that the Book Exchange is still a YCC project. Levin said that although he still allows Booksaver to be advertised through the YCC emails, the company will have to pay around $300 ­— the same price that YCC charges any outside company.

Levin said that he was approached by Hausheer and Murphy for a partnership this semester, in which they offered a share of the commissions on book purchases by Yale students in exchange for YCC promotion. Levin said that he declined the offer because he did not think the profits made from the partnership were appropriate for the YCC. Despite YCC’s rejection of its business proposition, Booksaver won a YEI Fellowship last semester and has also raised $100,000 from an angel investor, Hausheer said.

Despite declining a partnership, Levin was positive about Booksaver.

“It seems like a great product. My job as YCC President is to try to make available to students as many ways to get cheap textbooks at possible,” Levin said.

Both organizations’ founders said they recognize that textbook prices at the bookstore are too high.

“I refuse to buy textbooks at the Yale Bookstore,” Jaeger said.

The most expensive course this semester is “Environmental History of the Middle East,” which requires nine books. According to Booksaver, buying all of the books at the bookstore would cost $479.40, while buying them used through Booksaver would cost $308.65, saving sbout $170. Although Booksaver lists all of the nine books, only one of the required textbooks was listed in the Book Exchange inventory on Wednesday.

The average Yale class has a total textbook cost of less than $80 if purchased used, according to Booksaver.com.

Comments

  • ProfVL

    I applaud this effort to make textbooks more affordable. Entrepreneurial efforts such as this paired with students who are informed consumers can make a real impact in lowering the unsustainable high cost of college textbooks.

    Having said that, the cost of textbooks is largely driven by the traditional push marketing employed by all major textbook publishers. The massive cost of maintaining armies of sales reps in the field to market books one-on-one through constant contact with prospective adopters makes an inexpensive book impractical and unprofitable. I know whereof I speak as I have two new business law and legal environment of business textbooks that were previously marketed through two of the largest publishers now available in completely revised and expanded versions that sell from $10-40 in eBook and eBook+soft-cover versions from Textbook Media Publishing (textbookmedia.com). But these are not selling anywhere near as well as their costlier predecessors which were adopted in at least 37 states in their original versions. The reason? No one is pushing these on faculty as their selling price does not allow my small publisher to compete effectively with traditional publishers.

    Authors like me who are willing to accept very small royalties to make books truly affordable are swimming against the current as traditional publishers successfully push their 1000% costlier titles on a market struggling to afford them.

    As an experiment, I opted to self publish my latest intellectual property book this summer. It is about 250 pages and is available for under $12 currently at Barnes and Noble and Amazon in soft cover and half that in eBook versions. If I can make a modest but to me very acceptable royalty by selling a $12 general reference book and a tiny but very satisfying royalty on $10 electronic textbooks, how on Earth do we justify a $200 textbook?

    Book stores, publishers and certainly authors make a relatively modest profit on that $200 textbook, believe it or not. (You can find my blogs and a link to my scholarly article on the issue at http://www.victordlopez.com.) Marketing costs and the hyperbolic use of ancillaries that few faculty members or students need or use is largely responsible for the unconscionable cost that students who can ill afford it are made to bear. And because foreign students simply won’t pay those ridiculous prices, U.S. students also subsidize those foreign sales of lower cost textbooks every time they buy a textbook.

    There is a better way, but those of us who are working to force a shift in the traditional textbook publishing paradigm will remain feeble voices crying in the wilderness unless and until college faculty and college students who hear us join our chorus and allow us to finally be heard.