Viewpoint: The real story of textbook prices

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    By JENNIFER BERRY

    In a recent Daily Universe article, a BYU student and Vaultbook’s co-founder is quoted as saying, “The bookstore monopoly keeps textbook prices excessively high and only allows for a limited number of books to be bought back.”

    These myths are unfortunately rampant on campus. I will not attempt to convince students to be happy about textbook prices, but to put the responsibility for those prices were they belong.

    I write from the perspective of both an insider and an outsider. An insider because I happen to work in the text department. An outsider because I take classes and have to buy textbooks too.

    The first part of this three-part statement claims that the bookstore is a monopoly. The word monopoly invokes feelings of being economically abused, that the monopolizer uses the monopoly for nothing but its own benefit. Even though BYU students have always had other options for textbooks, the primary reason we are not a monopoly is because we are unit of the whole whose function is to work in conjunction with the entire university.

    Unlike true monopolies, we do not abuse our position for economic advantage. Instead of having as high a mark-up rate as possible, as a monopoly would, we have the lowest of any major university. Our role is more equivalent to that of the faculty than a profit-centered business entity.

    No one accuses the faculty of having a monopoly on teaching BYU classes because that is the very reason for their existence — to teach classes. In the same way, the bookstore exists to provide students with the texts they need for those classes.

    We are like an arm or a leg attached to the BYU being. The administration is a limb; the faculty, the students, the football team-we are all part of a whole. Our purpose is not to take advantage of those with whom we are so closely attached, but to serve them.

    In addition, a monopoly hurts people. The bookstore is run by bishops, stake officers, etc., all of whom can pass a temple recommend interview. A monopoly would never put them on payroll.

    The second issue concerns textbook prices.

    The single largest contributing factor to textbook pricing is the publisher. Books are requested by the faculty, not the bookstore. Therefore, the prices associated with those books are not up to the bookstore. The decision of price is made by the publisher, whose sole purpose is to make money for their shareholders, not to be nice to BYU students.

    One of the largest text conglomerates, Pearson Education, profited over $400 million last year on gross sales of $1.3 billion. Pearson’s CEO begins their annual report by saying, “The overriding aim of your board and management is to deliver better and more consistent results for Pearson.” The last claim concerns buyback.

    Like most students, I have had the disappointing experience of getting back a dollar or two for a text that cost $50. However, these dismal returns only occur when editions change and the book is bought by a wholesaler instead of the bookstore, or the faculty decides not to use the book again. The publishers keep the used book market down by changing editions as often as possible. The bookstore has zero input in this process, nor do we benefit from it.

    The two benefactors of a short text life cycle are the publisher and the author. We love to buy back books. We would buy all of them if we knew they would be used again. Our position allows us to serve students better during buyback than online competitors.

    For instance, Vaultbooks includes on its buyback list American Heritage 100. The fact is, the reading’s text is going to a new edition this winter. While it is unfortunate it will not be on the bookstore’s buyback list, it is more unfortunate that some students might buy the book from Vault thinking it is the correct book for next semester. They will soon discover that the book they bought is missing readings new to the winter edition. Is this better?

    At the bookstore, because we are BYU employees and not entrepreneurs, we are free from the normal business concerns of money. Our paycheck is not dependent on how much we can make off the students. Hence, our primary concern is shifted to serving students, faculty, and administrators. This provides us the opportunity to go the extra mile when economically it might not be prudent to do so.

    This is not to say we are frivolous with our time. Our time and the decisions we make are still a stewardship by virtue of who we work for — a stewardship much different from the normal business environment. My ultimate boss is the chairman of the board of trustees at BYU, who happens to be the prophet.

    My colleagues and I take our responsibilities very seriously because we are entrusted with sacred money. No one should be deluded into thinking Amazon.com, Varistybooks.com, publishers, and others in the text industry care one iota about BYU students. Their duties are to their shareholders. Our duty has been, and always will be, to BYU.

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