Bookstores only make small profit from textbook sales

Brittany Westerberg

Brittany Westerberg

Every year, the average student spends about $900 on textbooks, according to a 2005 report by the Government Accountability Office. That means each semester, students will just have to grin and hand over a $400 or more check to the cashiers at the bookstore.

“Last semester I spent like $800, and the semester before that I spent $1,000,” junior nursing major Amie Kangis said.

“I bought all my books at the bookstore,” freshman theater and journalism student Kelsey Wehde said, “and I spent $450.”

“I spent about $600 this semester,” junior Scott Swanson said. “That’s because I’m an athletic training major, and you have to buy a lot of textbooks for that.”

Because of the high cost of new textbooks at the bookstore, many students are turning to online purchasing in order to keep the costs down.

“The first semester here I spent over $800,” Marggie Delacruz, a junior nursing major, said. “This semester I bought them online, and I only spent $100. It was way cheaper, and just as easy as buying them at the bookstore.”

According to the GAO’s report, textbook prices are rising twice as fast as the annual rate of inflation, which means that total textbook amounts are rising, and so more students are looking for ways to find and buy cheaper books. Web sites like Amazon,, eBay and others help students find cheaper textbooks. Shopping around can help students spend half as much as they would at the bookstore, if not less.

Of course, students do have to do a bit of shopping around to find the best price on textbooks, which can take a while if he or she goes to all the different stores out there. Even then, many students will find that only about half the books listed out there are cheaper outside of the bookstore. There are also issues concerning finding the correct edition of the book you need, getting the book in time for the class, shipping charges and whether or not you’ll be able to return the book.

“I have bought them online,” Kangis said, “but ? it’s just more convenient here.”

“I bought books from a few different sources that I could get them cheaper at,” freshman communications and theater major Erin Wegleitner said. “I bought the ones I couldn’t [find cheaper] at the bookstore.”

Senior global studies and Spanish major Ellie Harvey said that she would consider buying them online. “It would depend on what the return policy would be, and if I was absolutely positive it was the right version,” she said.

Some students think that the bookstore is “gouging” them and making a huge profit, which is why they look elsewhere. According to the National Association of College Stores and the Association of American Publishers, that isn’t true. About two-thirds of the cost of the book goes back to the publisher, mostly to cover development of the book and normal business expenses. The author of the book gets a little over 11 percent in royalties, and the company that ships the book gets around one percent, leaving only about 21 percent for the bookstore. Most of that has to go toward paying the staff’s wages and benefits, insurance, taxes, electricity, heat, water, air conditioning, checkout systems, shelving, office equipment, security, cleaning, repairs, supplies and other expenses. When all is said and done, on average, just about four percent (before taxes) of every dollar spent at the bookstore is considered revenue and represents profit to the store.

“Our margins are under 21 percent,” Derek Peterson, the director of SDSU’s bookstore, said. “We try to run everything at 20 [percent], so we’re operating at under the national average.”

When students complain about the price of textbooks, Peterson said they should realize that the store has control over less than a fifth of the price of a book. He also said he doesn’t know if a lot of students understand that, unlike some university bookstores, SDSU’s bookstore is actually owned and operated by the university, so any of the excess revenues go back to the university.

“We helped fund The Union remodel,” Peterson said. “We’re a funding agent for the wellness addition. We’re funding some of the Title IX scholarships and some additional coaches’ costs.”

A lot of that funding isn’t just coming from textbooks, but mostly from revenue from the clothing and gift sales. Peterson said that there’s a concept of “Why should I buy my sweatshirt here versus buying my sweatshirt at Walmart?” He said that when you buy your sweatshirt or other clothing items here, you’re impacting the university. The money goes on to help fund other projects on campus.

Another thing that students don’t always realize, according to Peterson, is that the bookstore has no say in which books they sell. “We don’t even get to pick where we get it,” he said. “The faculty member who’s teaching the course picks the product. That product is generally tied to one publisher, and we have to go get it from that one publisher.”

Peterson said he doesn’t mind if the students buy the books from somewhere else. “I don’t have issues with kids who are looking to save money,” he said. “I’ll be the first one to say, if somebody wants to find a book and save some money, that’s great.”

One of the benefits of shopping at the bookstore, though, is that the students knows he or she is getting the right book and the right edition of that book. There’s also usually no cost to return the book if you return within the return window. When you buy online, you usually have a shipping cost to send it back, and a lot of places might not even accept returns.

“We see students all the time who have bought the wrong [book],” Peterson said, “or for some reason got the wrong edition, and they come buy from us and then they want to know what they can do with [the wrong book].”

During the first couple weeks of school, the bookstore generally does not do any buying. Starting Sept. 17, they open what they call “buy back,” where they start buying books back from students. They are not buying the books back for themselves, though; they are buying them for a wholesaler who offers the student somewhere between 20 to 25 percent, maybe less, of the new value of the book.

The bookstore itself does not buy any books for the store until finals week. From about the middle of October through finals week, the store works with the entire faculty on campus to find out what books they want for next semester. “Once we have a confirmed textbook request, we’ll go out and try to accumulate those books,” Peterson said. “And the first place we go is our own students.”

The store then offers the student 60 percent of the new price of that book, regardless of whether the student bought the book new or used, from the bookstore or from Amazon or another online site. “We’ve actually had kids tell us that they’ve bought [the book] for less and sold it and made money,” Peterson said.

The bookstore will not offer the 60 percent, however, until the faculty has put an order in for that book. This could happen anytime during finals week, which could mean that a student selling a book back on Monday would only get 20 percent of the new price and a student selling the same book back on Thursday would get 60 percent of the new price.

“One of the biggest things that students can do to really help themselves is to encourage the faculty to get their orders in on time,” Peterson said. “That’s one of the biggest things faculty can do to help us and help the kids is just to get their book orders to us on time so we can try to offer the students the best pricing that we can on their books.”