Every semester, students like business major Connor Dietz must make two major decisions: whether to buy textbooks, and where to buy them from.
There are three book retailers on campus: Barnes & Noble, BookHolders and Virginia Book Company. Prices vary at each store. For Example, “What is Life? A Guide to Biology,” by Jay Phelan is used in Biology 101 classes. A used version of the book costs $106 at Barnes and Noble, $76 at BookHolders and $70 at Virginia Book Company.
Textbook competition also extends to the internet, where Dietz said he often finds his books.
“I rent all my books from chegg.com, an online book retailer, unless a book I need is custom for VCU. Then, I have to buy it from Barnes & Noble,” he said.
The custom books that Dietz mentioned are books that are used exclusively at VCU. Ernest Mooney, owner of Virginia Book Company, said those books tend to be the most expensive.
“There are two types of textbooks, custom packages that are just used at VCU, and universal books that are used everywhere. For example, a biology book used across the country is going to be less expensive to sell and bought back for more money because it can be used on this campus or any other,” Mooney said. “Books used just at VCU can be risky to buy back.”
Both Barnes & Noble and BookHolders did not return requests for comment on pricing policies.
The availability of cheap, used textbooks on websites like Amazon has caused Mooney to tweak how Virginia Book Company prices its books.
“We used to have a formula where all books were marked up a set price … Now, because of risk factors, we have no formula. We just look at what the place up the street is charging and make sure we are charging lower,” Mooney said.
Buying books isn’t the only option. Like other students, Dietz has embraced renting textbooks instead of buying them.
“It is just too risky, I probably won’t be using the books again, so I don’t want to pay full price or even buy used,” he said.
Textbook rentals are something Mooney has tried to embrace in his store.
“We are trying to make every book in the store available for rentals. However, a major problem is a lot of new books are starting to come in with passwords that render them useless after one use. That is making it difficult to buy back books and resell them,” he said.
Some students, like education major Sarah Meir, choose to gamble with textbook purchases on the first few days of classes.
“I usually wait to see if the professor says we are going to use the book for this class. Nothing is worse than buying a textbook and never using it,” she said.
Mooney is aware of this issue, and offers students advice with every purchase.
“With buying or renting books, buying early is the best way to get the best price. Supply and demand affects prices, so if you wait until the last minute, you could end up paying more for a rental or used book,” Mooney said. “We advise students to come in and ask questions. We do our best to get each student the best deal based on their situation.”
Although textbooks can be pricey, Mooney said having three bookstores on campus drives book prices down.
“If you went to a school like William & Mary, you would pay 10 to 20 percent more for a textbook than you would here. The competition allows each place to charge less than a school with just one bookstore,” he said.