Buying college textbooks is a major rite of passage for incoming freshmen. This baptism by fire usually occurs in the first week of classes, while first-year students are still getting their bearings in a new city or state and their heads are swimming with the information overload of course syllabi, campus orientations and frenetic social calendars. Almost immediately, they must dive into the cutthroat student environment of the campus bookstore.
There, all chivalry and politesse go out the window in the mad dash for spirit-crushing tomes such as Introductory Physics and The Collected Works of Thackeray. Then, arms laden with textbooks stacked to their clavicles, the bewildered students wait in interminable lines for the privilege of forking over several hundred of their parents' hard-earned dollars.
But thanks to Williston resident David Parker and three of his former classmates at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, now there's an easier, cheaper and less harried venue for buying and selling college textbooks. Parker, 22, is co-founder and chief technology officer of BookCurrency.com, an Internet site where students can buy and sell books on their own campus -- saving themselves hundreds, even thousands, of dollars -- and make social connections in the process.
Here's how it works: Say a student at the University of Vermont wants to sell a used chemistry text from last semester. He registers for free at http://BookCurrency.com, enters the book's title, author and ISBN (i.e., bar code number), lists its condition and chooses his own selling price.
Across campus, another student who's just registered for the same chemistry course searches BookCurrency.com for the books she needs. When she finds one, she pays for it with her credit card through BookCurrency.com. Then, the two students arrange to meet on campus and make the exchange. Or, if there's no student on her campus selling the book, the buyer can have one shipped from someone at another school.
It cost students nothing to shop or buy through the site. The seller is charged a flat fee of $2, plus 5 percent of the sale price, to cover the company overhead and credit-card charges. Almost invariably, the used book costs less than it would elsewhere, and the seller recoups more cash than he would have gotten by selling it back to a campus store. And the students often get to meet and swap information about the course and professor, while avoiding the hassles of dealing with a campus bookstore.
BookCurrency.com began as a class project while Parker was studying information technology at RPI. The original idea was to create an online book exchange just at his technology-intensive school, where engineering students can fork over as much as $800 per semester for their course materials.
"If you go to the campus bookstore with a $100 book, they'll buy it back for $15 or $20, and then resell it next semester for $75," says Parker, who graduated in 2003. "It totally doesn't make sense. So we just tried to capitalize on that huge gap."
With technical assistance from RPI's on-campus business incubator, BookCurrency.com was born. In its first year, the site made 80 sales -- not bad at a school with just 5000 students. Later, Parker and his associates rewrote and expanded the software to include other college campuses, and the business grew exponentially. Last year, BookCurrency.com took third place in the "Windows Server 2003 Challenge," a prestigious international competition against thousands of entries. Today, the site is available at 3500 college campuses in all 50 states -- last semester it logged 50,000 hits. So far this semester, users have registered at 80 campuses.
"The really cool thing is that we're only marketing to, like, 10 campuses, so people are obviously telling their friends, and they're telling their friends," says Parker, who works on BookCurrency.com part-time from his Williston home. "We've had [customers in] states that none of us have ever been to."
Considering its high-tech origins, BookCurrency.com's marketing has been decidedly low-tech. Mostly, it's involved Parker and his business partners -- who are now scattered throughout New England -- visiting campuses in Boston, where they stood outside campus bookstores distributing flyers to arriving students. This year, the company hired several campus reps to take over that tedious chore.
Needless to say, campus stores weren't exactly thrilled by the entrepreneurs' presence. While Parker and a co-worker were handing out flyers outside the Boston University bookstore, the store manager came out and yelled at them, then called the police. Parker recalls that the cop asked them loudly to move along -- "mostly to appease the store manager," he says -- then told them to come back 10 minutes later, after he'd left the area.
"Bookstores don't really like that their huge margin is being attacked, but that's sort of the whole idea," says Parker. "Students don't like that margin, either. They don't like that they're getting screwed by the bookstore."
Such tension is understandable, considering the kind of money at stake. While a used Penguin classic for an English class might go for as little as $5, a first-year chemistry text can run as high as $100. According to the National Association of College Stores (NACS), the cost of books and supplies for the 2004-05 academic year ranged from $770 to $870. The average price for a new textbook was $52.36, while used textbooks averaged about $40.
However, a 2003 survey of college students in California and Oregon put the figures even higher. That survey, conducted by the public interest research groups CALPIRG and OSPIRG, found that college students were paying, on average, $102.44 for a new textbook and $64.80 for a used one. That year, the average Oregon and Washington student dropped nearly $900 on textbooks alone. That's almost 20 percent of the cost of tuition and fees for an in-state student at a public, four-year college.
Whichever numbers you trust, there's no denying that big textbooks are big business on campus. In 2003-04, sales at U.S. and Canadian college stores were estimated at about $10.8 billion. The majority -- $6.7 billion -- was reaped from textbooks and other course materials. And with the cost of school supplies rising about 3.4 percent annually, it's no wonder that today's Internet-savvy students are shopping online for better deals. Last year, just 16 percent of students bought their textbooks online, according to the Fall 2004 Student Watch report. But that number is expected to rise.
How are college bookstores responding? Georgia Best, assistant manager at Middlebury's College Store, says online book dealers such as half.com, which is operated by eBay, have definitely had an impact on their sales, though she couldn't say by how much. Best, who hadn't heard of BookCurrency.com, says the Middlebury store has pared down the number of copies of individual titles it carries, because increasing numbers of Middlebury College students are buying their books online.
Things are done a bit differently at the UVM bookstore, which, according to store manager Jay Menninger, has to carry every textbook required by UVM professors -- about 2800 titles per semester -- as well as the number of copies they request. Menninger estimates that online book dealers have cut into about 5 percent of his sales.
To remain competitive, the UVM Bookstore now offers students the option of the "Textbook Pre-Pack," Menninger says. Students buy all their books and course materials in advance, then pick them up pre-packaged, without having to wait in line. According to Menninger, the Textbook Pre-Pack has reduced students' wait in checkout lines to about 10 minutes, even during peak hours. "When I was going to school 30 years ago, you could have a four-hour wait," he recalls. "It was a social event, like going to a concert."
So far, BookCurrency.com hasn't marketed itself at UVM or on other Vermont campuses. But Parker believes that once local college students discover his site, and the number of registered users on campus reaches a "critical mass," students will prefer to sell their books to each other rather than dealing with a campus middleman.
Eventually, Parker adds, he hopes to expand the site to include other person-to-person exchanges, such as CDs, DVDs and video games. And while BookCurrency.com has yet to make a profit, Parker predicts that it will soon turn that page, too.