Shocked by the nearly $1,000 you dropped on textbooks this fall? Maybe it’s time to rent. Big business at American universities, textbook rentals have stormed onto Canadian campuses, but not without a little opposition. While the idea may prove popular with some students, a limited number of titles available for rent could see the program unavailable to many others. As for publishers, many are squirming from what they say could be an administrative nightmare that will eat into their finances.
Six university and college book stores, run by Follett of Canada, are participating in a pilot textbook rental program, called Rent-a-Text. They include stores at Carleton University, the University of Winnipeg, Humber College’s Main and Lakeshore campuses, and St. Clair College campuses in Windsor and Thames. Michael Clark, who runs the U of W bookstore says students who decide to rent can expect to save at least 50 per cent per title. With about a quarter of the store’s titles being eligible for rent, he estimates that could translate into $200 or $300 in savings for the average student. “I think once it catches on, it’s really going to catch on,” he said. Students will typically rents books on a per semester basis.
Stores say they are choosing books for rent that are popular and that have put out recent editions, to ensure they will be used for several semesters. “We’re hoping the professor will use it for three years,” Ed Kane, Carleton’s assistant vice-president (university services) explained. Even if professors won’t commit to a rental title, or change their minds, Follet will be able to rent the book at one of its other stores.
The company, which runs 35 stores in Canada, piloted the program at seven American campuses last fall and has since extended that to more than 750. According to numbers released by the company yesterday, Follet stores have rented more than one million books over the past three weeks, a savings to students of $45 million the company claims.
The market for rented textbooks has been steadily growing in the U.S. since at least 2001 when Chegg.com, a book renting website modeled off of Netflix, launched. Bricks and mortar retailers are only now starting to catch up with their online counterparts.
The National Association of College Stores (NACS) estimated that only 200-300 of its members were renting books last September. They now peg that number at more than 1,500 American campus stores. Barnes and Noble, which operates 636 campus bookstores, also piloted a rental program, beginning with three stores last September, and expanding to 25 by this past winter.
However, renting textbooks is still relatively rare, even in the United States. A May survey of 500 students by the NACS, found that only 12 per cent had rented textbooks, though about 44 per cent said they would consider it. Another 36 per cent were unsure, and 20 per cent said they would not choose to rent. Of those who rented, 72 per cent said they would rent again.
Although textbook renting is new to Canada, Carleton and the U of W won’t be the first universities to enter the market. Last fall the University of Manitoba Students’ Union started a book rental program, and is continuing it this year. Although the UMSU plan is on a much smaller scale—renting only three titles—union president Heather Laube says it is still saving students thousands of dollars. “We had a high success rate last year with very positive feedback and a smooth return process overall,” she said.
In the spring, the University of Toronto Bookstore put six books up for rent, and has now expanded that to more than 100 titles. When the program was first launched, the bookstore rented one book for every four sold. The non-profit bookstore will be renting textbooks for a little more than Follet stores, at around 60 per cent of the retail price.
Campus bookstores will also be facing competition from book renting websites geared towards the Canadian market. Brad Dolan, who graduated with a business degree from Carleton in 2008, started an online rental company called BookMob. Dolan says students will save between 50 and 80 per cent off the retail price.
BookMob boasts being “the first service of its kind,” but another website, textbookrental.ca, also launched this summer. Michael Stock, who completed his business degree at York University in the spring, started the company with the help of Toronto accountant Gershon Hurwitz, to capitalize on the budding textbook rental market. “We identified that no one was doing it in Canada,” Hurwitz said.
While renting may prove to be a boon for retailers, who can rent the same title over and over, some publishers are concerned that rental schemes could hurt their finances, if they are not compensated. Paul Cercone, executive director of McGill-Queen’s University press, told industry magazine, Quill and Quire in June that he is worried about author royalties. “I would want to know exactly what they have in mind to see if it’s advantageous for me,” he said.
Colleen O’Neill, of the Canadian Publishers Council, told the magazine that rental programs have been an “administrative nightmare” for publishers down south.
Follet didn’t consult with publishers prior to offering books for rent and does not pay additional royalties. “Rent-A-Text is driven by our own inventory of both new and used books. We purchase new from publishers,” Elio Distaola, Follet’s director of campus relations, stated via email.
However, profit sharing and royalties agreements, to compensate publishers when a textbook is rented, are not uncommon. Cengage Learning pays publishers a royalty for every time a book is rented, and McGraw Hill supplies Chegg with a limited number of titles for rent in exchange for a portion of revenues.
Despite potential savings to students, renting will not always be the optimal option. An internal U of T survey did reveal that 66 per cent of students were interested in renting textbooks, but 81 per cent indicated they would be interested in buying second hand. Owning a book is often desirable because it can be used for future reference. In other cases, a book may be required for multiple terms rendering the renting option uneconomical.
There is also some dispute about exactly how revolutionary the idea is. Students have always been able to sell their used books back to bookstores, in what amounts to a “quasi-rental” exchange. One bookstore manager pointed out to the Chronicle of Higher Education that if a book has a retail price of $100, a student may be able to rent it for $40, or buy it used for $75. The buy back option may see $50 returned to the student. Although, there are usually only a limited number of books that stores will buy used.
Because only a fifth to a quarter of textbooks may be available for rent from any given store, not all students may even have the option. Zach Janzen, a second-year environmental studies student at the University of Winnipeg, was hoping to rent three books this year. “But it ended up that none of them were for rent,” he said. Instead he purchased two books second hand, one for $80 and the other for $90. Another he purchased brand new for $150. A fourth book Janzen wanted was available for rent, but it cost only around $20 to buy, so he bought it.
Distaola admits that renting will never fully supplant the market for new and used books, nor is it intended to. “It’s about creating options for students.”
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