New chapter in textbooks

‘Gray market’ supplies cheaper books
Sunday, November 9, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 9:44 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Last fall, MU senior Andrew Zumwalt read an article online about buying textbooks overseas.

“I thought ‘This is something I can use,’” he said.

Zumwalt, along with other college students around the nation, now buys college textbooks online from domestic and overseas vendors — a short-term boon for cash-poor students but a potential long-term headache for local booksellers.

Ordering books using Web sites such as can save students as much as $30 to $50 per textbook, Zumwalt said.

MU senior Chad Nichols said he thinks he saves 35 to 45 percent per book by using Internet sites such as, which effectively connects buyers to sellers, some internationally.

“I just purchased a graduate-level finance book for $40 online, whereas (some friends) purchased it for $95 here at the bookstore,” he said.

The $55 Nichols saved is not uncommon for online purchasing.

While a new hardcover geology book, “Earth: An Introduction to Physical Geology,” 7th ed., at MU’s University Book Store is priced at $88, the same book was recently available at in a new paperback version for $35 and in a new paperback version from for $71.83, based on Nov. 7 conversion rates from pounds.

Similarly, a new paperback Spanish book, “Fuentes: Lectura y redaccion,” 2nd ed., priced at $56 at MU’s bookstore was recently available at for $19.99 and at for $34.90 for a new copy or for $9.99 for a used copy.

Zumwalt said he buys textbooks from the bookstore, gets the ISBN, a unique machine-readable identification number which marks any book unmistakably, and orders the books online. He returns the original books when he receives the new ones in four to five days.

Neither Zumwalt nor Nichols knows of many other students who order overseas books online, but both have found the system reliable.

“People will go wherever the price is lowest,” Zumwalt said. “I don’t feel guilty because the option is there.”

As more students realize the overseas option is available, local booksellers could begin to lose sales.

Michelle Froese, public relations manager for Student and Auxiliary Services at MU who acts as a liaison between the bookstore and its customers, said it is unfair that American college students who shop at bookstores in the United States are forced to pay more for textbooks, when they are being sold cheaper in other markets.

The problem, Froese said, is that American publishers are selling books to foreign distributors and retailers at a fraction of what they charge domestic buyers.

“Publishers argue that in order to compete in European and Asian markets, they have to have comparable pricing to what the market demands,” she said.

Froese said that MU’s University Bookstore purchased a number of books from international sellers last year as a trial run but found that getting the necessary quantity made the process unreliable.

In March, the National Association of College Stores, on behalf of university bookstores nationwide, wrote a letter to major American publishers, urging them to end the practice of price differentiation between markets.

“There is no defensible basis for the sale of identical or virtually identical college textbooks to foreign wholesalers and retailers at prices significantly lower than those available to domestic wholesalers and retailers,” the letter said. “College stores believe this practice represents the price gouging of the American public generally, and college students in particular.”

The Association of American Publishers responded with a letter to booksellers, saying that “bookstores know that publishers neither promote nor support the unauthorized re-importation of textbooks produced in the U.S. for sale in foreign markets.” It went on to say that “industries seeking help from the U.S. Government to combat piracy abroad MUST price their goods to the local market in order to provide affordable legitimate alternatives to pirated versions.”

Froese said that because freshman enrollment continues to increase from year to year, sales at University Bookstore have not dropped — yet.

“I know that we have students once in a while who say, ‘I was able to find that here or there,’” she said. “It will eventually have an impact.”

But Froese said she thinks students’ desire to get what they want quickly will prevent most from buying overseas permanently.

“The age group of students who we’re talking about ... like putting their hands on it to purchase it,” Froese said. “We find that students like to get (the book) at the time when they need it.”

Katie Lockwood, who just left her managerial position at the Columbia College Bookstore, said she saw a drop in sales three or four years ago when several Internet companies made a debut. A number of students tried purchasing books this way, she said, but most eventually came back to the campus bookstore because they found online buying to be unreliable.

“At that time, we lost some sales because students were trying to get the right price,” she said. “We saw an initial drop, but (have since) regained a lot of business.”

Lockwood said the emergence of online companies forced the bookstore to re-examine the services they offered students, however.

“There was finally some competition in the marketplace,” she said. “We realized that we needed to have better service and offer more used books in our store.”

Zumwalt said he plans to take advantage of the cheaper option while it lasts but fears that it may not be available further down the road.

“Whatever happens with the Canadian drugs ... the same thing is probably going to happen with books,” he said. “If publishers are losing enough money, they’ll probably crack down and raise prices everywhere.”

The importation of pharmaceutical drugs from Canada mirrors the textbook purchasing from overseas in that both offer a “gray market” option that many U.S. citizens have taken advantage of in recent months.

Froese predicts a resolution sometime in the future, because of how heated the issue of overseas and domestic price disparities has become, as evidenced by the recent letters written from both sides of the debate.

“I think there will (eventually) be something that levels the playing field,” she said. “They may have to raise their prices internationally.”

Froese said that it is a misconception that university bookstores make a large profit from textbook sales and that, according to the National Association of College Stores, bookstores receive only 4.5 cents from each textbook dollar.

“We need publishers to fulfill our responsibilities to students, and publishers need bookstores, too,” she said. “Students are kind of caught in the crossfire.”

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