Broke Law Students Can Barely Afford Torero Store’s Textbook Prices

It is that time of year again.  As our class schedules fill, our bank accounts dwindle with each textbook we buy.  The average law textbook costs $170, and with four or more classes, “suggested” reading, and study aids, the bill can be prohibitively expensive.

As frugal students scour the internet for deals, the inevitable question is: Why can we buy these books cheaper online?  Why can I find a textbook for $225 in the bookstore, but the same book costs only $160 on Amazon.com?

I went to the Torero Store and spoke with Kathy Missel, the store manager, and Michael Goodrich, Textbook Manager, to see what I could learn, and some of their answers were surprising.

USD law students eagerly wait in line at the Torero Store for textbooks like the newest edition of "International Law," which costs approximately $225

First, because the Torero Bookstore is so small, and orders relatively small quantities of each book, it cannot get the same kind of bulk discounts given to Amazon.com and Half.com.

Second, these retailers will sometimes sell books cheaper than their cost, at a loss.  They do so to attract customers to their sites, where they try to sell them other products.  Our small university bookstore cannot afford to do so, for it does not have millions of potential customers, thousands of available products, and billions of dollars in annual sales like Amazon and cannot absorb the loss.

Third, the bookstore also does not have a business model that would allow it to sell books as cheaply as the online retailers do.  Amazon does not have a physical location, and instead operates out of warehouses and often subleases and hires independent contractors.  This is a much cheaper business model than having employees and a store.  The bookstore also has its textbook manager and other employees spend months trying to order the correct books for each class, while Amazon just purchases books as customers order them. 

Fourth, students selling their books back expect to be paid a certain price (currently the bookstore offers up to 50% of the original price), and then the bookstore must mark up the price for resale to still make a profit.  The bookstore cannot compete with used textbooks sold by students, either online or in person.  A student can sell for whatever price he or she chooses, without concerns for employees and profit margins, while the bookstore has pricing requirements set by the university.

Fifth, textbook publishers, faced with the threats of the used-textbook market and online competitors, have been issuing new editions more frequently and encouraging professors to require the new editions to drive up demand and make a profit.  Publishers used to issue new editions every three to four years, and now do so an average of every 18 months.

Finally, the bookstore can only order the titles and editions that the professors require and that are available.  If the professor requests the most recent edition, students are stuck paying the highest price.  Even if a professor will allow the older edition, the publisher may not sell the older edition anymore, so if the bookstore cannot find enough used copies, it will have to sell the new edition.

Ms. Missel and Mr. Goodrich do assure me that they have taken extra steps to lower prices and pay more to students for used books in recent years.  They have become more aggressive in lowering prices; they try to search for the best price, sometimes even finding these books online.  This last year they did their research and slashed prices on over 300 titles.  For book sales, the bookstore is operating at only a ten to 20 percent profit margin, which Ms. Missel and Mr. Goodrich tell me is fairly low.

Ms. Missel and Mr. Goodrich also implemented a new program for textbook buybacks this year.  If a student finds a better buyback price, the bookstore will offer them a ten percent bonus.  If a student’s book is resold, the bookstore offers that student a 20 percent bonus.  They also touted the rental program, where students can “borrow” their books for 55 to 60 percent off the retail price.

So what can the poor law student do to afford textbooks, besides selling blood?

One option is to buy on Amazon.com or Half.com.  You can find used—and sometimes new—books for significantly lower prices than those found at the Torero Store.

Another option is to purchase your book at the SBA Book Exchange at the beginning of the semester, or find a fellow student/recent graduate who used the same textbook.  Students tend to price their books fairly and cheaply.

A final option is to rent textbooks from the bookstore or Amazon.com, especially if you do not expect to read them again.  Many lawyers and recent bar-exam takers I have spoken with say that they never used their textbooks once the class was over.  However, this may not work if you like to make significant highlighting or notes in your books.

When deciding whether to buy used, be sure to do the following:

  • Consult with the professor, and/or talk to students who had the professor recently to see if you can get by with the older edition.  
  • Look at the Index of the new edition, to see if it is close enough.  The differences could be as slight as only the margins have changes, or drastic if there have been recent developments in the field.  Always try to be aware of changes in case law and statutes.

Is there a solution?  Will law school bookstores ever sell us textbooks at prices that we think are reasonable?  Hard to say.  For now, I have my Amazon student account, and will eat peanut butter and jelly until I get a (real) job.

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