A Bookseller's Guide to Textbooks

by Michael Brook

#127, 25 August 2008

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Those who often begin statements about their bookselling practices with the phrases, "I'm not going to ..." and "They should know that ... " should not sell textbooks. Many sellers have sworn not to sell textbooks anymore and some complain about it even though they still do. I couldn't figure out this antipathy when I first heard of it. Perhaps it's because there are some things one has to do that could be considered "over the top" to succeed in this area.

I've never had a problem with selling textbooks. I have never had a scam attempted on me by a student (once by an adult, however), and I've received one bad feedback on Amazon concerning a textbook sale in nearly five years - and that one was my fault. Don't assign me a halo, I have worked in academia for the last 36 years, so I have experience with the books, the teachers, the students, the academic deadlines, even some of the writing and editing process that goes into textbooks.

Excluding textbooks from your inventory is costly. Textbooks replace supply and demand with supply and command. Students are required to purchase these items, and they are expensive. Used prices can often approach new prices. If you find a currently used textbook at a library sale or if a friend asks you to sell theirs, don't look down your nose. List that book right away.

I think textbook selling can be broken down to nine variables: Edition number, edition type, condition, grading, listing, pricing, packing, speed of shipping, assurance of arrival. Each of these requires a bit more vigilance than they would for books read for pleasure. The student must have the right edition, with clean pages on time in their dorm or apartment. Price is important also, but if you can deliver on the other issues, you may be able to occasionally get a higher price.

Edition number: The seller must have the correct edition number. Don't try to sell the 4th edition on the 5th edition's page (e.g., on Amazon or half.com). Customers are not required to read your descriptions on Amazon or half.com. They have a right to expect that at least it will be the correct book. Sometimes a new edition is substantially different, with different text, chapter structure, pagination, new exercises or old ones deleted.

Edition type: In addition to standard editions, there are international editions, CD editions, digital editions and instructor's editions. Stay completely away from the first three. If students expect a hardcover US edition of a book, they are not going to be happy with an international edition, which is often in black and white only and on inferior paper. It also can't be sold back to the university bookstore at the end of the semester.

If they expect a book, a CD or a download won't do. If someone cheated you on eBay by deceptively selling you one of these, demand your money back from that seller. Don't perpetuate the problem by selling them to students, even if you're doing it honestly.

Instructor's editions are a gray area. They are identical in essence to the regular student edition with the following additions: teacher's notes, additional answers to exercises, other appendices. They have the same page numbers as the student edition.

Amazon bans the selling of instructor's and international editions, but hundreds of sellers do it anyway. half.com has recently begun a vigorous ban and is enforcing it by delisting items and temporarily suspending accounts. I don't know if anyone has been kicked off permanently. Abebooks, Biblio and Barnes & Noble allow them. Alibris doesn't allow them.

With texts in mathematics, physics and other subjects in which there are typically exercise sets at the end of a section, some students prefer instructor's editions. These usually have all the answers to exercises in the back of the book, whereas student editions usually have only the odd numbered problems. Some teachers oppose students purchasing instructor editions because they assign homework to be collected and graded, and they don't want the answers to be public knowledge. Finally, some students don't want instructor's editions because the university and other textbook stores won't buy them back at the end of the semester. This is a financial loss for the student unless the student is an online seller, which does happen with some frequency.

Sellers can sometimes turn the tables in the instructor's edition game. If you are listing a student edition, especially on a page filled with instructor's editions, you could point out its resale value as a selling point. I have done so and furthermore listed these books at a higher price. They sold even though my price was non-competitive at the time.

It's up to you what you do about selling instructor's editions. I don't think it's a sin. One thing I think is very wrong, however, is deception. Some sellers sell instructor's editions and don't tell the customer in advance. That's dishonest and can lead to returns, bad feedback and an unfriendly message from your site administrator. To give a recent example, problems with these types of editions are behind some of the issues recently reported concerning Nebraska Book Company. The recent BookThinker interview with NBC revealed that 3.4% of the books that they buy from sellers are "incorrect" - that is, a wrong edition number, an instructor's edition, or an international edition.

Since I began writing this article I have stopped selling instructor's annotated editions on Amazon. It's against the Amazon policy, and even though there is flagrant violation by other sellers, you never know when Amazon will crack down. From what I have heard from others, when Amazon enforces a policy, they are ruthless. The seller has no "right of appeal" as he or she would in a court of law. It's Amazon's playground, and they make the rules and rulings.

Two of my recent customer service problems have been due to instructor edition issues. One buyer wanted to replace a textbook her son had damaged at school. An instructor's edition just wouldn't do. Another buyer needed the CD that comes with the student version but not with the instructor version. This is an unusual situation, as the instructor version normally has all the student supplements. This one didn't and there was no way for me to know. I had to give partial refund to save this sale.

The last group of items in the edition type constellation are manuals, solution guides and other ancillaries. They often have the same title as the textbook but usually different authors. Many items of this type are typically bundled with the textbook at the point of purchase. Students rarely buy them separately. They may actually have a list price, but as a seller you should not list them. If you do list them where allowed (they are banned on several sites), don't list them in a way that will confuse them with the associated textbook. Someone will buy it thinking it's the book, despite your painstaking explanation, and possibly be very angry. The best thing you can do with one of these is to offer it as a freebee along with the actual book. It may give you a competitive edge in close competition.

There are also laboratory manuals - independent books that are purchased both separately and bundled with the textbook. These exist mostly in physical and biological sciences and not, for example, in mathematics.

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Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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