Nov. 4, 2010

Textbook rentals

About 140 titles that students could rent -- instead of buy -- this fall are identified with a special card. Photo by Bob Elbert.

Textbook rentals at University Book Store make strong debut

by Anne Krapfl

Remember the relief you felt when -- occasionally during your college years -- you discovered you had the option of purchasing a used textbook? Things got even better this fall for Iowa State students with the launch of another money-saving strategy: textbook rentals.

The idea has been in play around the country for several years. After considering a partnership with a national textbook rental operation, University Book Store (UBS) opted instead to start its own rental program. A $300,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education helped purchase the initial supply of books designated for rental and an inventory software upgrade to manage the rental process.

This semester, the bookstore offered a rental inventory of 11,000 books -- mostly new copies -- covering 140 book titles. Iowa State students rented about 82 percent of that inventory, in most cases, for somewhere between 25 percent and 55 percent of a book's new purchase price. By renting, they saved themselves a collective $500,000. Books included in the rental program are flagged with a "For Rent" card on the store shelves.

What's rentable

Carl Arbuckle, UBS textbook buyer, said the store typically has around 3,300 titles in its textbook inventory, so the rental program is a fraction of new and used book sales. The plan is to gradually grow the rental program, but Arbuckle said he envisions it maxing out at about 500 titles. Not every book is suited for the rental option, he said. Some favorable considerations include:

  • High retail price
  • Multi-year commitment from faculty to use that text
  • One-semester course (not two)
  • High enrollment course
  • A book students are unlikely to keep (general education courses, for example)

Arbuckle also said he and his staff tried to strike a balance among upper and lower division courses and among many academic disciplines, whenever possible. Some courses -- for example, literature courses that require multiple, less expensive books -- aren't great candidates for book rental. Course packets and books with tear-outs aren't rentable, either.

Following are a few examples of the 140 books available for rent this semester:

  • Aircraft Performance and Design (Aerospace engineering 261)
    New: $200.30
    Used: $150.20
    Rent: $100
  • Human Biology (Biology 155)
    New: $149
    Used: $111.70
    Rent: $70
  • Gendered Lives: Communication, Gender and Culture (Women's studies 323)
    New: $97.30
    Used: $72.90
    Rent: $35
  • Weather and Climate (Agronomy 503)
    New: $121.20
    Used: $90.90
    Rent: $35
  • Transportation: A Supply Chain Perspective (LSCM 461)
    New: $216.30
    Used: $162.20
    Rent: $90

More "for rent" signs at UBS

A student who rents a textbook from University Book Store must return it by Dec. 17, or pay the replacement cost -- the price of a new book.

Arbuckle said the current rental program is labor intensive because book copies are designated in the inventory system as sale or rent, and have to be manually moved from one category to the other if customer demand compels it. By next fall, he hopes to have in place a software update that would designate a book simply as new or used until the time of purchase or rental. The cashier would record which option the customer selects; this ease would help expand the rental program.

For those who work with textbooks, there are other issues to monitor as well, including the growth of electronic readers and factors related to timing, for example the expected shelf life of a textbook at this university, with this faculty.

UBS marketing manager Amy DeLashmutt noted that to comply with the Higher Education Opportunity Act (2008), the university must post textbook information for each course option by the time of registration for each semester. This in turn compels faculty members to make earlier decisions about the texts for their courses, which helps Arbuckle and his team do their jobs.