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As Textbook Formats Multiply, New Services Help Students Compare Options

Traditionally, students shopping for textbooks have faced a simple choice: buy new or buy used? But recently things have gotten complicated. Publishers now offer digital editions. Rental programs let students lease printed books. And Amazon recently opened a site that rents out digital editions that self-destruct at the end of the semester.

To help students sort through all those options—and compare prices—several new services have emerged that aggregate offerings from various retailers:

• This month Amazon released a free iPhone application called Amazon Student, designed to help students make price comparisons of textbooks sold by the online retailer. The app lets students use the iPhone’s camera to take a picture of a textbook’s bar code to pull up options for that title. Amazon hopes students shopping in the campus store will use that feature to stop and consider buying the book online instead.

• Several campus bookstores are fighting back against online retailers by offering their own price-comparison Web services—even though doing so risks directing students away from their own stores. Nearly 100 college bookstores have added the research feature to their Web sites with the help of a company called Verba, started by recent Harvard University graduates. Students enter the title of their textbook, and the tool displays prices for the book at the store, on Amazon, on Half.com, through a rental program, and via other options. Estella McCollum, director of KU Bookstores at the University of Kansas, which set up the service last year, said that she was nervous at first, but that in about 80 percent of the cases, students chose to buy from the bookstore rather than from an online competitor. The site tracks when students do choose alternatives and recommends price cuts to store managers. And when students do click through to the Amazon.com link, the bookstore at least makes a small commission for sending them. Knowing that students might use their smartphones to compare prices while walking through the store’s aisles, some campuses have even placed signs under each book reminding students about the online comparison tool (including a QR code that students can scan to take them right to information about a particular book).

• Two students at Yale University recently started their own textbook price-comparison Web site, called BookSavr.com, hoping to do for textbooks what Kayak and Orbitz have done for airline tickets—searching across providers to show many options in one place. The site shows prices at online retailers, the campus bookstore, and at other physical bookstores near the Yale campus. The students started the site just before spring semester, loading in the course information so students could easily locate the books they need and click through to a mix of options to buy them. Greg Hausheer, a senior at Yale who co-founded the service, said 60 percent of visitors to the site bought a book—with each sale giving the organizers of the site a commission of between 8 percent and 10 percent. Starting next spring, the students hope to open offshoots of the service for other colleges.

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