The Crux of the Matter
Every September the cost of textbooks makes the news. Like clockwork it begins: student leaders pontificate, editorials of accusation and defense published, the cost of production dissected — and the world moves on.
For every problem in our lives we ask: is there another way? Have we approached this from all perspectives? How about reframing the problem? What is the real problem, our immediate problem?
There’s no reason to hold onto my secrets so let me tell you:
- How I made $600 with textbooks one semester
- How I went the next 6 semesters earning money on textbooks
- Six core principles learned
- And how I got here in the first place
Always assume competence, therefore I assume you have the ability to do apply this case study in your own university career, and hopefully in your greater life.
It requires the simple qualities of curiosity, imagination and an analytical mind. Some design thinking courses may be helpful. Tina Seelig’s A Crash Course on Creativity and Professor Leticia Britos Cavagnaro’s Design Thinking Action Lab are good places to start.
In the Beginning
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth — and like you, I buy my textbooks from the college bookstore (University A).
My math is weak after time away from school; the decision is made to sit Pre-Calculus. I buy both textbook and solutions manual.
The math department is using edition 10, switching to edition 11 the next semester. I buy edition 11 to get half the money back at the bookstore buyback. Total cost is $300. Ridiculous.
Report dutifully to the bookstore’s book buyback — fifty percent of retail paid for used texts.
What do you think my textbook and solutions manual is worth, 150 bucks? Nope — they “aren’t using this edition next semester”. It’s worth 30. I get $30 for a $300 textbook.
I say to myself, “Never again”. What a blessing this turns out to be.
School year begins. Student loan is late. I drop a couple classes in expectation of registering in the classes I want, going from full-time to part-time status.
The courses never come, and the loan is for full-time students. Now I’m really f#$%ed. I need my textbooks ASAP but don’t have enough money for them.
And guess what I find perusing the bookstore? Pre-Calculus Edition 11: $300!
I’m contemplating the injustice of it all when my classmate Stephanie lets me know she buys her used texts online: via Craigslist, Saveonbooks and Locazu. The sites are not important, what is important is what the following experiment proved: you don’t have to lose money on textbooks.
The Plan is Hatched
I have a draft story titled “The Futility of Self-Psychoanalysis”. Still, if I must posit my secret it may be I’m observant.
Armed with these three new tools I buy my textbooks, and also find students from another school (University B) are listing their Calculus textbooks & solution manuals for $45.
A new textbook and solutions manual costs $230. That’s dirt cheap. Curiosity arises.
- I cross-check different websites — same thing.
- Check University B’s required Calculus textbook. University B has changed to a new course textbook.
- Attend my math professor’s office hours. “What textbook are you using next year?”
- Our math department is testing the same new textbook in limited classes next semester.
- Double-check with the department head. Confirmed.
How the West Was Won
- I buy every Calculus text I can
- Show up bright and early on textbook buyback day
- Sell some textbooks to the student union’s buyback
- Sell the rest to the bookstore
On game day I arrive before opening. Suddenly I realize how suspicious carrying a box full of Calculus textbooks looks. But the plan goes off without a hitch.
Total carry: $70 average margin X 9 textbooks = $630. Damn it feels good to stick it to the man.
The student union shuts down their book buyback because they’ve been “unprofitable for years”. I feel somewhat responsible for this.
The best catch comes later. It’s an old listing; the guy took the course four years ago. I get it for 20 bucks and sell it to “Vivion” for 115.
Awkwardness ensures when we become classmates. Silent recognition, “Oh right! I made 90 bucks off you!”
No Turning Back
This experiment was enough to prove what was possible. Using the principles learned in my experiment, I repeat the process with Spanish, Chinese, Finance, Economics, Statistics, Accounting texts, and on and on. For the rest of my time in school I always made my money back on textbooks.
Not to the point of running a business like the first time, this process I only continue on a scale of 2-3 textbooks max. I buy one textbook for the majority of classes. Buy it, use it for 3 months, and sell it to the bookstore or another student for the same or more.
Now, was it hard meeting up with sellers? Nope, we met on campus or on the way home on Skytrain.
Six Principles of Business
Keep it Simple
“I hope you innovate on technology, on products, on services, all that good stuff. Do not innovate on business models.
If you believe that it costs you a dollar, and you sell it for five dollars, and your gross margin is 20% — you will be successful. That’s the kind of math.
Cost a dollar, sells for five dollars, we only have 20% gross margin. You will always be rich. Keep it simple.”
– Guy Kawasaki: The Art of the Start
Write Good Copy
I didn’t know it was called “copy” while I was doing it, but it’s a damn good skill to have. There’s an art to Craigslist listings. Hell, I’ve helped a friend sell his car and sold tons of my own things on Craigslist.
Don’t be Greedy
Selling 100% of your texts for 50% > 25% of them for 100%.
And if your item is open — doesn’t matter if it’s “unused” — it’s worth 50% of new. You may be able to sell it for more, but if you want a guaranteed sale use 50% of new as a good marker.
Otherwise, don’t open the package/labeling/box. No one believes you turned on your brand new smartphone to “check if it was working”. There’s a warranty for that.
One-Two Rule: “In the World of Kung Fu Speed Determines the Winner” . First interested buyer, two replies max. Guaranteed sale.
Your best chance at a sale is with the first person to email you. For every successive email the chance of a sale decreases. I do not know why this is. I do know people on Craigslist are sharks. They smell blood when the listing stays up or the price drops.
Following the above observation, you too, can be a shark. Sites like Locazu and Saveonbook worked better than Craigslist because they allow listings to stay up for a year or more. Find those sites and use them.
Know the Market
I’ve seen BNIB Windows Phones listed for $500 and sellers turning down a $350 offer. Six months later its $200 cheaper but its too late. New phones are out.
I love Windows Phones — I had one — but honestly who else does?
Timing is Everything
The best time to buy a textbook is after the bookstore’s buyback: December, May and August.
The idea of a collective of students disintermediating the textbook market intrigued me. It was an idea I never fulfilled and I hope you can pick up the torch and run with it.
Here’s how it would happen:
- Build a team of 4 students
- Find the most popular 1st and 2nd year courses at all local universities and colleges
- Derive most common textbooks and monitor these courses
- When institution A begins testing a new text, buy all available books
- Sell them to students at institution B, C, D
- Undercut the bookstore’s used book price (75% of retail)
A team of 4 is nimble, yet big enough to scale the operation and make big things happen. Drug dealers probably know this already.
A team makes buying and selling texts much, much easier. You can divide the city into sectors, have shifts during crucial periods, or divide communications and operations roles. Once again, drug dealers probably already know this.
Whatever the case I hope you never buy a textbook from the bookstore again. Bon voyage!