College Textbook Adoption Processes--A Must Read for Students and Faculty
This man found his books--will you?
What Everyone Needs to Know About Ordering Textbooks
This is the first in a series of articles about the college textbook market, a multi-billion dollar industry that serves colleges students all over the United States, mostly through college bookstores and the Internet. I will discuss all aspects of buying and selling textbooks, and why it causes so many headaches for students and faculty alike. There are many web sites seeking to buy or sell college textbooks, but very few attempt to clarify the process. College faculty should particularly take note, as this article will explain why things sometimes seem to go wrong.
In this article we will discuss Textbook Adoptions. An adoption or “requisition” occurs when an instructor requests course materials are made available through college bookstores. It is a simple process that follows these steps: 1.) the instructor sends a list of books for the college store to acquire for purchase by students. 2.) The college bookstore researches the availability of the materials requested. 3.) The bookstore orders the books, ensuring they are on the shelves by the start of classes.
All parties involved want the same thing, and with a process so simple, certainly nothing could go wrong. The books are requested, ordered and sold. Why are there so many problems associated with this simple process? Why do dozens of professors on every campus in America each term find empty shelves where they expected their books to be? To find the answers, let’s examine the steps in more detail.
To ensure sufficient time for books to arrive, college bookstores set early deadlines for adoptions to be received. For spring semester, it will likely be October that adoption information is requested. For summer, mid-March is the due date; for fall, mid-April. This gives bookstores time to research and process the adoption, order books, and set shelves for a new semester. But the early submission date causes problems. In some instances, instructors haven’t even been selected. Frequently, faculty members haven’t decided what materials to use, and are faced with an undesirable choice: providing the bookstores with incomplete information or ignoring the deadline. The bookstore’s needs and the faculty’s are in conflict unless the instructor unfailingly uses the same materials every semester.
No harm is done if instructors are a little late providing their information. College stores prefer late adoptions to changes made after the original submission. However, if an instructor uses the summer to make decisions for their fall classes, the first consequence of waiting involves the end-of-semester buyback. Through the buyback process, a book previously used on campus can be purchased from students and resold. Typically, a bookstore might offer 50% of the original price to acquire the book, but only with a guarantee it will be used again (the only guarantee is a firm adoption from an instructor). If it is not certain the book will have future value it might still be purchased during buyback, but at “wholesale” or “speculative” prices—approximately 5% -20% of retail. Failing to make course lists available before buyback limits the number of used books available to students at the beginning of the semester and hinders students seeking a venue for the disposition of unwanted books.
When an adoption is received from faculty, it is researched by bookstore staff. The more information an instructor includes, the easier this step becomes. Pertinent information is the ISBN (a unique 13-digit number identifying the book), the copyright year, its availability from wholesalers (companies selling used textbooks), the publisher, or online. Research also includes the book’s status; is an edition requested the most recent, is there a new edition pending, etc. Publishers frequently will only sell its newest edition, and if the instructor requested anything else, s/he must be contacted for clarification. Incomplete information from the instructor or slow responses to questions can force the textbook manager to guess what is needed or banish the adoption to the bookstore’s “problem pile”. On a large campus, bookstore staff must process dozens of adoptions each day, and the easiest of them are often worked first. The bookstore benefits more from working twelve adoptions quickly than tackling one problem submission. What else makes its way to the stack of requisitions to work later? Books from small (or vanity) presses, unidentified ISBNs, foreign language titles or other books that must be acquired overseas, adoptions with extraneous information, or comments such as “same books as the last time I taught this course”. Anything other than the basic information requested can send an instructors’ book list into a “do later” stack.
While no harm is intended by working on a problem later, the implications of having an adoption shuffled to the bottom of the pile can be numerous. An adoption worked late might not have titles on hand for the beginning of classes. If the title is relatively scarce, only new books from the publisher might be available. If the store is not obliged to carry all textbooks for the university (a corporate or privately owned store, for example), the bookstore might opt not to carry the titles at all. For these reasons, it is helpful to make the adoptions as clear as possible—it will aid in getting the books ordered.
A major issue in researching a book is when a package or custom publication is selected for a class. Custom publications are typically textbooks edited for a specific course or university. They have no value to wholesalers and bookstores can only procure used copies through buyback. A package bundles a book with ancillary materials such as study guides, online access cards, or instructors’ notes. It is the bookstore’s challenge to determine if the extra items are relevant to the course, and if it is cheaper to offer the items as a package or its individual pieces (frequently publishers ensure the package is cheaper by offering one or more component free).
Once the title has been researched, the bookstore decides how many copies to order. Instructors sometimes assume a store should or will order books based upon the class’s estimated enrollment, but there are far more factors to consider and, in fact, a store will almost never order 100% of the enrollment. Criteria to consider when determining order quantities include: if the book has been used before, what was its sell-through? Was the book an integral part of the class? Is it available online? Does the bookstore have off-campus competitors, and what share of the market do they sell to? Can unsold copies be returned, and are there penalties for returns? Will the book have value at buyback? Are the titles mass market paperbacks or other trade publications that can be obtained anywhere? A bookstore strives for approximately a 70% sell-through, and makes order decisions with this number as its goal. Why 70 percent? It allows for reasonable returns while ensuring supply is sufficient to meet demand. Consistently over-ordering books ties up a store’s available cash, and excessive returns drains money on freight and handling.
Stores will try to order used books first through wholesalers. This process is detailed and will be outlined in another article. If the adopted titles cannot be acquired through this venue, they will go to distributors (companies that sell new copies of text and trade books) or the publishers. Course materials that should be adopted early because stores need more time to acquire them include coursepacks (selected materials from other sources that require copyright clearance), packages that need time to be assembled, print on demand titles (the book isn’t printed until an order has been placed), books that must be obtained from sources overseas or from small publishers, and custom publications. Did you notice a pattern? This is nearly the same list of books that sometimes get shuffled to the bottom of the adoption pile. It’s no coincidence these items are more difficult to research and acquire. It is easier for stores with large staffs to work these books because there are fewer adoptions per person to manage—larger accounts also gain more attention from publisher’s representatives.
What should faculty do to improve the chances of getting books for their classes on the shelves in time? Follow these steps:
1. Get the information to the bookstore as soon as possible. As soon as it is clear what course materials will be used, forward it to the store. I recommend handling this task personally. Do not forget and do not delegate it. It is your class that will be inconvenienced if the course materials have not arrived or are incorrect.
If more than one college store serves the campus, forward the information to all stores. It is correct to assume that the stores will share information, but it does not always happen. If your course materials list wasn’t shared with all stores, a shortage of books at the beginning of the semester is probable. At the very least, students will be inconvenienced by not knowing which stores don’t have your course list.
2. Accurately provide all the information required. At least supply an author, title, ISBN, year or edition, and publisher. Assuming the bookstore has the pertinent information, casually ordering an old edition or out-of-print title by recycling an old request, or even a mistake in spelling the author’s name might get the adoption shuffled to the bottom of the pile. Make it easy to process your request and don’t trust the bookstore to sort out a hastily submitted adoption.
3. Avoid changes after the adoption has been submitted. It is costly and time consuming to cancel an order and request new materials for a class, and it should not be expected that college stores bear the burden of the expenses incurred. Finalize your adoption and stick with it. If you habitually change your book list and necessitate cancellations, you may find a savvy bookstore staff holding your adoptions until the last minute as a matter of course—just to make certain you don’t pull a switch on them.
4. Include complete contact information. Make it easy for the store to contact you if they need to, and respond promptly. Be willing to work with the store if a book is out of print or hard to obtain.
5. Be patient in your dealings with the bookstore. They handle thousands of adoptions each semester. Bookstores hire human beings who sometimes make mistakes or forget things. If you have been contacted concerning the same issue more than once, it is because they want to get it right—help them accomplish this.
Following these simple steps will only take a few minutes, and will be much simpler than revising your syllabus if books aren’t on the shelves. Remember, everyone wants the books to be there when your students need them, and following these steps help ensure a win-win scenario.
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- How to Shop for Textbooks in Your College Bookstore
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