News - September 10, 2009

Cheaper than

Every year, students spend hundreds of euros on course books at the WUR shop. But who prices the books, and how come some teachers can get big discounts? On the trail of the price of a book.

The queues are long again this week at the WUR shop: students are gathering their course books together. There are sure to be a few future plant breeders in the queue, waiting to buy Acquaah's weighty tome on Principles of Plant Genetics and Breeding.  A 569-page-turner for 40 euros. Cheap as chips. Publisher Wiley-Blackwell's web shop asks 51 euros plus postage and packing. But last week the book was still being sold at the WUR shop for sixty euros. 'A shameless price', says lecturer Herman van Eck. He went straight to the publisher and negotiated a big discount. It took a few emails and a bit of pressure.  But the forty students on this course have done well out of it. 
And it wasn't the first time. Van Eck has some experience in this area. A year ago, Griffith's Introduction to genetic analysis, published by Freeman, cost 60 euros from NewBricks - until Van Eck came along and got fifteen euros knocked off the price. Students paid 45 euros for the book in the WUR shop last year. 'A teacher asks for a quote from the publisher, and a sizeable percentage is knocked off the price', says Van Eck. 'There seems to be quite a big margin.'
So do Wageningen students usually pay over the odds for their books? No, says Tycho Kramer, director of NewBricks confidently. NewBricks is the branch of a Dutch academic bookshop chain that specializes in science books. It supplies most of the course books in the WUR shop. And there are quite a few of them by now, says Kramer.  Certainly since the Wageningen bookshop Kniphorst stopped supplying course books. NewBricks entered the Wageningen book market nearly five years ago, at the same time as Steven ter Velde of the Grafisch Service Centrum which runs the WUR shop.  'It started with a few boxes of books. Not even a whole pallet. Now we deliver sixteen or seventeen pallets of books per course period. There are two to three hundred books on a pallet, so just do the sums.' With five periods in an academic year, it adds up to tens of thousands of books.
Recommended price
NewBricks makes sure the right books get on the shelves of the WUR shop, in the right quantities. NewBricks also sets the prices. 'Our aim is to supply books for the best possible price. We want sharp prices that are lower than the going price in Dutch bookshops. The starting point is the publisher's recommended price. That's the publisher's asking price, but because we buy in bulk we get a discount. Then we check the prices in other bookshops and at, for example.' We put all this together to get the recommended price at the WUR shop. In fact, two prices, because there is a special discount for members of study associations. The final price that the student pays includes a small percentage for the shop owner, who has to make a living too, It may be called the WUR shop, but the service point doesn't belong to the university.  Owner Ter Velde rents the rooms on the ground floor of the Forum.
Altogether, Wageningen students don't pay too much for their books, says NewBricks director Kramer. But he agrees with Van Eck, that there is a margin. 'When it comes to efficiency, there's room for improvement at publishers. We can easily charge 20 percent less that the price in standard shops.  And with some titles we go up to 35 percent, but that's our limit.'
Steven ter Velde of the WUR shop sums up the pricing of course books in fewer words. 'Often you can't make head or tail of it. It's a funny world, and a chaotic one too.' He looks on as a relative outsider. 'We are a printing company; that is our core business. We make the course readers and sell them directly to the students. The service point is really a sideline.'
As for book prices, for Ter Velde, one thing matters: he agreed to work with New Bricks on condition they were cheaper than ' is the biggest discounter in the Netherlands. I don't want to get into a price war. If we are not cheaper I'll be left with the books', he explains. Ter Velde says that in practice it nearly always works out. By way of illustration, he picks out a couple of best-selling books. Essentials of Ecology, by Colin R. Townsend, for example, a key biology book that sells at the WUR shop for fifty euros. charges twice as much: 105 euros plus P&P. Ter Velde looks amazed - with good reason. He seems to be right: you can't make head or tail of book prices. It gets every crazier when he picks up An introduction to Statistical Methods and Data Analysis, 6 th edition, by R. Lymann Ott. Ter Velde sells this tome for 52.50 euros. sells the fifth edition for 149 euros plus P&P.
So, what about Herman van Eck's approach, then? Can a persevering teacher get big discounts? 'There are possibilities', Kramer of NewBricks confirms cautiously. 'Some book prices are just impossible. Then we go back to the publisher and tell them: We just can't sell this; poor students can't afford it. And then we do something about it between us. The publisher pays for the discount. But this demands close collaboration between teacher, supplier and publisher.'
Herman van Eck is not the only one. 'We sell about 3000 different titles in Wageningen. We negotiate on about thirty of them. This happens quite a lot in Wageningen, says Kramer. 'It is a very specialized university, with books that we only sell here. And anyway, Wageningers are very penny-wise.  And the teachers are very committed to their students.'  
P.S: Cheap books 
Course books don't have to be expensive. There is a thriving market in secondhand books. Just a few paces from the WUR shop the WSO runs a modest secondhand coursebook shop, stocking 237 books and a few dozen readers at present. The service is free. For a bigger range you have to go on the internet, where the biggest players by far are and is particularly active on the second-hand book market. Bus shelters in Wageningen have been plastered with the company's adverts for weeks. This advertising campaign was prompted by research among students done by Synovate, which revealed that half of all students keep study costs down by buying secondhand books online. Mainly at Marktplaats. Students save an average of eighty euros a year like this. Clearly, secondhand books are big business, and even a major bookstore chain Selexyz runs a free secondhand service.
Take Townsend's Essentials of Ecology (third edition), for example. New, this book costs 50 euros in the WUR shop. It's cheaper to order the book yourself from the publisher Wiley: 46 euros including postage and packing. And secondhand is of course much cheaper. The WSO shop asks 20 euros for a second edition, and Marktplaats had a copy this week for 25 euros. Also a second edition.