New book-buying options go beyond Water St.

Students are trickling back into Sawyer Library, and bookshelves and backpacks are beginning to fill up with books again. While Water Street Books is still by far the most popular source for textbooks, students this semester have started investigating new options amidst increasing scrutiny. With the implementation of College Council (CC)’s textbook reserve program and online purchasing at Spring Street Books, the way students find their textbooks may well be changing.

Water Street Books

Water Street Books remains the main source of textbooks for many students. According to store manager Richard Simpson, Water Street Books sells approximately 12,000 books to students each fall and 11,000 each spring, which constitute 75 percent of all Water Street Books sales.
These figures reflect the long-standing relationship between the College, Water Street Books and Water Street Books’ parent company, Follet Company Stores. Since 1996, the College has had an open-ended contract with Follet College Stores that prohibits the College from supporting competitors of Water Street Books. 
Although the terms of the contract are confidential, Vice President for Operations Steve Klass explained that the contract is a “very basic, simple document with nothing controversial in it. Follett operates in a tough market and should have every reasonable assurance that the terms of their various contracts are not available to the companies with whom they compete,” he said.
Klass explained that the College “benefits from this contract by its guarantee to our faculty and students that the books they need for their classes will be available in on-site inventory.”
For Spring Street Books, a student-run Web site that allows students to compare prices between Water Street Books, Amazon, eBay and books sold by students are the College, the non-competition clause means that they cannot receive funding from the College. Although Spring Street Books would like to work through Williams Students Online (WSO) to incorporate unix log-ins for their Web site, the collaboration may possibly violate the contract agreements as WSO receives funding from the College. “Whether or not the Spring Street Books model conflicts in principle or in actuality with the terms of our contract is something we’re still analyzing,” Klass said.
Klass also observed that Follett pays the College a small percentage of the gross store sales, but “it doesn’t completely cover the College’s cost of owning and maintaining the space.” The College has owned part of the building of Water Street Books since 1986 but has only been occupied by Water Street Books since 1990.
“The fee that Follett pays is the central confidential contract element,” Klass said. “It’s at the low end of industry standard for these kinds of stores – The current service model does that while finding the balance between avoiding a major subsidy for the operation while holding the line on overhead costs that would affect textbook pricing.”

Spring Street Books

Progress continues on Spring Street Books, the Web site developed by Joey Kiernan ’11 last fall that allows students to find and sell textbooks. As of last Friday, 432 books have been sold through Amazon by Spring Street Books, along with 446 clicks on eBay, earning Spring Street Books approximately $1,885 in referral fees. Students have also listed approximately 50 of their own used textbooks for sale. “We’re just scraping surface of the total book-buying market at Williams,” Kiernan said.
These figures were reached, however, after initial difficulties in acquiring the list of textbooks for each course. “Each professor e-mails course lists to Water Street Books so Water Street Books owns that information,” he said, explaining that Water Street Books had refused to share the information with him. “I talked to a lady at the front desk, and she was very nice, but she said that it wouldn’t be fair,” Kiernan said.
Instead, Kiernan posted on WSO and e-mailed group listserves asking students to individually contribute book lists based on a “wiki-style” format. Kiernan estimates that there are now 300 course lists posted online out of a total 500 classes offered. Although it is an “imperfect system,” Kiernan acknowledged the contributions of “students who sit down and really want to help us out.” Spring Street Books is currently working through professors and departments to receive copies of the course lists e-mailed to Water Street Books, an act within the provisions of the College’s contract with Water Street Books, according to Kiernan.
By July 2010, however, these measures will no longer be necessary. Recently passed by Congress, the Higher Education Act will require that all colleges provide course textbook lists with ISBNs prior to student course registration. “When that information becomes public, it’ll be great for us,” Kiernan said. “Right now it’s an awkward year of alternative means.”

1914 Library

The profits from Spring Street Books’ referral fees may eventually contribute to another source of textbooks for many students. Kiernan and another member of the Spring Street Books Board of Directors, Jack Wadden ’11, are currently investigating ways to channel this money to the 1914 Library, working closely with the Development Office, the Provost and CC.
According to Wadden, the 1914 Library is currently supported by two endowments whose annual interest is used to fund textbook vouchers redeemed at Water Street Books. Funds from the endowments, however, “don’t even come close to covering the cost of vouchers,” Wadden said. Although the exact figures remain undisclosed, Wadden was told that the College pays for the remainder of the vouchers. Consequently, while Spring Street Books could donate to the two endowments, “any money [donated] is just money that the College no longer has to spend on the 1914 Library.
“While this does save the Williams a couple bucks, it does not really help the 1914 Library,” Wadden said.
Because the 1914 Library’s inventory is compiled through the voucher system, the 1914 Library lacks a “book-buying budget,” with all voucher money accruing directly to Water Street Books. After discussions with 1914 Library coordinator Felicia Pharr, Spring Street Books hopes to fulfill this gap by using its funds to start a book-buying budget. “Ideally we want to help Felicia and use our revenue to start a book-buying budget for the 1914 Library because this will hopefully make the most difference in the everyday lives of students on financial aid,” Wadden said.
However, according to Wadden, the 1914 Library is currently in the process of being re-evaluated by a committee headed by Nancy Roseman, professor of biology. “The entire program as we know it may cease to exist once the re-evaluation is complete,” Wadden said. “Nothing has been decided of course but we have been advised by Professor Roseman to wait to do anything with the money until the committee can reform the program.”
At the last resort, however, Kiernan says that Spring Street Books will purchase the books and directly donate them to the 1914 Library. “We have a lot of time,” he said, noting that the money will not be needed until next fall.

CC textbook reserve

In the attempt to alleviate textbook costs, CC has also instituted a textbook reserve program at Sawyer and Schow Libraries. Excluding fall semester material, 85 textbooks are now available from Schow, and 32 textbooks are available from Sawyer for periods of up to four hours.
The purchases are mainly funded by the money from the $35,000 discovered in unused CC funds last year. In the all-campus referendum following the discovery, the student body voted to allocate $17,500 to a 1914 Library program, with the remainder distributed to All-Campus Entertainment (ACE) concerts. The program also received a contribution of $250 from the Dean’s Office and $500 from the Office of the Vice President for Strategic Planning and Institutional Diversity. In addition, CC received 27 textbooks by soliciting donations from professors.
In a two-stage process, only $9,500 of the total has been spent. The remaining $8,750 will be held in reserve for future purchases. 
“College Council wanted to initially focus on books it knew would be in use for a long time and allow future CCs to use the rest of the money to respond to future student demand with purchases designed to supplement the current batch of books,” said Peter Nurnberg, CC co-president. “This adds flexibility and enables CC to tailor the program to the expressed needs of the student body.” After this semester, CC plans on using check-out data from the libraries to help make future textbook purchasing decisions.
According to the all-campus e-mail from CC, textbooks were selected upon the recommendations of department and program chairs under a set of three CC criteria: “very expensive and potentially a significant financial burden for students, used in a course with a relatively large enrollment and unlikely for the book to be obsolete in the near future.”
“We wanted to select books that were the most useful to students,” Nurnberg said.
In an added boost to students, CC purchased the textbooks through Spring Street Books. “It was very encouraging to have that $600 in our bank account,” Kiernan said. “It was really great to have that first big thing.”