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Student entrepreneurs tackle high textbook prices

GetchaBooks finds students the cheapest way to buy their books

Published: Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Updated: Tuesday, September 21, 2010 07:09


Tien Tien / Tufts Daily

Over the past several years, textbook prices have been climbing steadily, and students are not the only ones calling in complaints. Congress was among the first to raise its voice: On July 1, a piece of federal legislation took effect, requiring all colleges to publicize reading lists during registration period — giving students all summer to shop around for discounted books.

A group of Tufts students decided to capitalize on the new bill and worked to develop a tool that would find students the absolute lowest textbook prices:

The idea came to junior Michael White a few weeks before Fall 2009, when he and a couple of his friends from the Department of Computer Science adopted the last−minute summer project.

"Many startups begin because the founders want to scratch an itch they have," White said. "And I thought, ‘It would be nice if I didn't have to enter the ISBN numbers myself every time I search for a book.' I was familiar with the Amazon commission system and thought it would be a profitable enterprise."

White contacted junior Richard Mondello and senior Michael Walker, who has since transferred to Bard College, and asked them to participate in the project a few weeks before the start of the semester. By the time this year's freshmen arrived on campus, the first version of the book−search website was up and running.

According to White, demand for the website was a sure thing. Walker and Mondello, dissatisfied with the way the campus bookstore was run, were happy to join White's cause.

"[Textbooks are] something that every college students needs and yet [they're] something that everyone gets ripped off on, or if they don't, they're spending a lot of time making sure they don't get ripped off," Mondello said. "So we came in and said, ‘This is ridiculous. We're going to create a website that solves these problems.'"

Now that the administration is required to release course information in advance, the website's founders have created an interface that merges the practicality of the campus bookstore with the cost−efficiency of the Internet.

It's a simple process: You visit the site, select your college, choose departments and courses from a dropdown menu and click ‘Go.' Within milliseconds, pulls up a chart comparing the prices of your required reading at the campus bookstore and various online vendors and offers you its suggested purchase plan, which often draws from a combination of vendors.

"Our competition is every single place where people could get their textbooks," Mondello said. "Our number one competition right now is the Tufts bookstore, due to convenience; you tell them your courses and they tell you what books you need. Our second piece of competition is all of the websites where, if you look up all your books yourself, you get them for cheaper prices. So we took the best of both worlds — you tell us your courses, like at the bookstore, but we look them up online and find them at the cheapest price for you."

The founders see as the solution to a problem that has recently gotten out of hand — one that victimizes every student and can be easily eliminated.

"This is something fundamentally broken that we were able to fix in a few weeks," Walker said.

Mondello agreed and only regrets that the trio did not solve the problem earlier.

"When I got here my freshman year, several days before classes started, people said, ‘You have to go to the bookstore and get your books now because if you don't have them for the first day of classes, you're going to be in trouble,'" Mondello said. "I ended up wasting a lot of money on books I could have bought for half the price."

Mondello explained that the bookstore is so expensive right now because its business model is not based on students' needs but rather the university's contract with Barnes and Noble.

"The campus bookstore — that's a Barnes and Noble bookstore down there," Mondello said. "They try and give off the impression that it's your local bookstore, but Barnes and Noble has at least 600 campuses they're on, which naturally leaves books pretty expensive and which I find kind of offensive."

"Tufts gets a lot of its character by admitting people of different socioeconomic backgrounds," he said. "So to arrive on campus and be de facto pushed into buying my books on a giant markup — I find that offensive and I'm not afraid to tell people that.

What's worse, the founders said, is that the campus bookstore goes out of its way to make it impractical for students to purchase books elsewhere. According to them, until July 1 the bookstore did not reveal books' ISBN numbers and presented book titles in a manner that made them difficult to search for online.

"They have an information monopoly on campus," Mondello said. "And Congress said, ‘This isn't going to fly anymore.'"

Walker explained that students are often surprised to hear that is not actually selling anything; it is more like a shopping aid. The website draws information from the university courses' syllabi and various book−vending sites online and simply points students to the cheapest deals. Sometimes, that best deal is the least obvious one, Mondello explained, like buying one book from Amazon, renting three from — a book rental site — and going down to the bookstore to get two more.

The point is, he said, to cut students' search time without actually costing them anything.

"If I direct you to one of the vendors, and if you buy your books there, they say, ‘We're going to pay [] a commission.' And that commission doesn't come out of the student's pocket. So if you look [a book] up on your own, it'll be the same price. But if you look it up through our site, the site will thank us for our time," Mondello said.

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