As back-to-school time gets closer and closer, many students will seek the ISBNs of the books they need for classes. This generation of college students has grown up with Internet shopping and they have been well trained to understand barcodes and SKUs and ISBNs and other retail codes that identify product.
But to the shock of many of these well-informed students, they will not be able to buy certain books anywhere except the school bookstore, no matter how accurately they record or scan an ISBN and how many places they try to shop it. No, they’re not crazy, they’re just in a bind. For many years, publishers and bookstores have been pushing customized editions as such format (even if modified only on a single page) increases sell-through for both parties by creating exclusive product sold through an exclusive channel. Both publishers and bookstore managers will argue that it lowers the cost for students . . . but does it?
The easy answer is to agree and say yes, yes it does. I mean, if a publisher looks at a $175 list-new print textbook, the company (in collaboration with a specific professor and institution) can produce a slightly modified custom edition and sell it for $145. This book will have a unique ISBN and be relevant only to the course and school for which it was specifically produced. So the discount is a nice savings and theoretically the student is paying for what s/he needs and not what s/he does not need. In many cases, this is how the argument is made to the professor and it is how the idea for customized content is sold.
The issue is the bigger picture. Simply put, customized editions don’t have buyback value because they are such limited-edition one-offs particular to one course, professor, institution, etc. In addition to a student being unable to purchase a custom publication anywhere but the official university bookstore, s/he can’t sell it back anywhere, including the bookstore most times! The best the student can hope for is a peer-to-peer transaction if another student on campus is taking the exact same course with the exact same professor and the book hasn’t been modified again. Bottom line: without custom, the student has the competitive world of the Internet to both buy and sell a book with a globally recognized ISBN. In the custom world, the student is forced to buy this book at the bookstore for the full retail price (however discounted based upon customization) and hope that the stars align and the bookstore or another student on campus is using that exact same customized edition next semester. Spoiler alert: not likely given that it all hinges on professors using the exact same material AND submitting adoptions before buyback.
Check back in later this week for part 2 on Why Can’t I Buy My Book Any Where But The Bookstore!