By Heather O'Neill
January 21, 2010
As the adage goes, necessity is the mother of invention. More often than not, it is also the mother of new business.
For Eugene Aronsky being a student "for so long that I don't even want to admit the number of years" necessitated that he trim down his burgeoning textbook budget. But the time Aronsky spent tracking down a good deal on a used book took a big bite out of his schedule.
"One of my favorite stories is from when I was in graduate school," Aronsky said. "I was searching for a textbook that new cost $120. I was able to find it online for $20, which was great, but it took me an hour and a half of searching to find that one book. Sure I saved money but I didn't have the time to do the same search for all of my books."
It was this experience that prompted Aronsky in 2009 to found WeCompareBooks.com, a textbook price comparison site that connects students with 24 major booksellers with a single search. Booksellers include Amazon, eBay, Powells, Audible.com, Buy.com and others.
"Our database allows you to search all the major booksellers at once," Aronsky said. "The service is totally free to use and since we are an independent company we don't have a stake in directing you to one bookseller over another. Our goal is to find you the book you need at the cheapest price."
The site can search for any book on any subject by title, author, ISBN, subject or keywords, and the company's search engine looks for books that match your query. If one of the booksellers WeCompareBooks.com works with carries the book it will turn up in your search results, along with the name of the seller, the condition of the book and the price. A "You Will Save" feature allows users to compare the price of the highest and lower price books to see the amount of money their purchase has saved them.
Backpacks full of financial burden
Megan Somogyi, a second year law student, feels the financial burden of feeding her need for new books semester after semester, even as it threatens her ability to feed herself.
"Most new law textbooks cost between $150 and $180. Most professors also require 'supplements,' which is a fancy word for a soft cover textbook. Those range from $30 to $100 each.
"Here's where the system really breaks down: loans," Somogyi continued. "The average 'textbook allotment' in the student loan cost-of-living allowance is $900 per year. The person who came up with this number obviously never had to purchase textbooks with it. My books for this semester alone cost $900. This means that I lose $450 (an entire month's worth of groceries, and then some) from the rest of my already penurious budget."
Somogyi says that it is cold comfort to be able to sell back her books at the end of the semester, since many often can't be reused.
"Provided the book will be used the following semester, we get back at most (and this is very rare) $50 for a book that was brand spanking new when purchased," she said. "My average return on $700-$800 worth of textbooks for a semester is $130. That's a ridiculous ratio. Pennies on the dollar."
While irritating to Somogyi, she acknowledges that the costs associated with books have higher consequences for others.
"One of my fellow students has been going around this last week asking to photocopy other people's textbooks so that he can get his reading materials," Somogyi said. "Why? Because he couldn't afford to pay for both textbooks and the university-provided healthcare plan. He chose healthcare and had to return all his books."
How did we get here?
But why are textbooks so expensive in the first place? According to the non-profit organization Make Textbooks Affordable, students spend an average of $900 a year on textbooks, or 20% of the tuition at an traditional university and half of tuition at a community college. Additionally, textbook prices have increased at four times the rate of inflation since 1994.
To stay competitive, many textbook publishers release a new edition of each textbook every three years or so, even in subjects like physics which don't change from year to year. This, according to Make Textbooks Affordable, forces professors to use the new version and makes the used versions obsolete within a few years, and the whole system conspires to make it difficult to track down used copies of the correct version.
Aronsky, who has a Master's degree in International Relations from Seton Hall University, isn't particularly interested in making money from the site, which had 5,000 visits in January. Rather he is interested in assisting students save money and bypass what he sees as a flaw in the system.
"The site is free to use and I don't have ads on the site because I think it interferes with usability," he said. "I just don't think it's right that people have to spend so much on top of what they pay in tuition."
Though the site isn't profitable yet, when funds do start rolling in Aronsky plans to donate ten percent of the profits to organization that help students pay for college.