June 18, 2018

Ideas for Building a Better Relationship with Your Campus Bookstore | From the Bell Tower

Steven BellAs more academic librarians seek to engage with open education resources (OER) and textbook affordability initiatives, there are naturally concerns about the impact on the campus bookstore. Start by considering how to build a better relationship.

Attend a library conference session on Open Education Resources (OER) and textbook affordability, and the question is invariably asked: What about the bookstore? If the library commits to increasing faculty OER adoptions and the result is decreased campus textbook sales, those considering textbook affordability projects quite reasonably have concerns about the bookstore’s reaction. My response to this question is, “Tell me about your relationship with the bookstore.” Too often academic librarians have yet to establish a rapport with their bookstore colleagues about textbook affordability. My advice is to reach out and start a conversation.

Foe or Friend

The bookstore conundrum got me thinking about the library-bookstore relationship, so I did some research to establish whether the library and bookstore were adversaries on textbook affordability. You can read more about it here, but I’ll save you time by sharing what I learned. The bottom line is that libraries and bookstores are not adversaries but share a common goal. Both want students to succeed academically. Both know textbooks are expensive, and both have strategies for textbook affordability, albeit somewhat different ones. To begin to build or improve the library relationship with the bookstore, start by initiating a conversation about plans to introduce OER to faculty. My institution’s affordability project is entering its eighth year, and while we’ve saved students hundreds of thousands of dollars on textbooks, the store is still selling plenty of them.

Learning from Store Colleagues

An unanticipated outcome of my work on textbook affordability and research into stores is how much more I’ve learned about store operations and economics. I’ve also gotten to know several different store managers at other institutions, and they’ve helped me better understand what’s at stake for contemporary store operations, both for those that are independent and those that are contract-managed. When I presented my research about the library-bookstore relationship for the OpenOregon Educational Resources webinar (listen here), I connected with Aaron Ochoa, Director of the University of California, Davis Store. Another thing I’ve learned is that academic librarians have lots of questions about store operations and store manager perspectives on textbook affordability. Aaron agreed to respond to some questions on these topics.

What are some current challenges for campus stores, particularly in the current textbook environment with new digital options being marketed to faculty?

AO: Communication is the largest challenge for the store—from faculty on what they are looking for and from publishers on what is available, [as well as] to faculty on what services we provide. I regularly hear from course materials buyers that when they reach out to faculty to let them know about our digital programs, the faculty had no idea we even offered this service.

What are you and your staff hearing from students about textbooks, either as individuals or campus organizations (e.g., student government)?

AO: Much of the conversation we hear amongst the student population has not changed over the years. Textbooks are expensive; however, there are ways to show the students that the store understands their struggle. An easy way to do this is to provide a price comparison option on your website.

Is your campus store an independent (college-owned or private) store or one managed by a large chain? Why should academic librarians understand the type of store their campus has?

AO: UC Davis Stores is a self-supporting department that reports to the division of student affairs. Academic librarians should understand what type of store is on their campus for a couple of reasons. First, institutional or independent stores will normally have more flexibility while working with other departments. They may have access to additional data and resources such as student class schedules, financial aid data, class rosters, etc. Second, librarians should understand the philosophy of the store. Is the bottom line the goal or are there service areas that need to be met regardless of financial outcome? This would also include how the campus sees the store. Is the store a service department or a revenue-generating department? In most cases we are both and that line can be a difficult one to walk.

How would you describe your relationship with the librarians at UC Davis? Do you meet with each other? Have you collaborated on any projects?

AO: Currently I feel that the store has a reasonable working relationship with the library as a whole. That being said, we have a wonderful relationship with individuals at the library. An example would be that I have a quarterly meeting with the Director of Online Strategy, who is a library administrator, along with ATS (Academic Technology Services) and a faculty member. This 90-minute lunch meeting has done wonders for the stores, as it gives us an opportunity to discuss current projects, to learn about the struggles each area is facing, and to give us each a different perspective on what we are working towards. At our most current meeting, we got on the topic of how we can inform faculty of OER or library licensed materials while they are making their textbook decision, and once those decisions have been made, can we provide them in the LMS (Learning Management System). I will be attending a national conference for independent college stores next week, and I will take this idea and present it to several software developing companies to see how we can accomplish the idea.

As a bookstore director, what does textbook affordability mean to you? In what ways is your store helping students achieve more affordable learning?

AO: Textbook affordability is an interesting topic that we have been struggling with for decades. For me, it means providing our students with all the information out there so that they can make an informed decision. The UC Davis Stores [are] known for innovation, along with providing the usual products such as new, used, rentals, and digital options. We were the first to have a price comparison site utilizing Verba Compare—this allows our students to see our pricing side by side with that of the publishers and Amazon. We were also the first university to partner with Amazon and provide an Amazon pick up location inside our store. Last is our Inclusive Access program that allows us to deliver digital content directly to the student on day one of class via their LMS. This program alone has saved students over $7 million since fall of 2014 and has become the model for universities across the country.

What recommendations would you make to academic librarians seeking to initiate an affordable textbook initiative but are concerned about the campus store reaction?

AO: First, I would get in contact with the store, to see if they too are looking at such an initiative. Textbook affordability has been a concern for many years and stores are being asked to address the issue. With collaborative efforts, the [pooling] of resources, and a clear understanding of what the goal is, I feel the library and stores can be great partners. Why might stores be concerned about such an initiative? Really, I think it is about funding, but maybe not in the way that most people think. Since the independent stores are self-funded, any program that reduces the overall revenue for the store will become a financial obstacle. Is that a reason not to have an OER program? Not at all; yet keep in mind that a reduction in sales for the store is the same as saying a reduction in funding for the library. You still have to get the same amount of work done but now with fewer resources. Again, is this a reason to not explore such initiatives? Absolutely not, but it may shed some light on why stores may react the way they do.

What might academic librarians and campus store do together to encourage faculty to think about the cost of textbooks when they make learning material decisions?

AO: They can work together to provide the faculty with all their options, which may include digital and OER material, and then give the faculty the comparison of the alternatives with their traditional text.

Academic librarians will often ask bookstore directors about revenue streams. Can you share how much store revenue is typically generated by textbook sales?

AO: This has been changing dramatically over the past five to ten years and every store will be a bit different. The data provided comes from the Independent College Stores Report put out by ICBA and LSG. For many stores, course materials were their bread and butter, providing upwards of 75–90% of total revenue. This was due to the sheer volume of sales, as 15 years ago you could only get your textbooks at your college store. The internet has provided our students with many other alternatives. Now many stores are seeing their course materials sale drop to as low as 17% of sales with margins that range from 15–33%.

Do you foresee a future in which college stores no longer carry print textbooks? If so, how far off might that be?​

AO: This question has been floating around for years now. I do not see a day when we do not carry print textbooks; however, I do see a time when all of our print texts are available in a digital format. The publishers are making strides in that direction now as they put resources into adaptive digital content, and some publishers are even moving away from being called publishers and prefer titles such as content delivery or content management companies.

Many thanks to Aaron Ochoa for sharing his thoughts about library and bookstore relationships, as well as textbook affordability issues. I hope this interview will encourage academic librarians, if they have not yet done so, to reach out to their bookstore manager to engage in a conversation about textbook affordability. But make it about more than that. Show a genuine interest in wanting to learn more about the store, the personnel, and how it operates, and offer to help your store colleagues learn more about the library. If academic librarians are holding off on a textbook affordability project because of concerns about how the bookstore will react, knowing that one thing we have in common is wanting our students to succeed is a starting point to overcome that barrier.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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  1. Cheryl Cuillier says:

    Great interview with Aaron Ochoa from the UC Davis Stores! Thanks, Steven. Our campus store is a great partner with the library on textbook affordability initiatives. It can take time to build that relationship — I agree with your advice to reach out and start a conversation. It benefits everyone

    • Hi Cheryl.

      Thanks for your positive feedback.

      I hope this will help other academic librarians make the bookstore connection.


  2. According to campus bookstore managers, the campus bookstore makes no money, and they aren’t trying to gouge students. If they’re telling the truth then this should be at least a non-issue, and campus bookstores should actually do better as a result of Open Access as the shift to free online resources frees up shelf and floor space in the campus bookstore to focus on campus-logo apparel sales.

    • It may be two different things to say the store “makes no money” and “makes no profit”. The independent stores need to bring in revenue to be self supporting – and at some institutions are expected to be a revenue source. Even when there is an open access option, such as an openstax book, the store may still find value in stocking paper copies for students that prefer print to digital. That’s why I asked if there would likely be a time when the store didn’t have print textbooks at all. Given that there still isn’t OER for many disciplines I can see that print textbooks will likely be around for a while still. Keep in mind that another challenge the stores face is that publishers or companies like Top Hat are going directly to the administration to make big deals for inclusive access resources – and that might cut the store out entirely (although I believe there are also arrangements where the store is involved). Thanks for your comment – certainly something to think about.

  3. David Lowe says:

    Thanks, Steven. Very important conversation to have. Any sense how different that conversation would be in the case of campus book stores managed by large chains?

    • Thanks for your comment David. I do mention this briefly in my C&RL News article – don’t know if you gave it a read (link in the column). It can really depend. I’ve heard from librarians with a Follett or B&N store who say they can’t get a relationship going – just a real lack of willingness to get involved on the part of the store. But then I’ve heard from folks who say they are successfully partnering with their chain book store. My own situation is more the latter. We have a fair exchange of information. I invite them to present at our textbook affordability workshops. They are aware of our program and support it (they are still selling plenty of other products). They provide us with book data that we can use. My suggestion is to reach out and seek to find common ground but if they store isn’t going to be a willing partner – than forge ahead and seek the support of students, faculty and the administration.

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