Foreign sites offer book-buying alternatives

With the new semester approaching, one of the most dreaded rituals of college, buying textbooks, is imminent. While Web sites such as Half.com and Amazon.com are popular places to buy inexpensive books, a new, cheaper substitute is emerging as students find that foreign retailers also sell textbooks for lower prices.

According to the College Board, the average college student spends about $800 per year on textbooks, leading some to seek cheap alternatives to the traditional campus store.

Web sites such as Bookcentral.com, devoted to providing books from strictly foreign sources, have emerged as cheap, reliable and legal sources.

Richard Sarkis, who helped launch the Web site, thought of the idea when he was a student at Williams College and he found a book for his economics class on a site based in the United Kingdom.

Amazon.com also has channels for countries such as Japan and Austria. However, Sarkis said these sites could come with longer delivery times because they are not set up for shipping to the United States.

Some publishers have stopped the site from selling their textbooks, Sarkis said.

"They would increase the price of certain books, put menacing 'restricted' stickers on others and actually sent a list of books to our supplier that we could no longer get," Sarkis said in an e-mail. "We are exploring all legal avenues at this point to stop this."

A 1998 Supreme Court ruling declared that bringing books published in the United States back into the country from foreign retailers does not violate copyright law, according to The New York Times.

This "reimportation" brings American students the same low prices that students in other countries are used to. The only difference in these products is the "International Edition" label on the covers.

Publishers are able to charge much more for textbooks in the United States because of the lack of other options consumers have, said D.C. lawyer Marc Fleischaker, a trustee with the National Association of College Stores.

"The huge price differential is because historically, U.S students have been willing to pay more," he said. "The publishers have been able to get the high prices where they couldn't other places."

However, Judith Platt, spokeswoman for the Association of American Publishers, said American books are sold overseas because there is a demand for them in other countries.

"American college textbooks are the best in the world," she said. "Publishers sell books overseas at prices that are consistent with those markets."

Platt said that publishers help save students money by selling books overseas, because this allows them to spread their profits among different countries.

Fleischaker does not believe that prices will come down significantly in the near future.

The NACS is against the high prices it claims publishers charge for their books, saying this puts discount Web sites in direct competition with the campus stores it represents.

"There is no defensible basis for the sale of identical or virtually identical college textbooks to foreign wholesalers and retailers at prices significantly lower than those available to domestic wholesalers and retailers," an association press release said.

While reimported textbooks have become more available thanks to the Internet, the practice of buying books overseas is not new.

"This has been going on internationally for the last 20 or 30 years, but has come to light recently because of the Internet," said Cliff Ewert, spokesman for the campus store chain Follett, which the AU Campus Store belongs to.

Ewert, who is based in Chicago, said that these Internet sales have not hurt business for college bookstores.

"In fact sales are up," he said.

According to the NACS Web site, only about 3.5 percent of students say they generally shop for textbooks online.

"First semester I bought my textbooks through the school, but that cost a lot of money," freshman Christopher Marquat said. "This year I might try Amazon.com or another site."

Some campus stores, such as the University of Michigan's, have started buying their books directly from foreign vendors in hopes of passing the savings along to the students, The New York Times reported. Ewert does not see that in AU's future.

"Less than 2 percent of books are available that one could import to use," Ewert said. "We are heavy, heavy into used books. We feel that is where the real savings come, and we are able to have them on a timely basis."

However, Platt said the used book market helps keep prices for new textbooks high. If there were no organized market for used books, new books could cost 40 percent less, she said.

When buying used books, Platt said, "neither the author who created the book, nor the publisher that brought it into being, makes any money on that book"

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