Students returning to college this semester have the potential to save hundreds of dollars as schools continue to expand their textbook rental programs.
According to Amy Berger, manager of the Matador Bookstore at California State University, Northridge, their textbook rental program has offset the losses from new and used textbook sales.
That drop can be traced to online outlets such Half.com, eBay and Amazon that grabbed students’ business by offering both new and used textbooks at rates colleges often couldn’t match.
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Even with those reduced prices, students were still paying around $500 for textbooks required for a normal college course load.
Again, online stores took the initiative to provide lower costs. Starting in 2008, sites such as Chegg , BookRenter  and Skoobit  began surfacing, all offering significant savings to their customers.
“Initially, we started acquiring used textbooks to rent out,” said Christopher Blake, owner of Skoobit, the online renter that launched in August 2008.
“Customers could go online and simply order a book for their class,” he said. “We wouldn’t necessarily have it in stock, but we would then contact the supplier and have them ship it to the customer.”
Once the rental period ends (either three or four months), the customer then ships the book back to Skoobit to be stored in its growing collection.
But as the presence of online renters grows as well, Blake has had to shift his business strategy to stay competitive.
Last week, Skoobit unveiled its own online marketplace, where independent bookstores can rent out their textbooks.
Once their inventory is uploaded, customers are able to choose from an even greater collection of textbooks. Skoobit then gets a cut from the business.
And although colleges such as C-SUN, College of the Canyons and The Master’s College may be bit late in entering this business, each has openly adopted a rental program – with more or less positive results.
For the 2009 fall semester, C-SUN had only nine titles up for rental through their Matador Bookstore, which is operated the Follett Corporation.
Based in Chicago, the Follett Corporation manages more than 800 private and public college bookstores throughout the country.
In spring of last year, Follett launched a national rental program for all its stores. The collection of textbooks available for rental at C-SUN bookstore subsequently jumped from nine to 640.
“The national collection gives us a lot of leverage,” said Berger. “If professors are no longer using a textbook we don’t necessarily need to take a loss on it. We can just put the books back in this system for another school to use.”
While Berger thinks it’s too early to claim the program a unanimous success, she can tell that the rental option has brought back students that were turned off by the high prices of new and used books.
“Everybody’s watching to see what’s going to happen,” she said, “but we can rent for 55 percent off the regular bookstore price.”
“It’s certainly helped stopped our sales from dropping.”