The Brilliant Way to Find Cheaper Textbooks

August 13th 2015

David Miller wants textbooks to become "unhateable." This is an impressive goal, as textbooks can be extremely expensive and create lots of stress for cash-strapped college students. As ATTN: reported earlier this year, the average student will spend more than $1,000 on textbooks this year alone, an increase of 812 percent compared to the previous generation. Textbook costs also exacerbate the current student debt crisis, and according to a 2014 study by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, 65 percent of students reported that they chose not to purchase a textbook because of its price.

Slugbooks / Facebook -

But Miller, who started SlugBooks in 2008 to provide students with a broad range of cheaper textbook options, has learned over the past seven years that people actually like textbooks when they are not such blatant rip-offs. Using SlugBooks' online system, students can search the ISBN of the textbook they need for class and explore various used and new prices on a broad range of providers. SlugBooks also enables you to sell your books through the site and operates in both the U.S. and internationally.

So far there has been a positive response from college students on social media. With 23,000 Facebook fans, nearly 30,000 YouTube subscribers, a robust Twitter following, and budding Kickstarter campaign aiming to #EndBookHate, SlugBooks is resonating with many and has evolved significantly since Miller started the business at his alma mater the University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC) back in 2008. Through its strong social media presence and beyond, the company has managed to make textbooks accessible, affordable, and fun for college kids who live in a time of terrifying student debt crisis.

Miller, who just published a Medium article on the 10 most popular books for the fall 2015 season, says SlugBooks has become a sustained hit with many students because the brand keeps them engaged throughout the year well after textbook purchasing season has ended. The #EndBookHate campaign also embraces plush toys to soften the image of textbooks despite their embattled reputation.


Just in time for back-to-School season, ATTN: had the opportunity to interview Miller about SlugBooks. Here's what he had to say about finding affordable textbooks through his company.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.


Students are often creatures of habit. They follow what their friends do, so a lot of people just purchase books from the school bookstore. What would you say to freshmen who do that and don't necessarily know the horrors of student debt yet and that textbook prices can add up over the years?

I think it's kind of a complicated issue in that some students don't even have a choice in where they buy their books because they don't have the cash on hand to be reimbursed. The way that a lot of financial aid offices work is that if you find a cheaper price than the bookstore, you actually need to pay out of pocket and then get reimbursed with the receipt once you have that as opposed to the college bookstore. A lot of bookstores actually have configurations with the financial aid office where you can pay for your books directly with your student debt like it's a credit card.

How many colleges and universities do you reach now?

It's international. The site used to be set up in a way where you could select your school, but now we're purely set up to allow students to search by book. So anyone who knows the ISBNs for the books required for the courses can use the site. The four countries we have are the United States, Canada, Great Britain, and Australia.

What are your thoughts on open source textbooks and teachers who put the material online for a low cost or free?

I think that's awesome. I think that there at economics at play that make it an uphill battle because the publishers have so much to lose from a model where supplemental resources are all free. The publishers are so well positioned to keep those relationships going that I'm kind of skeptical that there's a future where textbooks are free, although I'm 100 percent for it if there's a way for that to happen.

Do you think educators and professors have their hands tied in the situation and are perhaps forced to issue new textbooks to students?

I think it varies, and again, it's complicated. I think a lot of professors who have students' best interest at heart are forced by their departments sometimes to use the newest book, as you said. There are also instances in which professors are led to believe that selecting a certain textbook is actually less costly for their students when in reality they might be more expensive compared to used prices. I'm specifically talking about the custom editions. It's a brilliant play by the publishers. They will basically take widely used textbooks around the country and the marketplaces get flowing with supply, which drives the price down and causes used books to become an extremely effective option for students. So publishers will take Campbell Biology, lets say, the number one textbook in the country, and they will create a paperback version of it. They will get the academic department to select the chapters that they want to use specifically. So they basically create an abridged version, put it in a paperback book, and stamp the university's name on the front of it, and call it custom for [this university]. And what this ends up doing is segmenting the marketplace, preventing everyone who buys that textbook from selling it on the global or national, if you will, marketplace. Basically, [custom is] when the supply controls the cost of those books.

The publishers are able to go to the professors and say, 'Hey, this is a $200 textbook brand new. We can offer a custom edition to your students for $100.' When in reality, that book might be selling online used for $20.

Interesting. When I was going to college, a lot of my classmates didn't want to do the research online to find the cheapest textbook details, so they often just defaulted to the university bookstore without thinking about how much they could save by doing a little extra digging.

When we first started, we would actually visit classes at UCSC to discuss textbooks with permission from the professors. We would actually walk into classrooms, and we'd target classes where the savings were the greatest, and tell the students, "Hey, your book is like $100 on the bookstore. The old edition is selling online for $5." We found that an extremely effective way to get the word out and let people know that, student debt and the future aside, if you can get a $100 book for $5, why wouldn't you? So that was the super effective pitch. Now, just with the brand taking off, we've seen students sharing the resources with each other and saving money. I don't think that was something that people really talked about. It wasn't something that you wouldn't talk about, but it wasn't something you would brag about, even three years ago. But we're seeing a lot of that on Twitter where students are so excited about SlugBooks that they're openly sharing it. They're like, "I just saved $500 on textbooks" or whatever it is.

Do you have a specific type of student you're trying to reach? For example, would you say a lot of your customers are people who might be paying college themselves?


To be honest, there's really no profile aside from people who are currently in college. We always had assumptions about who our target market was, and time and again, we would be proven wrong. It turns out that wealthy people like saving money just as much as poor people. It turns out full-time students like saving money just as much as part-time students. The one group of people that we can't help, sadly, are the ones who can't afford to pay out of pocket even if they do have financial aid. They're the ones who sadly are stuck paying for their books at full prices with their student loans.

How has the company grown since it started in 2008?

When we first started, we were focused on specific campuses because students could select their schools. So we were very heavy on on-campus marketing and we would build relationships with professors. At a certain point, we sort of shifted focus from these local markets to the national market, and that's been sort of the main change in the business. We went from classroom marketing to more of a content marketing strategy where we create cartoons and comics through our social media channel to keep students engaged throughout the semester instead of just talking to them twice a year.


Can you tell me a little bit about the #EndBookHate Kickstarter?

The basic idea, not just with the campaign but our comics online, is to sort of exhibit some empathy on how touchy college textbooks are for students. They don't have any money but they're required to purchase these things that sometimes aren't even being used. We found that cartoons were a great way to sort of disarm a lot of that anger towards textbooks and sort of prepare them for the experience that will be a little more comfortable and affordable. Creating the [plush toys in the Kickstarter] was basically an extension of that concept.

And in terms of outreach, are you mainly using social media and going to classrooms as you mentioned earlier?

At this point, we're not even doing the classroom thing anymore. It's purely these comics and our social media channels, and it seems that the word of mouth has allowed us to stick around.

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