– and she states that while she credits Ben for his commitment to student interests, the rejection was based mainly on pragmatic concerns: ‘If there had been a proper business plan developed, including the actual costs of getting a second-hand book dealers license, registering a business, hiring accounts staff, managing tax reporting liabilities, cashflow, stock management, OH&S, insurance, etc, then it would have been immediately apparent that the proposition is unsustainable. So yes, it’s a conflict … but also just not a very sound proposition.’ Ben is still openly disillusioned about that discussion. ‘It was unbelievable. I was trying to do something based on student welfare and that was the attitude. From then on I thought it was a waste of time trying to deal with the Union.’ Fortunately for Ben, he found support in an unexpected place – the University itself. He applied for a Green Project Fund grant from Ecoversity (Adelaide Uni’s sustainability program, responsible for things like the recycling bins in the Hub and LED lighting in the law school). After a written application and presentation, the deal was done: $4000 in start-up funds, and a space, rent-free, in Elizabeth House on North Terrace, to provide a second-hand textbook marketplace, and investigate expanding into other areas as well (Ben flags second-hand clothing, art exhibitions, and performances as areas of interest). From speaking to Ben, it seems like the idea is still pretty embryonic at this stage. Ben says the permanent co-op will still be volunteer-run, and use a similar model to the pop-up stalls, reliant on donations and small commissions. On feasibility, beyond plans to register the co-op as a not-for-profit association, it seems like the insurance and other compliance issues flagged by Janes are still being nutted out. According to Ben, Ecoversity was much more willing than the AUU to look ‘big picture’, and fix other problems ‘along the way’. On sustainability, he simply says: ‘Because of our low overheads – we’re not paying rent, we’re
volunteers – it’ll be pretty hard for it not to make money.’ Hopefully it’s that simple. A student union setting a higher bureaucratic bar than the University might seem a little weird, but when it comes to operating a bookseller (at least a traditional one), the AUU should know what it’s talking about. After all, it owns Unibooks – an independent not-for-profit company started in 1929. It now operates stores at most university campuses in South Australia as well as an online mail-order website. Each year, it returns approximately $1.5 million to students by way of sponsorships, scholarships, and discounts. It’s also a bit of an oddity – interstate campus bookshops are mostly run by ‘The Co-op’, a memberowned retailer with more than 50 locations, which probably makes Unibooks the second-biggest textbook retailer in the country. But that strong position doesn’t exempt Unibooks from the pressures of what Andrew Stewart, its CEO, calls the ‘highly price sensitive’ textbook market, or from the impact of parallel import restrictions. ‘The high prices experienced by students are a direct reflection of that legislation,’ says Stewart. ‘The market is operated primarily by not-for-profit or University owned entities, as full commercial operations are financially unsustainable in this market.’ Despite Unibooks being under the umbrella of the student union, it’s very difficult as a student and member of that union to find out exactly how business is going – their finances aren’t open for inspection, and public AUU Board meetings go in camera (excluding observers) when discussing confidential business matters. There are, however, a few things that could indicate some belttightening. A few years ago, Unibooks was open from 8:30am to 5:30pm, and on Saturday mornings. Those hours have been reduced. Last year, Ramsay Medical Books (part of Unibooks) moved from a standalone location on Wright St to a single room at Unibooks Adelaide. And for some time now,
novels and other non-textbook titles dominate an ever-present sale table at the centre of the Adelaide store (check it out – there are some for-real bargains). That said, queues around rush time still snake healthily around the shop, and according to Stewart, sales through the website ‘continue to grow with consumer demand’. Meanwhile, there are other avenues being explored. The AUU registered a new company in January called Campus Online Services (COS). Like Unibooks, its CEO is Andrew Stewart. Unlike Unibooks, COS is based in Singapore. Stewart and Janes were reluctant to talk about it, but Janes notes that COS is in a very early phase, exploring various e-commerce possibilities, including selling textbooks in a trial with certain universities (you can see that in action at universitytextbooksonline. com, which has been promoted by organisations at Flinders and James Cook University in the past few months). There would definitely be potential advantages to a Singapore-based outlet. For one, it wouldn’t be subject to parallel import restrictions (it’s interesting to note that Dymocks threatened to move off-shore at the height of the parallel import restrictions debate). With competitive pricing, COS could service all Australian campuses, while taking advantage of liaisons with university staff. Better writers than me have discussed why it might be worth paying a premium to traditional bookstores for the ideals of community and culture, but it’s hard to keep up that romantic bunkum when it comes to academic retailers. The majority of their customers are there because they have to be. For every customer who comes into Unibooks looking for a conversation and a personalised recommendation there are dozens upon dozens who want to get in, spend as little money as possible on the textbooks their course guide says they have to buy, and get out. And really, who can blame them? I don’t think you can fault anyone for attempting to streamline and reduce the cost of those simple
Inside the final edition of 2013: the inside word on exchanges, bookshops, and nursing degrees, and more.