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Amazon to end virtual textbook contract with UMass



@dustyc123
Wednesday, November 08, 2017

AMHERST — After just three years on campus, the retail behemoth Amazon will end its run as the virtual textbook store for the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

The company has decided that in December 2018 it will opt out of its five-year contract as the university’s textbook provider, forcing the university to begin looking at proposals from other companies that might be interested in taking over that role.

The decision is the latest in a saga that mirrors the changing landscape of retail and book buying. UMass Amherst previously had a separate textbook annex, which was privatized in 2000 to the chagrin of campus labor unions because of the 26 employees whose jobs were affected. The national education company Follett took over the store that year, but was ousted in 2015 when UMass Amherst chose Amazon to run a digital bookstore, a pickup and drop off location replacing the physical campus bookstore.

The university received its guaranteed commissions of $375,000, $465,000 and $610,000 in the first three years of the contract with Amazon, according to university spokesman Daniel Fitzgibbons. Commissions have not exceeded those guarantees, Fitzgibbons added, though he declined to speculate on why Amazon ended the deal with UMass Amherst.

Amazon did not respond to a request for comment on the reasons for its decision to opt out of its contract.

“It’s a really evolving business at this point, textbooks. The whole business is changing all the time,” Fitzgibbons said.

The university, he said, hopes to have a contract with another company in place by next summer.

“We would certainly hope that the next deal is as beneficial to us as this one is,” Fitzgibbons said.

UMass Amherst initially chose Amazon because it would financially benefit students, faculty and the university, school officials said at the time. The retailer offered students and faculty free one-day shipping on textbooks shipped to campus or nearby zip codes.

The decision to sign a contract with Amazon, however, was unpopular with some. UMass student Matthew Cunningham-Cook, a member of the Student Labor Project, in 2015 was quoted in the Gazette as saying Amazon reflects an “absolutely horrific record” of labor practices in its warehouses and supply chain.

That same concern is one of several shared by members of the Massachusetts Society of Professors, the union representing faculty and librarians. Eve Weinbaum, the union’s president and an associate professor of labor studies and sociology, said that members have complained of Amazon’s labor practices, students’ books being delivered late and specialized materials being unavailable through its online store, among other issues.

“It’s something we have gotten a lot of complaints from our members about over the years,” Weinbaum said of the Amazon contract.

Under the federal Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008, colleges and universities are required to publicly post the ISBN, or international standard book number, prices and other pertinent information for all texts for courses. The goal is to give students the ability to shop around for cheaper textbooks, but Weinbaum said that faculty were irked at the fact that they had to use the university’s Amazon portal to do that reporting, even if they wanted students to buy the book through a local bookstore.

“We’ve been arguing that there’s no reason we should have to tell Amazon what we’re teaching,” Weinbaum said. “The vendor should be separate from the reporting requirement.”

Faculty have asked to be involved in the selection process for the next company, and have several criteria: that students have access to low-cost books, that materials be quickly available, that reporting be separate from the vendor, that the university partners with local bookstores as much as possible and that the company chosen has a good labor record.

UMass plans to solicit input from faculty, students, staff and administrators on the selection process for a new company, according to Fitzgibbons, including the faculty senate, student government association and graduate student senate.

Amazon’s decision to pull out of UMass Amherst may come as good news for smaller businesses in the area.

“We are hoping that this will bring some business back to the community,” said Nat Herold, one of the owners of Amherst Books, which now stands alone in a downtown that used to be filled with independent bookstores. No other company, he said, poses a threat to his business quite like Amazon, and their departure might drive more business his way. “Whatever they go to, it’ll be better for us.”

Fitzgibbons said the university would be open to working with a local business if it could accommodate the university’s huge student body. Herold said he would love to make a bid, but that Amherst Books couldn’t handle all those massive needs. Nevertheless, Herold said he’s hoping the bookstore shake up will benefit his shop.

“I’d like to pick up some of the business now, hopefully with some literature and history classes,” Herold said.

Earlier this year, Amherst Books also partnered with Hampshire College to supply textbooks after Follett didn’t renew its contract with the school.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.