In the summer of 2015, Tara and I added the ability for students at UNC to compare the prices of textbooks at the UNC Student Store and Amazon, Chegg, and AbeBooks. This was big for us because it was going to be our first bit of revenue (we could make up to 7.5% of the textbook purchase price through Amazon if we drove enough volume). We were incredibly excited, because if it went well then we wouldn't have to sell to universities (it was becoming clear that they weren't interested) and we could launch at the schools without working with them and make money through these affiliate fees. Within a month of launch, the people at the UNC Student Store furiously summoned ITS and demanded that they "shut down" Coursicle (I think they even asked them to block the domain on campus). ITS told them they weren't going to do that, but they would get us to take down the links. We insisted on a meeting with the UNC Student Store leadership team to try to convince them to change their minds. They were convinced their prices were cheaper than Amazon (which didn't make sense to us, because then why would there be a problem?) and that the funds they make at the Student Stores help fund student scholarships (something we obviously didn't want to disrupt, but we were unable to verify the extent to which this was true). In this meeting, we offered to put up a notice encouraging people to buy through the Student Store because it helps fund scholarships and add links to add the textbooks directly to their student account, no dice. We even offered to give them all of the money we made through the links (we just wanted to know how much we could make), nada. read more
In the end, they got everything they wanted: we took down the links, and then they asked us to write them a check for all of the money that we had made up until that point (which was fucking stupid, but we complied because it was so little money it wasn't worth it to fight about; pretty sure it was like $103 or something).
I thought what they were doing was morally wrong: profiting off students, particularly freshman, who just assumed that the Student Store was competitively priced (I fell victim to this freshman year; spent $1,000 on textbooks when I could have spent $200). As a university that prides itself on its affordability, I found this remarkably hypocritical. There was a reporter at The Daily Tar Heel I liked, Jack Davis, so I decided to work with him to leak what happened.
Here are some raw notes from that time when I was working with Jack to leak the story. Unfortunately, we decided not to go through with it because we didn't really have our own two feet to stand on at that point. This was a pretty important lesson, though: severe yourself from everyone whose interests are not aligned with yours.
I feel like it's wrong for me not to say something. What's the worst that could happen for us telling the truth? Why would they break ties with us for taking no action, just for saying that the Student Stores made us take down the Amazon links?
If "using university resources for financial gain" really was the problem, then why didn't they ask us to turn over the money, or ask us to stop making money from the links, rather than removing them altogether?
Remember what Jack said: after he got the original response from the spokesman, after I had told him everything. At the end he said he thought that I was in the clear morally. He thought that it was still important for people to know that the university would want such a tool shut down, when it claims it cares about affordability for all students.
Why you shouldn’t be worried: ultimately, the university acted in a way to disable competition. Just like what Follett did to texts.com. Even if they claim components of what you did were wrong, that’s important. And they didn’t shut us down because we were using university resources for financial gain, they shut us down because they wanted to keep their money. We weren’t using university resources, and we suggested a way where we wouldn’t be making financial gain. Often what they said was “we found out there was another bookstore operating on campus”.
Note: the UNC coursicle link was still on my.unc.edu on Sunday night.
To Tara: the majority of what I told him about what I sent you was technically off the record, just so that he could do the investigation. He said he needed more info to investigate the claim.
For Maribel to know: I told them what we talked about on the phone, but after that, he essentially said it wasn’t enough. He needed specifics about the meeting, what the chain of events was, etc. Could only tell that from my perspective. When the UNC spokesperson responded, he needed more specific information about what happened, the meeting, etc.
Tara doesn’t really like this, says that it’s not factual enough. Which is true, it should have been more like “as far as we were aware…":
Just to be clear: when the Student Store originally complained to ITS, as far as we could tell us making money was not part of their original demand to take down all reference to Amazon (if this had been the problem, then they could have just asked us to remove the money-making part and keep the Amazon prices and links on the site, which they didn't; they wanted no reference to Amazon whatsoever). Like I said, back then the argument they made to us wasn't that we were using university resources for financial gain, their concern seemed to be, as they repeated often in our meeting with them, that "there was another bookstore operating on campus”.
And if they’re now claiming the problem was us using university resources, I gave my response yesterday explaining that we weren’t using university servers and we were using public information.
If they mention money being detracted from Student Scholarships/us making money being the problem:
Ultimately, we wanted to provide students with the most information to help them make informed purchasing decisions, while also supporting student scholarships. So when we met with John Gorsuch, we offered to donate all profits from the affiliate links to the scholarship program, as well as provide students with a notice on the site that says that the profits of the Student Stores go to scholarships. We haven’t heard from them, though.
If they say that some of the information was wrong:
We asked them for some examples but they didn’t provide us with any. We were also providing official university data on the site.
If they mention specifically the combination of books being wrong:
We asked them for some examples but they didn’t provide us with any.
We wanted to make it easier for students to figure out what combinations of books were required, because right now the “required package format” codes aren’t very enlightening, so we asked Student Store employees to explain how the codes mapped to certain combinations, and used what they said to generate the mappings. That being said, many combinations of codes seem to be poorly defined.
Off the record, they may want to include what happened with texts.com, because:
Given Follett’s history with price comparison sites, a Follett Student Store at UNC would likely look very negatively at us doing price comparisons.
Also, did you see my email about the small corrections?
An article about a very similar debacle years ago at Harvard. The students actually ended up founding Verba: http://www.boston.com/news/education/higher/articles/2007/09/26/in_harvard_square_a_war_over_words/
Over the summer, we actually put up Amazon prices and links alongside Student Store textbook prices to help students make informed purchasing decisions (this feature is currently up on our UPenn site and has been for 4 months now). But the Student Store bookstore got very angry when they found out, and demanded we take down any reference to Amazon/other third-parties on our site. Essentially, our university support had been put in jeopardy. And so we took down all price listings on the UNC Coursicle site.
Off the record, you should really look at:
NC State’s bookstore, who actually offer their own price comparison (Amazon, Half, and others).
Off the record which I forgot to mention last time:
The bookstore staff actually demanded that ITS take down the website completely.
Do let me know if you end up interviewing the student stores before press-time. We’d prefer not to leak more information than this, but we know that if you did talk to the Student Stores, they won’t mention our side of the conversation to try to address their concerns. But we don’t want to mention it gratuitously, because we want to step on as few toes as possible.
Maribel said that the best thing to do is to answer them honestly. Just say that the Student Stores got very angry that we had Amazon prices and links alongside Student Store prices. Because we were university supported, we had to decide whether to break ties or to keep the links.
Ask if he’s interviewing student stores, if he isn’t don’t worry.
My proposal: if he's interviewing the student stores and they say "it was because they were making money", say he quote me as saying "we offered to donate all our profits to the Student Store". Say that if the student stores say that the problem was that students didn't know our profits go to scholarships, he can quote me as saying "we offered to give students a very clear notice saying their profits went to scholarships".
She also questioned their motives in the conversation when she realized we were showing student store prices alongside Amazon prices. She said she trusted my instincts.
I said make sure we don't get involved with this Follett discussion.