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Yesterday at 1 a.m., Harpaul A. Kohli '01 did something hundreds of Harvard students have done before. He ordered textbooks on the Internet.
What made Kohli's purchase memorable was that it marked the first sale on the Web site of a new player in the lucrative business of selling textbooks over the Internet: the Undergraduate Council.
The launching of the UC Books Web site at 12:01 a.m. yesterday--just an hour before Kohli placed his order--represented the start of a business venture that council members hope will have strong repercussions across the Harvard campus.
For Council Technology Coordinator Paul A. Gusmorino '02, the Web site marks the end of months of difficult programming.
For Michael D. Shumsky '00 and John Paul Rollert '00, the chair and vice-chair of the Committee of Undergraduate Education (CUE), it is the end of long negotiations with administrators and book vendors over server space and discount prices.
For new Council President Fentrice D. Driskell '01, it means a potential new source of revenue for an under-funded council whose bid for a term bill increase failed.
The new site presents serious competition for the student founders of Flyingchickens.com, now called Limespot.com, who launched their site last fall. For students beginning their shopping period today, UC Books means that they will have yet another option in their quest to minimize what can be one of the biggest costs of going to college.
Exercise in Logistics
Gusmorino, a computer science concentrator, immediately began working on a demo. Shumsky prepared a report to present to the CUE, which then approved the project in the spring.
According to Gusmorino, the council planned to have UC Books ready last fall--to coincide with the launch of Flyingchickens.com--but it was not to be.
The project was caught up in negotiations with administrators over space on Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) server. The result of those discussions: UC Books can be found at www.fas.harvard.edu/
How It Works
First, students pick their courses. This spring the site only searches for books from courses in the Core Curriculum and five other departments: chemistry, computer science, economics, government and mathematics.
"We're testing it out and seeing how it goes," Gusmorino says. "Next fall we hope to have everything."
Second, the site calls up lists of books for the courses students select. The students check off the books that they want to buy on-line.
According to Gusmorino, UC Books gets its reading lists directly from professors, which he says--along with the FAS hosting and University support--gives the project a reliable, official quality.
Third, students are able to select their preferences--which book vendors they are willing to buy from and how long they can wait for shipping.
After entering their choices, Gusmorino's algorithm does its work, taking into account shipping costs and tax to offer students the lowest possible price.
Fourth, UC Books offers students the chance to "Buy Books Now!" The site provides links to the Web sites of the book vendors with instructions on how to make purchases.
Gusmorino, who coded the site's algorithm, says UC Books is on the "cutting edge" of on-line book buying.
Driskell, who checked out the site in its first day of use, goes further in her praise of the site.
"This is one of the best services for students I have ever seen," she says.
Shumsky also predicts success for UC Books, suggesting that the site's expansion to include all FAS courses next fall is almost a foregone conclusion. But he remains cautious.
"I know you're not supposed to count your chickens before they hatch," says Shumsky.
Schleier-Smith is responsible for technology development for Limespot.com, formerly known as Flyingchickens.com. He claims that the council stole his idea in creating UC Books, but he says he's not angry about it.
"It shows this is a useful service," he says of the council's entry into the textbook market. "We expect competition."
But the competition may not be on a level playing field. UC Books's alliance with the University has given it some advantages that businesses like limespot.com don't enjoy.
Foremost among these is the edge of having "no capital," as Gusmorino puts it. Limespot.com currently spends $400 a month for its own server, according to Aviva A. Geiger '01, who handles marketing for limespot.com.
UC Books, on the other hand, gets free space on the University's FAS server.
Gusmorino says the only real money that has been put into UC Books is the $100 that the council has appropriated for advertising.
As a result of its negligible costs, UC Books is able to offer students the option of buying from vendors who don't always pay UC Books a commission, but may offer lower prices to students. UC Books searches the libraries of 10 on-line book vendors, twice limespot.com's total.
And where vendors offer UC Books a choice between the standard 5 percent commission and 5 percent off the price students pay, UC Books opts for the latter.
Schleier-Smith shrugs off UC Books's apparently wider selection and lower prices. He says not all the vendors liespot.com uses provide the company with a commission.
And Schleier-Smith says that the five booksellers Limespot.com uses are plenty. The smaller vendors like Booksamillion and Fat Brain--which UC Books includes--may offer a good price on some books, but they do not have a wide enough selection to justify their use, he says.
"Students need a reasonably quick way to put together a package," he says. "They want to buy from one or two vendors."
Because of this, Schleier-Smith says, he doubts the smaller vendors will be of much use to UC Books's patrons.
Those involved with UC Books say the new site holds many other advantages over limespot.com.
While limespot.com gets its reading lists from library course reserves, UC Books gets its listings directly from professors.
UC Books factors tax and shipping costs into its pricing, something that flyingchickens.com didn't do last semester (though limespot.com now includes shipping).
UC Books has a special referral program with Wordsworth Books and is working on a similar arrangement with the Harvard Bookstore, according to Gusmorino.
In the end, any profits UC Books makes are contributed to programs run by the council. Driskell says she believes the project's success will depend on how well the council can make this point to the students.
Driskell is unsure of how much money UC Books will actually make, but she has high hopes.
"It would be ideal if we could raise maybe $5,000," she says.
This would represent a significant profit margin, given Gusmorino's estimate of $100 in advertising overhead. Yet, Gusmorino professes "no expectations."
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