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BookRenter Morphs into Rafter; Offers Free Textbook Adoption Data

The textbook business, which is attracting increased scrutiny as schools struggle to make the transition to digital content and campuses seek ways to bring down the cost of course materials for their students, is just about to get even more interesting. BookRenter, which provides textbook rental services to about 5,000 campuses, has formally launched a new company to deliver a number of services to facilitate faculty textbook selection and manage bookstore operations.

The new company, named Rafter, has also introduced a free online database that provides real-time and historical views on economic trends, adoption patterns, and reviews for more than 11 million textbooks. BookRenter is becoming a division of Rafter.

"We've been working directly with colleges and universities for more than two years to develop a new approach to course materials management that goes far beyond textbook rental," said Mehdi Maghsoodnia, CEO of Rafter. "With the launch of Rafter, we bring that approach to a whole new level, empowering schools to radically innovate and solve the long-standing, systemic issues surrounding the delivery of course materials for their students. Rafter will use the latest technology to greatly improve the economics, quality of service, and student experience surrounding course materials."

Rafter's Course Materials Network is a suite of cloud-based services intended, the company said, to help reduce costs for students and stores and help educators discover and adopt the best materials.

The Network consists of supplier- and content-neutral tools that address four areas of course materials management.

First, Rafter Supply IQ reports real-time textbook pricing and inventory data, providing negotiating power and tools to help bookstores be competitive. The Rafter Supply Network service is designed to help schools acquire, rent, sell, deliver, and liquidate textbooks and other digital resources through national sources of demand. Its information feed offers inventory from hundreds of book suppliers and college stores to provide economies of scale, comparative pricing data, and rental titles and purchases for both new and used titles.

Second, Rafter Cloud Commerce and Rafter Local Commerce allow students to purchase new, used, and digital books, or rent these titles in the bookstore, online, or from a mobile device. One feature is local pickup of online orders. Rafter is pegging the service as a way to increase customer loyalty by keeping book buyers within the bookstore via multiple channels.

Third, Rafter CRM provides mechanism to help bookstores increase business with marketing, merchandising, and promotional services. For example, Rafter expects to help schools do online marketing through e-mail, mobile texts, searching marketing, and Facebook. CRM also provides performance measurement with real-time dashboards and reporting.

Fourth, Rafter Discover, publicly online at discover.rafter.com, taps the company's eight years of adoption, bibliographic, and economic data to provide insights into adoption patterns, prices, and contents for more than 11 million textbooks and other course materials. The service includes information on editions, publication dates, inventory, life cycle, adoption patterns, and current market pricing.

The service currently supports about 80 percent of digital content, that which is offered by the major publishers, as well as print textbooks. Eventually, the company reported, it expects Discover's collection of reviews by instructors to build, thereby further helping in textbook adoption decisions. It will also provide a platform for discovering free open education resources and paid materials from non-mainstream publishers.

"Currently, educators don't have a comprehensive source of information on educational materials that is free of bias and can give them side-by-side comparisons of course materials," said Maghsoodnia. "Our team is excited to partner with campus leaders to be able to provide the tools and services required to help educators discover and adopt new types of content for their classes, share that information with the educator community and in turn improve the quality of higher education."

Jared Ceja, director of auxiliary services for Chaffey College, which has three campuses in San Bernardino County in Southern California, has been a BookRenter customer for about a year. He said the bookstore started as an online affiliate, by allowing students to go through the bookstore's Web site to rent books from BookRenter.

Ceja has previewed some of the tools Rafter is now announcing. "They're great and really quite innovative and have things that don't really exist in our marketplace now," he said. "They're recording trends and market demands that we have not been privy to in the past. It's things that wholesalers or publishers [probably] understood, but as an individual store, it was data that we could not realistically accumulate and digest ourselves. So [Rafter] is really opening up the market to us, allowing us to see more of what is out there and what's going on."

The college was one of a handful of stores that piloted and eventually adopted the Cloud Commerce service. "If students went through any rental source, they had to wait a week until that book arrived, unless they wanted to pay an exorbitant fee to get it overnighted to them," Ceja noted. With the new service, students can "literally grab the book off the shelf" and rent it.

Behind the scenes, he added, the bookstore sells the book to BookRenter, which sets the rental price based on a proprietary algorithm. The bookstore also acts as a return hub for renters and pickup center for online shoppers.

Now Rafter is working with Chaffee's point of sale system provider to integrate transactions. Currently, the rental transaction is separate from other purchases and is handled through the BookRenter portal. Now the two providers are hammering out details to enable their separate components to "talk and provide a seamless transaction," Ceja explained.

Ceja said he believes that Rafter Discover, the free trends data service, will provide "valuable information" for Chaffee's faculty. "That kind of transparency just does not exist now. We have major publishers that spend time and money and effort sending publisher reps to our campus and other campuses to show their wares. While there's no problem with that, there are other players in the market that may lack the resources despite having a nice, cost-effective, and tremendously valuable [book or] tool that never gets in front of our instructors. And our instructors don't have the time to go out and search every single option that is out there. So this really adds transparency to our market and gives instructors information to make as educated a choice as they possibly could."

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