Cheapism: The best sites to buy textbooks

Aug. 16, 2011 at 8:32 PM ET

AP /
The first rule for finding cheap textbooks: Don't go to the bookstore.

By Kara Reinhardt

For college students, back-to-school often means an expensive trip to the campus bookstore. The average cost of books and supplies at a four-year public university last year was $1,137, according to the College Board. Savvy students can save money by shopping online at specialized college textbook sites, which claim to offer savings of up to 90 percent. These sites also offer e-textbook downloads for Kindles, iPads, and other e-readers. Students can either rent or buy the books they need. While renting tends to be cheaper, buying is better for those who want to be able to refer back to a book after a course is over or add yellow highlights with abandon. Like bricks-and-mortar bookstores, textbook websites will often buy back books at the end of the term, provided they are still in good condition — typically for far less than the purchase price, of course.

When you shop for anything online, shipping costs can cut into the savings. Some textbook sites offer free shipping if you spend over a certain amount. Return shipping factors in as well if you’re renting or planning to sell books back to a site. Be sure to order ASAP so you’ll have your books in time to start classes.

Most sites offer both new and used books; the better the condition, the higher the price. If you opt for the cheapest books, be prepared for bent corners and doodles in the margins. Many sites also note that they can’t guarantee a used textbook will come with all the original supplemental materials, such as CDs.

A broad selection can allow you to order books for all your classes in one place. A large inventory also makes it easier to find enough books to hit the minimum amount required for free shipping. However, many sites use third-party sellers — aka other students — to widen their selection, which can make them somewhat less reliable.

Here are Cheapism’s top picks for college textbooks sites.

    • Textbook rental site offers 2.4 million titles and gives students the option to send books back for free or buy them at the end of the term. Students can also buy and sell books. The site holds renters accountable for the books’ condition upon return, so it may not be the best choice for copious highlighters, but it earns positive reviews for providing books that look like new. Users also praise the site’s customer service. (Where to buy)
    • boasts a selection of 7 million books to buy or rent and offers free shipping on orders of $25 or more. User reviews often cite as the cheapest option, and the site itself promises up to 90 percent off. Customers also applaud a redesign that makes it easy to find the best deal. (Where to buy)
    • offers not just textbooks but regular books, DVDs, Blue-ray discs, and college apparel. The site’s textbook inventory comes from a network of third-party sellers, making it susceptible to complaints about delinquent deliveries. Shipping is free for rental returns and orders over $59. (Where to buy)

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