11 ways to beat the system when buying college textbooks

If you’re a college student starting a new academic year, you’re likely reeling in shock from the amount of money you’re being asked to spend on textbooks.

The price tags on those books can be astonishing — and they’re always climbing. The U.S. Government Accountability Office reports that college textbook prices have increased at twice the rate of inflation.

Is there any way to avoid this crippling expense? Actually, there are several. The following tips can give you some ideas for beating the system this semester.

1. Beat the crowds. Your on-campus bookstore is your simplest and fastest route for finding the books you need, but it also can be the most expensive. That said, you may be able to save a little bit of money by arriving at the store as early as possible — the minute you get your list of required books — so you can snatch up used copies.

2. Use ISBN numbers to comparison shop. While at the on-campus bookstore, write down ISBN numbers and prices for both new and used books, and then use that information to shop around online. Check prices on the Web sites of, Barnes & Noble, eBay, and To save time, comparison shopping sites such as or SwoopThat can be incredibly helpful. is great because it focuses so specifically on textbooks in all formats, and SwoopThat is convenient because it quickly allows you to compare prices for the books you’ll need based on the courses you’re taking. Another good comparison shopping site is

3. Kiss print books goodbye. A recent study by NACS OnCampus Research revealed that 75 percent of students still prefer print textbooks, even though e-books on Kindle, iPad and other platforms are constantly growing in popularity. Yes, print is nice — but e-books are just so much cheaper. At several of the sites mentioned in tip number 2, you’ll be given the option of choosing from print, digital or audio forms of the textbooks you need. In many cases you can highlight areas of e-books and make notes in the margins as you read your books online. Another option: allows you to buy single book chapters for as little as $1.99.

4. Rent your textbooks via Kindle. announced the launch of Kindle Textbook Rental with much fanfare last month. You don’t have to own a Kindle to read the rented books; once you rent them, they can be accessed using free Kindle Reading Apps for PC, Mac, iPad, iPod touch, iPhone, BlackBerry, Windows Phone and Android-based devices. Here’s an excerpt about rental rates from an article by writer Anika Anand: “For example, the full price listing of Psychology in Action published by John Wiley & Sons is about $154. A used hardcover copy on Amazon starts at $62, or the Kindle edition can be rented for about $29 for 30 days. If you want to rent the book for 60 days, it would be about $36; for 90 days, about $43; and for 120 days, the length of a typical semester, about $46. Assuming a student does purchase the course materials for the duration of the class, he or she would save about $16 plus potential shipping costs over the price of the cheapest available used version.”

5. Rent your textbooks in other ways. Much like online movie-rental services, sites like and allows you to rent textbooks rather than buy them. The savings can be substantial, so long as you’re careful to return your books on time so your rentals don’t get converted to purchases. Another option: Check to see whether your college or university offers a textbook rental service to help students save money. To learn about additional ways to rent textbooks rather than buy them, check out this helpful column on the subject from ConsumerMan Herb Weisbaum.

6. Check out CourseSmart. Five textbook publishers — Pearson, John Wiley & Sons, Cengage Learning, McGraw-Hill Education and Bedford, Freeman & Worth Publishing Group — have teamed up to make thousands of textbooks available in the less expensive e-book format via CourseSmart is continuing to add book titles all the time, so much so that the site boasts that its catalog includes more than “90 percent of the core textbooks in use today in North American Higher Education.”

7. Free downloads are your friends. Many classics of literature and a wide array of other books can be downloaded for free at Web sites such as Project Gutenberg.

8. Form a book-sharing confederation. Do you know or can you meet other students who share your major? If so, you could create a band of brothers (and sisters) who share, buy and sell books with each other at fair prices.

9. The library doesn’t charge a dime. Many colleges set aside copies of textbooks at the library, where they can be used for free. Your city or county library may even have copies of certain textbooks. Just be aware that this approach can backfire on you if the books you’re seeking aren’t available when you need them.

10. Older editions are always worth a look. If a new edition has just been released for one of the textbooks on your list, compare it carefully with the last edition. The changes may be so minor that you really won’t need to pay top dollar for the newer version.

11. Sell your books with care. The on-campus bookstore will give you a mere fraction of what you paid for your books once you’re done with them, so sell within the network of students you helped establish, or do so online through sites such as, Barnes & Noble, eBay, and

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