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Finding and Buying College Textbooks For Cheap

Updated on November 30, 2012

School isn’t cheap. Tuition, meal plans, parking, “student fees” (whatever they are!), technology fees…and books. Books, at some schools, can cost as much as tuition. When you need to buy three or four $100 books, you begin looking around for other options in a hurry. But where can you turn to get those books for less? You might be surprised at some of your options.

Textbook Costs

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Buy your books on campus

There’s a campus bookstore, and they often have used copies of the books, but it’s not always a huge savings. Buying a used book for $80 instead of a new book for $100 isn’t exactly the deal of the century, although, sometimes it’s the best deal you can find, especially if the book is one that is produced solely for the school, as a number of “made to order” literature textbooks are.

But don’t just check the store. Find out if there’s a board or two posted around the school where students can put up posters and messages. You can see if someone has already listed one for sale, or you can put up your own sign, asking people to contact you. Cutting out the middleman of the college bookstore can save you a lot of money, and it gives you a place to sell the book back yourself.

The Strand Book Store in Manhattan.
The Strand Book Store in Manhattan. | Source

Buy your books at used bookstores

Not everyone goes back to the college bookstore at the end of the semester to sell their books. People do sometimes drop in the middle of the semester, and they’re not likely to go back and try to sell those books for pennies on the dollar if it’s out of their way. However, they may go find a used book store and try to sell them there. Some used book stores even have their inventory available online or least on a system in the store. Call around and ask; you might be surprised at what you find, and used book stores are more likely to have lower prices because they don’t know if the textbooks are still in use or how much they originally sold for.

Depending on where you live, you can also look at chains like Half Price Books, who will even ship them to you if you aren’t local to the location that has the book you need!

Buying Books Online

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Getting books delivered
Getting books delivered | Source

Get your books online

Notice I didn’t say buy your books online. While you can buy them online, don’t forget to check out Google Books. Depending on the book you need, you may be able to view it free. This is especially true of books that are no longer under copyright, like classic fiction or philosophy. Why pay for a copy of Plato’s Republic if you can just log in and read away?

If you need a textbook, though, and it isn’t available for free viewing, then you have a number of options.

First, there’s one of the most obvious choices: Amazon. They have a large selection of new and used books. If you’re a Prime member, you can even get free shipping on some of the used books. Just make sure to select the Prime only tab, and you can see what you can get. Keep in mind that not everyone who sells through Amazon has their books in their own inventory; some of them are at Amazon for fulfillment. This can make a difference in the amount of time shipping takes.

Next up is Half.com. While their name might be “Half,” that doesn’t mean that the books are really being sold for half their cost. Since they are completely separate from Amazon, you might find wild fluctuation between prices on Amazon and Half. In the case of Half, you will have a lot of individuals who are selling their books, and you may wind up getting better prices – but slower shipping – because of it.

Another option is eBay. Most people don’t think of an online auction site when it comes times to buy their textbooks, but that doesn’t mean you should be most people. The deals are there, and many sellers will list books at a set price and leave them, hoping to sell them sooner or later. Because of that, I’ve actually purchased a number of textbooks from eBay, finding that they will offer free shipping to try to close a deal. When comparing prices, I’ve gotten books for less at eBay than at other sites. Not all the time, I admit, but often enough that I make sure to keep them in my rotation when the new syllabi are posted and I’m starting my book shopping.

Finally, there’s a lesser known option that can be your best friend: ABEBooks. ABE Books used to be by subscription only, and it was used by used book sellers. Now it’s open to all, and that’s great because they have good deals. Since the people there are professional used booksellers, they are generally extremely accurate in their book descriptions, and many even include pictures.

When buying online, always make sure to check out the seller’s feedback, the shipping time (it doesn’t help if it will take a month and you need it in a week), the shipping cost, the exchange policy/guarantee, and the condition of the book. “Good” condition doesn’t always mean the same thing to each person; I’ve ordered “Good” books and had to return them due to water damage. Read carefully, and be aware that you might need to return and re-buy if there’s a problem.

Don't do this if you want to use your school's library!

Borrow your books from the library

Many school libraries have copies of the textbooks that they loan out. You may not be able to keep them for the whole semester, but if you’re waiting for a check to come in, this is a great option. The library may also have a “reference copy” of the textbook. Being a reference copy means that you can’t take it home, but if you’re willing to do your work in the library, you can often save a lot of money.

Don’t forget to check out other school libraries and your public library. In some states, like Texas, you can get a library card that will allow you to borrow from any library in the state’s system. It is similar to an inter-library loan, except for that fact that you are able to get the book yourself directly from the source. Using the TexShare card, I was able to borrow three textbooks from a local university’s library, saving me about $150!

Rent your textbooks

Check with the college bookstore to see if you can rent the book. It’s not much different than buying it and selling it back, except that you don’t have to worry about hitting that “buy back” date or how much your bottom line is. You know from the beginning how much you’ll be spending out of pocket. It can reduce the original cost. But you do need to remember to return the book, or you will be charged in full.

Studying at the SBCA College Library
Studying at the SBCA College Library | Source

Find e-books

Some textbooks are available as e-books or .pdf files. Either way, if you have an e-book reader or are willing to download one of the free interfaces and read it on your computer, you can often buy the book for less. However, there is a downside – you can “mark” the book up, but it’s not quite the same for those of us who like really writing in the margins. You also can’t resell the book, so if it’s not something you’re going to keep referencing, you might be out more money in the long run.

Things to Consider Before Buying Textbooks

Does edition really matter?

Check with your instructor (if you can) to see if the edition of the book matters. In some cases, there are “international” editions, especially of computing and programming textbooks, and if your teacher doesn’t mind, those editions can cost a lot less. In some cases, different editions will have different page numbers and different items included in them. For example, in an English textbook that I use when teaching, the difference between two editions was quite noticeable. At least three essays were removed, three essays were added, and the chapters were re-ordered. For students who had the old edition, they had to scramble to figure out what pages we were reading in their book, and they had to borrow and photocopy essays from friends. If you’re willing – or able – to do that, great. If not, then make sure you have the edition you need.

How much of the textbook are you going to use?

Sometimes it just isn’t worth it to by a textbook. Again, it’s time to talk to your teacher. If the class calls for multiple books, find out if any of them are just meant as reference materials. When I took classes, there were often “required” and “suggested” books for the class. If the book was on the “suggested” list, it was often referenced, but there were no assignments out of it. Ask and see if any of the books you need are more of a suggestion than a requirement for success in the class.

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    • cyoung35 profile image

      Chad Young 4 years ago from Corona, CA

      Great tips! College is expensive enough and any amount of money you can save on books will help, especially if your pinching pennies already.

    • ambercita04 profile image

      Amber 4 years ago from Winter Park

      Great article! I use many of these things already but a lot of first time college students don't know about this especially when colleges promote buying books from their bookstores.

    • thecollegeway profile image

      thecollegeway 4 years ago

      I tend to buy most of my books online at Amazon. However, many college bookstores are renting out text books now and I have taken advantage of that as well. If I am correct, I believe Amazon also rents out certain text books now too? Instead of selling the books I buy back to a college bookstore or Amazon, I actually sell them back at http://www.sellbackyourbook.com/. They offer free shipping and competitive pricing that I have found to be much better than many other places.