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Cheap College Textbooks Buying Guide

Most campus bookstores sell textbooks at full retail price and buy them back at a steep discount. The suppliers in the online textbook marketplace offer better deals, and our research identified several -- TextbookRush, Skyo, eCampus.com, and Chegg -- that earn more than a passing grade from customers.

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We also found one, Valore Books, whose performance is rated below average.

Sites that traffic in cheap print copies of college textbooks sell them outright or rent them for a set period of time. The top four sites maintain inventories with hundreds of thousands of titles. Each one also hosts a third-party marketplace where independent actors (students, small businesses) list books for sale and set their own prices. Valore Books is strictly an intermediary between buyers/renters and third-party book suppliers.

Digital textbooks, a.k.a. etextbooks, are the latest entry in the college book market. At the moment, only some vendors are stocking some texts in digital format; more are certainly on the way. We looked into the burgeoning business of etextbooks, but given their limited supply across the board, we didn't consider etextbook offerings a "must-have" feature of a top textbook website.

What We Looked for in Textbook Websites

Low Prices.

The online vendors typically claim you'll save anywhere from 40 percent to 90 percent compared with campus stores. Comparison sites such as BigWords.com, BookFinder.com, Affordabook.com, and TextbookRentals.com can point you to the cheapest source.

To give students an idea how the market works, we investigated textbook prices on six sites known for cheap textbooks. We also included Barnes & Noble, which operates hundreds of campus bookstores, as a proxy for bricks-and-mortar stores. We compared print copies of new and used books, rentals, and electronic textbooks (when available), as well as buyback prices. Our search focused on three titles: Campbell Biology (10th edition) by Jane B. Reece; Basic Statistics for Business and Economics (8th edition) by Douglas Lind, William Marchal, and Samuel Wathen; and Comparative Politics: Domestic Responses to Global Changes (8th edition) by Charles Hauss and Melissa Haussman.

We found that no one site consistently offers the lowest purchase/rental prices or highest buyback prices. Nor is one strategy for snaring the book you need -- buying or renting hard copies or buying or renting digital editions -- the optimal approach. However, in all cases, an online merchant offered a better deal than Barnes & Noble.

Note that prices are extremely fluid in the universe of online textbook sales and rentals, and those we found in mid-summer aren't necessarily the prices you'll find now. On the day we searched, Valore Books posted the lowest prices for new copies of all three books. In the used-books segment, Valore offered the lowest price for Campbell Biology and Basic Statistics while Amazon, through its marketplace, underpriced the competition for the remaining title. The prize for cheapest semester-long rental went to TextbookRush for Campbell Biology and Comparative Politics, and to Valore Books for Basic Statistics. The best buyback prices belonged to TextbookRush for all three. Although we checked ebook prices, as well, limited supply renders price comparisons meaningless.

Price certainly matters. But the choice of vendors will also be affected by other considerations, including shipping fees, return and buyback policies, the buying vs. renting conundrum, and whether to opt for a new, used, or electronic textbook.

Used Textbooks.

All the college textbook websites on our list sell pre-owned books at prices cheaper than the cost of a new book; e.g., $120 for a used Basic Statistics for Business and Economics versus $243 for a new version at eCampus.com. Comments posted on a range of review sites indicate that students appreciate the attractive deals available in the secondhand market.

Unlike with a new and pristine book, when you know what you're paying for, the exchange isn't as straightforward with a cheaper used text. Used textbooks often come with defects, such as missing pages, excessive highlighting, and handwritten notes. The vendors generally provide some clues about the condition of the book, but even for the best online sources of cheap college texts, we read complaints about the disappointing condition of used copies.

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Another potential complication with pre-owned texts: You won't receive an access code for resources available only online and might not get supplemental materials like CDs or manuals. Sometimes you can get the access code through customer service, as with Amazon, or by going directly to the publisher, but you'll be charged a hefty fee ($50 is not unheard of). Most textbook sites tell you this upfront, but it's often buried in fine print and easy to miss. If you need these materials be prepared to pay up or default to a new copy.

Textbook Rentals.

Textbook rental prices are lower than purchase prices (e.g., $111.43 to rent Basic Statistics from Skyo versus $189.50 to buy used) and students say savings mount quickly. Plus, you know where the book is going when you're done with it -- no worries about book buyback hassles or overcrowded shelf space in your dorm room. And returning rentals by mail is free. The sites even send email reminders about approaching due dates. That said, we read some grousing in online comments about notifications that never appeared.

When renting textbooks, a used copy that comes "as is" is standard, although some lucky customers may receive a new copy. Supplements, such as access codes to online materials, are not part of the package. Rental periods generally run from 30 days to 360 days, depending on the college textbook site, with prices varying accordingly. Skyo, which specializes in rentals, offers 60-, 90-, and 125-day rentals all at the same price; rental prices at Chegg vary by state. Most textbook sites let you extend the rental (for a fee, of course) or convert it to outright purchase. Fines are assessed for late returns, and some sites are really strict: Valore Books, for example, automatically extends the rental for 15 days and then refers the account to a collection agency if the fee isn't paid.

Some student reviewers report they were smacked with overdue fines even though they claim the book was returned at the appointed time. Some gripe that the condition of the rentals is worse than described and others assert that, although returned books were in excellent condition, the rental site insisted otherwise and assessed an extra fee. Still, student reviews suggest that renting is a good deal, on the whole.

Free Shipping.

Three of the top four cheap textbook sites offer free shipping on orders exceeding a certain threshold (e.g., a high of $85 at Chegg and a low of $35 at TextbookRush), while Skyo ships all orders at no charge to customers. Valore Books, by contrast, always charges a shipping fee; $3.95 per item for delivery in four to 14 days is the least expensive option. Charges vary by company for smaller orders, and obviously cost more for expedited shipping. ECampus.com, for example, charges $18 per order plus $6.99 per item for overnight delivery. Shipping for book buybacks and rental returns is free at all the sites we researched.

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