Cheap College Textbooks
- Published on
- By Elizabeth Sheer
The average undergraduate at a four-year state school shells out more than $1,200 a year for books and supplies, according to the College Board. One way to ease the burden: Shop for cheap textbooks online. The online vendors typically claim that students can save anywhere from 40 percent to 90 percent compared with campus bookstores. Comparison sites such as Affordabook and Bargainbookmole can point students to the cheapest source. Proceed carefully, though -- some textbook sites fail to deliver in more ways than one.
Cheap College Textbooks Buying Guide
Suppliers in the online textbook marketplace tend to offer better deals than campus bookstores. Our research identified several that earn more than a passing grade from customers: TextbookRush, BookRenter, eCampus, and Chegg. We also found one, ValoreBooks, that reviewers rate 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 also hosts a third-party marketplace where independent sellers (students, small businesses) set their own prices. ValoreBooks is strictly an intermediary between buyers/renters and third-party book suppliers.
To give students an idea how the market works, Cheapism 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 etextbooks (where available), as well as buyback prices, for three titles.
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 students will find now. For instance, on the first day we looked, ValoreBooks was selling a new copy of "Basic Statistics for Business and Economics" (8th edition) for $55.99 for the semester; three days later it was $146.32 -- still the lowest among all the sites. TextbookRush had the lowest prices for the two other titles: "Campbell Biology" (10th edition) and "American Government and Politics Today 2015-2016."
In the used-books segment, TextbookRush won for "Campbell Biology" and ValoreBooks for "American Government." Amazon, through its marketplace, underpriced the competition for the remaining title. The prize for cheapest semester-long rental went to Chegg for "Campbell Biology," TextbookRush for "American Statistics," and ValoreBooks for "Basic Statistics." The best buyback prices belonged to Chegg for "Campbell Biology" and TextbookRush for "Basic Statistics" and "American Government" (for store credit, which includes a 5 percent bonus). Although we checked ebook prices, as well, limited supply renders price comparisons largely meaningless.
Price certainly matters. But students' choice of vendors will also be affected by other considerations, including shipping fees, the buying vs. renting conundrum, and whether to opt for a new, used, or electronic textbook.
What We Looked For
Used Textbooks.All the college textbook websites on our list sell pre-owned books at prices cheaper than the cost of a new book (for example, $177.98 for a used "Basic Statistics" book versus $260.95 for a new version at eCampus). Comments posted on a range of review sites indicate that students appreciate the attractive deals available in the secondhand market.Whereas consumers who buy new can be reasonably confident they're getting a pristine book, 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 textbook sellers, we read complaints about the disappointing condition of used copies.
Another potential complication with pre-owned texts: no access code for resources available only online and no guarantee of getting supplemental materials such as CDs. Sometimes students can get an access code through customer service, or by going directly to the publisher, but they're charged hefty fees ($50 is not unheard of). Most textbook sites disclose this upfront, but it's often buried in fine print and easy to miss. Students who need these materials should be prepared to pay up or default to a new copy.
Textbook Rentals.Students disillusioned by lower-than-expected buyback prices often turn to rentals. Textbook rental prices are lower than purchase prices (for example, $26.69 to rent "Basic Statistics" from BookRenter versus $131.57 to buy used) and students say savings mount quickly. Plus, they know where the book is going when they're done with it -- no worries about buyback hassles or overcrowded shelf space in a dorm room.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 span 30 days to 180 days, depending on the site, and prices vary accordingly. Most textbook sites let students extend the rental (for a fee, of course) or convert it to an outright purchase. The sites automatically charge for an extension or assess fines for late returns. ValoreBooks, for example, automatically extends the rental for
Returning rentals by mail is free on all the sites. Some send text or email reminders about approaching due dates. That said, we read some grousing in online reviews about notifications that never appeared. Student reviewers report that they were smacked with overdue fines even though they claim the book was returned at the appointed time. Some 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.The top four cheap textbook sites offer free shipping on orders exceeding a certain threshold: a high of $85 at Chegg and a low of $25 at BookRenter. ValoreBooks, by contrast, always charges a shipping fee. The least expensive option is $3.95 per item, for delivery in four to 14 days.Charges vary by company for smaller orders and obviously cost more for expedited shipping. For example, eCampus charges $19 per order plus $6.99 per item for one-business-day shipping. There's probably no reason to rush with Chegg, which offers a digital version of the text free for seven days to students waiting for an order.
Shipping for book buybacks and rental returns is free at all the sites we researched. Amazon offers two-day shipping for free with Amazon Student, which is similar to Amazon Prime except it's only $49 per year after a six-month free trial.
Etextbooks.Students still overwhelmingly prefer print textbooks to digital. Ebooks accounted for just 13 percent of textbooks acquired for the 2014 fall semester, according to a Student Monitor survey of 1,200 college students. At the same time, that's about a 60 percent increase from 2013.Etextbooks hold great appeal. Aside from the environmental benefits, obtaining and disposing of an etextbook is a breeze, especially when compared with the headaches associated with buying/selling/renting/returning print copies. Moreover, there's no anxiety about defacing a book that's destined for the return bin. And let's not forget how easy an ebook is to carry.
All the sites recommended here offer etextbooks; ValoreBooks does not. Digital versions of textbooks are not available for every title or course, and ebooks are frequently offered for rent but not for purchase. Even our top picks had a limited supply of the books in our price comparison.
Digitized books often cost much less than new hard copies. The purchase and rental prices of the three titles we researched came to no more than half as much as the price of a new print copy. That said, used print copies were generally cheaper than the cost of buying a digital copy or renting one for a semester. And ebook rental was considerably more expensive than renting a paper copy.
Still, renting a digital textbook may be an ideal solution for students who procrastinate or forget about deadlines. The rented etextbook simply appears immediately after payment and disappears at the end of the rental period -- no worry about receiving the rented physical book in time for class or forgetting to return it and being hit with overdue fees.
Before making a buy or arranging a rental of a digital textbook, check that it's compatible with the devices you own. Most can be used universally on computers, tablets, and smartphones with the right app, but it's always best to double check.
Ereaders and apps are loaded with features to make the transition to digital easier for students who value the ability to flip through physical books or take notes in the margins. Highlighting and note taking within the text are standard functionalities already, as are search and print (the latter may be limited to a certain percent of the content). Some etextbooks also let students create virtual study groups, share notes and highlights, and ask each other questions. Some incorporate videos and interactive material and offer additional online study aids, such as in-depth explanations of quiz answers. The digital platforms are vendor- and/or publisher-specific and free to download or access through a browser or mobile app.
Textbook Website Reviews
Only a few review sites that monitor online businesses, such as Reseller Ratings, bother with online suppliers of college textbooks, but we found more than enough textbook website reviews to form general impressions. None of the textbook sites we researched consistently earns top marks from customers. Even our top picks receive stinging criticism from some users about delivery snafus and the buyback/return process for purchased and rented books.
The primary reason college students turn to ecommerce textbook vendors is to save money. In reviews they assert that prices are almost always cheaper than the campus bookstore, and each of our top picks garners its share of raves about the bargains enjoyed.
A majority of negative comments express anger over not receiving a quoted buyback price or not being paid at all because the vendor asserts that the book never arrived at the warehouse. Some reviewers find fault with customer service for refusing to address minor disasters such as delayed shipping (even when expedited shipping was paid for), mistaken orders, unheeded requests for cancellation, etc. Still, we read plenty of reviews lauding the experience and the product provided.
Delivery.ValoreBooks takes a lot of heat in reviews regarding delivery. Students complain about books going missing in transit, waiting for what seems like eons for an order to arrive, or receiving a different book from the one requested. One student reports on Complaints Board that she ordered a book a month before a class was set to start, but the order was neither traceable nor insured and just seemed to disappear.Conversely, TextbookRush stands out in reviews posted at Trustpilot for accurate (i.e., the right book) and speedy (i.e., within days) delivery. One reviewer says a book came even faster than expected. Customers of the other top vendors likewise seem satisfied with the pace of delivery and the condition of the books, although several posts gripe about canceled orders.
Delivery on orders executed through a textbook website's marketplace are more of a crapshoot. We noted frequent complaints about delivery problems in reviews related to third-party sellers. Customers may have little recourse, as the host site has limited control over these independent operators.
Buyback.Selling books back at a campus bookstore typically nets a small fraction of the purchase price. Although many students assert that they do better online, the bulk of grievances aired in reviews of every ecommerce textbook vendor concern discrepancies between the stated buyback policy and the amount of money students receive. Many sites claim students can collect up to half the price paid for a textbook. The reality is somewhat different, according to reviews.Students call out ValoreBooks as a serial offender. Comments posted at SiteJabber contain numerous stories about checks not received, disputes about the condition or the edition of the returned book, and vendor claims about books not being returned despite student protestations to the contrary. According to one complaint filed with the Better Business Bureau, a consumer was promised a buyback price of $312 for law books and received $2.35.
By contrast, most reviews of the top textbook websites say the companies pay fairly and quickly. Still, reviews on numerous sites tell of students being paid but not always the expected sum. BookRenter evades this swamp altogether by shunning the buyback market. Perhaps not coincidentally, it earns very strong reviews overall.
One major quibble students have with the buyback process is that the company, not the student, determines the book's condition. Excessive highlighting and notes, water damage, weakened bindings, and loose or missing pages generally are not acceptable. Buyback prices also are influenced by the newness of the edition and whether the company expects the text to be marketable in the future.
Our recommended college textbook sites offer students selling back books the option of a check or credit toward a future purchase; Amazon offers credit only. Opting for credit at TextbookRush nets a more generous price, although only slightly: $103.75 (cash) vs. $108.94 (credit) for "Campbell Biology," for example.