Cheap College Textbooks

The average undergraduate shelled out about $600 on course materials during the 2015-2016 academic year, according to a survey by the National Association of College Stores. One way to ease the burden of these expenses is by shopping for cheap textbooks online. The online vendors typically claim that students can save anywhere from 40 percent to 90 percent over campus bookstore prices. Proceed carefully, though -- some textbook sites fail to deliver in more ways than one. Cheapism zeroed in on sites with money-saving options such as free shipping and compared reviews to name the best website for cheap college textbooks.

Features Comparison

(from $)
Used Books Yes
Rentals Yes
Shipping Free for orders over $35, rental returns, and buybacks
Ebooks Yes
Buyback Yes; PayPal, check, or credit (5 percent bonus for credit)
(from $)
Used Books Yes (via third-party suppliers)
Rentals Yes
Shipping Free both ways for rentals over $25
Ebooks Yes (for rent)
Buyback No
(from $)
Used Books Yes
Rentals Yes
Shipping Free for orders over $59, rental returns, and buybacks
Ebooks Yes
Buyback Yes; direct deposit, check, or credit
(from $)
Used Books Yes
Rentals Yes
Shipping Free for orders over $50, rental returns, and buybacks
Ebooks Yes
Buyback Yes; check or credit
(from $)
Used Books Yes
Rentals Yes
Shipping Starting at $3.95; free for rental returns and buybacks
Ebooks No
Buyback Yes; check or PayPal
(from $None)
Used Books Yes (via third-party suppliers)
Rentals Yes
Shipping Free for orders over $35 (or with Amazon Student), rental returns, and trade-ins
Ebooks Yes
Buyback Yes; Amazon credit only

Cheap College Textbooks Buying Guide

The National Association of College Stores found that Amazon is the most popular online source for textbooks, no doubt because of convenience and familiarity with the brand. But our research identified several cheap online vendors that often post better prices than the e-commerce giant and earn more than a passing grade from customers. TextbookRush, BookRenter, eCampus, and Chegg are at the head of the class. We also found one, ValoreBooks, that reviewers suggest is unworthy of honors.

Sites that traffic in cheap print copies of college textbooks sell them outright or rent them for a set period of time. Our top picks maintain inventories with hundreds of thousands of titles. Each also hosts a third-party marketplace where independent sellers (typically students and small businesses) set their own prices. ValoreBooks is strictly an intermediary between buyers/renters and third-party book suppliers.

In preparing this guide, we found that no one site consistently offers the cheapest textbooks. Prices are extremely fluid in the universe of online textbook sales and rentals, and those posted in mid-summer aren't necessarily the prices students will see once the semester begins. Supply and demand can dramatically affect textbook prices. It often pays to be first in line to buy books at the beginning of the term, when the inventory is largest, especially when buying used. Just be sure to check refund policies and hold on to all receipts. (Receipts also come in handy at tax time, when qualifying purchases can be eligible for the American Opportunity Tax Credit.)

Comparison sites such as Bigwords and BooksPrice can point students to the sellers offering the lowest prices for each of the texts they wish to purchase. Although price certainly matters, 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, a new copy of the widely assigned "Campbell Biology" (10th edition) was listed at $203.49 at Chegg versus $130.49 for a used version. Comments posted on a range of review sites indicate that students have found attractive deals 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, highlighting, and handwritten notes. The vendors generally provide some clues about the condition of the book, but even in reviews of 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.

Purchasing books outright remains the preferred option, according to the NACS survey, but about 40 percent of students rent at least one book each semester. Textbook rental prices are lower than purchase prices (for example, $29.96 to rent "Campbell Biology" from TextbookRush versus $108.99 to buy it 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. In our price comparison research, TextbookRush offered the cheapest semester rental rate for “Campbell Biology,” followed by Chegg, and the rental period was slightly longer at Chegg. 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 15 days.

If renting texts from several vendors, be prepared to keep track of multiple due dates. Some send text or email reminders. 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.

Etextbooks.

Students still overwhelmingly prefer print textbooks to digital, but their use is slowly on the rise. Etextbooks can 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. 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, nor are available versions offered by every seller. Ebooks are frequently offered for rent but not for purchase. For the largest selection of ebooks, it may make sense to visit sites such as VitalSource (formerly CourseSmart) and Intel Education Study that are dedicated etextbook sales and rentals.

Digitized books often cost much less than new hard copies. That said, used print copies on the sites we researched were generally cheaper than ebooks 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.

Free Shipping.

Three of our top four cheap textbook sites offer free shipping on orders exceeding a certain threshold: a high of $59 at eCampus and a low of $35 at TextbookRush. At BookRenter there’s free shipping both ways on rentals, but shipping rates for new and used texts vary based on individual marketplace dealers. ValoreBooks 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, TextbookRush charges $3.99 for standard 5- to 7-day shipping for a single item under $35. Two-day delivery costs $17.81 and overnight shipping runs $43.67 (prices also shift based on the number of items in the order and the shipping destination). On the other hand, 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 rental returns and book buyback 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 a year after a six-month free trial.

Textbook Website Reviews

Only a few review sites that monitor online businesses, such as Reseller Ratings and Trustpilot, 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 high 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 not always being paid the expected sum. BookRenter evades this swamp altogether by shunning the buyback market. Perhaps not coincidentally, it earns very strong ratings overall, scoring 8 out of 10 stars on Trustpilot based on nearly 14,000 reviews.

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. Students who plan to turn over their textbooks at the end of the term should remember that each mark made in a text and each bent or scratched cover will lower the value. Consider taking a few small precautions upfront, such as using sticky notes for note taking or painter’s tape to protect book edges, to ensure that textbooks are as well-preserved as possible.

Buyback prices also are influenced by the newness of the edition and whether the company expects the text to be marketable in the future. Checking buyback rates in advance can help determine which edition of a book it’s best to purchase. Renting might be a better option for a textbook that will soon be replaced by a newer version, or a book that has very low resale value in general.

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: $31.85 (cash) vs. $33.44 (credit) for the 10th edition of "Campbell Biology," for example.

Keep in mind that the online store where a book was initially purchased may not always offer the highest resale price. It pays to consult a search engine such as Bigwords or BookScouter to compare buyback prices at multiple vendors.

Customer Service.

Given the raft of issues that often arise with textbook websites -- delivery, returns, buybacks, a book's condition -- it's likely that sooner or later customers will need to speak with customer service. Reviews show that different students have different experiences even when dealing with the same company. Some reviewers gripe about indifferent Chegg representatives, for instance, while one parent writes in a post on SiteJabber that a rep agreed to forgive more than $500 in lost book charges after determining the fault was with UPS. A number of the complaints against Chegg on Consumer Affairs concern the site's online study services. Customers were dissatisfied with the help available or saw charges on their credit cards after their subscriptions had been canceled.

Reviewers generally report productive encounters with eCampus representatives, who actually engage with consumers on review sites such as Reseller Ratings and attempt to resolve ongoing issues. One customer, though, says multiple complaints about a book that failed to arrive yielded only the same automated response, with no resolution.

Then there's ValoreBooks. More than 600 complaints against this vendor have been lodged with the Better Business Bureau over the past three years; 95 percent of reviews on the BBB site are negative. Unhappy customers allege a variety of irritants, notably that calls to customer service are a total waste of time.

Elizabeth Sheer

Elizabeth Sheer is a Brooklyn-based writer and researcher. In addition to researching and writing about household appliances and other consumer items, Elizabeth draws on her history of preparing cooking-related articles to conduct taste tests on all things delicious.

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