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Textbooks: Rent, Buy, or Ebook It?

Getting books: more complicated, but possibly cheaper


Fall classes begin today, setting off a mad dash to procure all the textbooks and study guides you’ll need for the semester. As any student knows, it’s an expensive ritual. Last year, according to the College Board, college students spent on average nearly $1,200 on textbooks. The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently noted that between 1990 and 2009 textbook prices rose at four times the rate of inflation.

Today, students have many options for getting their books. They can buy new, buy used, rent new or used, or in some cases, buy or rent e-books. So before you write that check or swipe your plastic, here are some questions to consider.

To rent or buy

Last year, Barnes & Noble at Boston University began offering textbook rentals, a practice that the store says can knock 50 percent off the price of a new book.

How to decide? Steve Turco, the general manager of Barnes & Noble at BU, advises students to consider whether they’re likely to need a particular book in years to come. “If you think you’re going to need to refer to the material in future courses or later in your chosen profession,” he says, “it makes sense to buy.”

Dante Smith (ENG’12) says that for him, the question of buying versus renting is answered on a case-by-case (or book-by-book) basis. “I’ll buy a new book if it’s a new edition and I can’t yet get it used, which happens a lot,” says Smith. “Technical textbooks, like Human Physiology or Thermo, I might hold onto, things I’ll want to look back at again and might not find easily on the internet.”

Although figures for book rentals during the 2010-2011 academic year are not available publicly, Turco says the rental option has been a big hit. “Students were very receptive to the rental program,” he says. “We’re seeing its popularity increase with each semester.”

Case in point: Natalie Schiera (COM’12, CFA’12), who says that as a freshman she bought all her books and returned them at the end of the semester for a buyback. Last year Schiera began buying used textbooks and this year, she says, she’s thinking about renting. “I tend not to hold onto my textbooks,” she says, “so renting them will probably be the easiest and most cost-efficient.”

Turco says that renting is always the cheapest way to get textbooks. He says students often mistakenly think that buying a textbook new and selling it back at the end of the semester is the best option, but because the price of a buyback depends on the condition of the book and whether that course is taught the following semester, they could end up with as little as 10 cents on the dollar. Students who rent, he says, know that they’ll be saving half the cost of a new book.

It’s important to note that only about half of the titles on the bookstore’s list are available for rental. To find out if a book can be rented or is in e-book form, search by course number on the bookstore’s website and a list will come up with every format available for each option.

Textbooks 2


Digital textbooks (e-books) can also save money. They often cost about a third less than a new printed textbook, but, says Turco, only about 26 percent of course materials are available as eTextbooks at B&N. To access that material, which can be bought or rented, students need to have the chain’s free NOOK study software, which allows highlighting, marking, note sharing, and hyperlinking to related websites. If you rent an eTextbook, the material typically expires at the end of 180 days. Turco says it’s important to remember that there’s no buyback option available for e-books.

Buying or renting books over the internet

While Barnes & Noble at BU offers multiple payment plans, a knowledgeable staff, and if you’re renting, a chance to examine the book’s condition before spending any money, some students prefer to look elsewhere for their books, and the first place most of them look is online.

A comparison of prices for one popular textbook, A Problem Solving Approach to Mathematics, used in all three sections of the College of Arts & Sciences course MA107, suggests that the internet does sometimes offer the best savings. The book is available at B&N new ($146.65), used ($110), and for rent ($71.85); rental of the eTextbook version is $66.05. Amazon lists the book at $114.96 new and $85.72 used. Using Amazon’s trade-in feature, a copy of Problem Solving can be sent back at any time for a $59.68 Amazon gift card. And it’s not at all clear that Amazon has the best prices. One of the best ways to determine which site to buy from is to use a price aggregator; one of the most popular is Bigwords. Sites like these search the web for book listings and display them all in one place. A search for Problem Solving on Bigwords turned up eight sellers, with the best price for a used copy ($68.99) from half.com. The best rental deal for the book ($45) was from Chegg.

If you do rent textbooks rather than buy them, it’s important to establish that the rental period will extend throughout the entire semester (Barnes & Noble at BU’s rental period does). It’s also important to know that sites differ on what kinds of marking and highlighting will be tolerated before a book is considered damaged, so you need to read the small print before purchasing anything. Shipping costs should also be factored into the total cost of the book, although most sites offer deals near the start of the school year.

BU students may want to consider another source: the BU Student Union–run TextSWAP. This program allows students selling and buying from one another to broker their own deals. “The Union’s TextSWAP is safer than other websites because it connects BU students and allows the buyer and seller to negotiate on a reasonable price,” says Sophie Miller (CAS’14), a member of the Student Union Executive Board.

Turco, on the other hand, says Barnes & Noble is the only provider with “multiformat, multiprice options in an on-campus setting.” That, he says, is what keeps students coming back.

john o'rourke, editor, bu today
John O’Rourke

John O’Rourke can be reached at orourkej@bu.edu.

10 Comments on Textbooks: Rent, Buy, or Ebook It?

  • Kristy Alaura on 09.06.2011 at 9:58 am

    In response to the last paragraph, I would just like to say that what keeps students coming back is the fact that some professors require packages and books that can only be purchased through B&N. Beyond freshman year, those of us here have learned that B&N is grossly over priced (unfortunately in all aspects) and that for some of us at BU, paying their prices on top of tuition has literally caused us to go bankrupt. I love my school and wouldn’t trade my life here for anything else, but the cost of books through B&N is ridiculous.

  • Annie on 09.06.2011 at 10:26 am

    I most definitely agree with Kristy. The only time to go to B&N @ BU is when professors require a book or multiple books that are only sold in B&N. Most of the time, it turns out to be books made specifically for the BU course, and other times it would be a few books that they have written (not to mention it may not be used at any other university). These books are massively overpriced. It is only when the student does not know any better, is too lazy to look elsewhere or has the money to not care about the cost that they will head to B&N.

  • Username on 09.06.2011 at 11:48 am

    I agree with other commenters. the process of buying textbooks chiefly pisses me off. for my freshman year at BU, I had terrible experiences- the list would ask for custom packages, which I would pay $250+ for, because you can only buy them new–only to discover we did not need the additional elements packaged, and that I could have purchased it for $40 used online. I also had a professor who made us buy those stupid clickers–which are nonrefundable–and after pressuring us all to have them by the second week of class, told us we don’t actually need them after all, and that she had changed her mind.

    I pay for all my own textbooks, and my parents do not contribute a dime. I wound up burning something like $300 unnecessary dollars on books I did not need because of the booklist’s demands for the useless custom packages, and B and N’s ridiculous prices. This was $300 that came out of my own pocket (at my job I made 30 ish bucks a week, so I literally spent most of my semester paying for that bullshit.) I feel like I was conned. Seriously. I feel like someone stole my wallet–actually, it’s WORSE, because at least when someone steals my wallet, they do not smile and say “this is for your academic benefit!”

    I’ve learned, of course. I never buy my books until I’ve talked to every professor about what we need, realistically. But it upsets me that freshmen who don’t know better get cheated the way I did. I’m glad the bookstore has created the rental plan (even though Chegg or buying used on Amazon is often cheaper, thanks for trying, I guess?) The best solution I’ve seen is TextSwap. when I’ve tried to use it it’s been really buggy, but I appreciate the effort that the Student Union is making to, you know, actually service the students in a way that the bookstore has sadly failed to do.

  • JDM on 09.06.2011 at 12:00 pm

    I’m sure that B&N’s stranglehold over a number of university bookstores—and its callous practice therein—constitutes a main reason it’s not stumbling right behind Borders into bankruptcy. Let’s not pretend that the “rental” option is anything new. Despite the distinction Turco tries to draw here this is just a gussied-up buy-back option designed to dissuade even more students from keeping the books for which they pay, allowing B&N to funnel even more student loan money into their coffers. An incremental increase in cost certainty doesn’t change that. The rental option has nothing to do with serving student needs and everything to do with trying to squeeze a few extra dollars out of each book. If BU were genuinely concerned about protecting student interests with respect to textbooks, they wouldn’t have privatized the bookstore.

  • EdDx on 09.07.2011 at 12:14 pm

    You need to check out all sources (e.g., college bookstore, private bookstores, online deals, rentals, eBook, other students) and compare prices BEFORE you buy or rent the book.

    • meghan on 09.09.2011 at 3:07 pm

      Agree. I started off using Amazon this semester and then heard about the site mentioned in the article above, Bigwords. Since it is a price comparison site, every single time it gave me the best deal and all three times they were better than Amazons.

  • Maj on 09.10.2011 at 12:59 pm

    B&N is a scam. Don’t fall for the appeal the rental option may have. It’s simple math. If you rent a book for $100, in the end you lose $100. If you buy a (used) book for $200 and sell it for $180 at the end of the semester, you are only losing $20 in the end.

    Bigwords is great, but you should be cautious about which sites you are buying from. Some are not so reliable, especially when you may need a book fast. Amazon and Half.com are going to be your best bets.

    If you want to save the most money, your best option every time will be to buy used books on Amazon/Half, and sell them back yourself at the end of the semester. Good luck!

  • Jared James on 09.11.2011 at 7:54 am

    It is nice to see that students have unlimited options to get their textbooks or course material. However most students are not aware of free price comparison websites like affordtextbooks that finds the cheapest used, rental,ebook or even international edition. Join Make Textbooks Affordable Campaign by US PIRGs in an effort to increase the number of Open Textbooks.

  • Prosperity Hut on 12.21.2011 at 8:01 am

    I don’t think anything will beat buying a textbook outright. I’ve tried to rent and get used textbooks but there has always been problems with them such as limited availablility, books in poor condition, etc.

  • anonymous on 08.15.2013 at 10:05 am

    One crucial site I did not see mentioned was craigslist. The books that are sold there are sometimes Ridiculously cheap. I have purchased textbooks for as little as ten dollars.

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