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.
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.9 Comments