What You Need to Know for Getting the Best Deals on Textbooks
Tips for buying, renting, and selling
Fall semester classes begin next Tuesday, which means everyone is frantically trying to purchase textbooks and course materials. As any upperclassman can attest, it can be an expensive undertaking. The College Board estimates that students attending a private four-year college can expect to shell out on average $1,240 annually.
Between 2006 and 2016 the cost of textbooks rose a whopping 88 percent, rapidly outpacing inflation. But you can take steps to save significant money by either renting books when possible or purchasing or renting books in a digital format. Checking websites for the best prices can also lead to big savings.
At Barnes & Noble at BU, students can purchase books in up to six different formats. This year, 84 percent of textbooks are available as rentals, and 33 percent can be purchased digitally, offering big savings. “Between the rental and digital options, we were able to save students $1.4 million last year,” says B&N general manager Kurt Mahnke. The bookstore offers a free mobile app that allows users to look up textbooks by ISBN or title and compare different textbook formats and price points. Students should also take advantage of the bookstore’s price match program. If you find the same textbook for sale or rent for a lower price on Amazon (the title must be sold or rented by Amazon and not a third party) or BN.com or from a local competitor, Barnes & Noble at BU will match the lower price, with proof of the price difference. If you’ve already purchased the book, B&N will refund the difference. Note: the price-match program does not include digital textbooks or books for sale on online textbook marketplaces like Chegg.com.
Veteran textbook buyers say it pays to do your homework and if you’re purchasing online, to buy from a reputable vendor. “I feel like you can find textbooks online for cheap, but it’s better to go with a website that’s well-known rather than just cheap,” says Carolina Becerril (Sargent’22), who’s had particular luck with rented textbooks on Amazon.
There are also a number of free apps and websites that scour the internet for you, pulling prices from numerous sellers, including Amazon, Chegg, and even Ebay, letting you quickly compare the cost of books. BookScouter is one free app that’s become popular with students. It compares prices and generates a list that includes the costs from larger retailers and smaller third-party sellers. You can search books by scanning their bar codes or typing in their ISBNs.
Digital subscription services can reduce the cost of your textbooks as well. One popular service, Scribd, offers an all-you-can-read platform for $8.99 a month. But it’s important to read the small print first, to make sure the service covers the correct edition of the textbook your professor is using.
Textbook publishers have also begun offering their own subscription services as a way to keep costs down. Cengage is among the biggest. A four-month subscription, starting at $119.99, offers consumers unlimited access to all of the site’s digital content. The subscription cost not only provides users access to online content, but they can rent hard copies of textbooks for $7.99 and use such digital services as study tools and a career center. And this past July, Pearson, another major textbook publisher, announced that it would be moving toward a “digital first” emphasis, with more subscription options on the horizon.
To find the best value, shop around. For example, one popular psychology textbook, Psychology: Third Edition, costs $256.60 to purchase new through Barnes & Noble at BU. But by opting to rent a used copy through the bookstore, you’ll pay just $107.75. And renting a digital copy comes in at an even lower $64.99.
If you’re willing to put in the time, checking out rental and purchase prices at other online vendors can sometimes save you even more. On Amazon, a hardcover version of Psychology: Third Edition is available for rent for just over $10.
Students are also looking to less conventional websites, like Facebook, to find used books at great savings. “The cheapest prices are from other students selling” their books, says Steven Gelman (COM’22). The first place he looks for textbook deals is the Official Boston University Class of 2022 Facebook page. One of these groups exists for every graduating class, and joining is easy—you just need to enter your school or college at BU.
Some tips to keep in mind
If you’re trying to decide between renting or buying a book, ask yourself if you’ll need the book for a future class. If the answer is yes, buying rather than renting may be your best option.
If you decide to rent a book, be aware of the return deadline. If you don’t get the book back in time, you could be stuck with a late or “buy-out” fee. And those fees can be significant. Amazon lists various fees when you rent textbooks, and they’re worth looking at in case the book is stolen or lost.
Whether renting or buying, make sure you purchase the correct edition. Publishers update textbooks all the time and if you have an earlier edition, it may be missing important sections you’ll need. Double-check your syllabus to be sure you’ve got the right version.
If you’re someone who likes to write in your textbooks, be familiar with the highlighting and note-taking policies for rented books. Many renters strictly limit how much of both is allowed. Find FAQs about textbook rental at Barnes & Noble at BU here.
When making a digital purchase, make sure it’s compatible with your e-reader. If you have only an iPad, but accidentally purchase the PC version of a text, you may be out of luck.
If you’re buying books online, give yourself plenty of time. Shipping times can vary, especially when you’re purchasing from third-party retailers. And if you’re buying or renting online, stick with places that offer free shipping and don’t hide fees that could reduce your savings. Again, read the small print before placing your order.
It’s also important to read the small print on return policies, and to keep your receipts. At Barnes & Noble at BU, if you drop a class after purchasing a book, you can return it for a full refund until October 7 if it’s still in original condition and you have proof of purchase.