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Textbooks: Buy, Rent, or Go Digital?

Read this and you could save money


If you think the cost of textbooks is skyrocketing, you’re right. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, while prices for all consumer goods have doubled over the past 30 years, textbooks have seen a six-fold increase. The College Board estimates that the average student at a private university can expect to spend approximately $1,253 on books and supplies. Some cash-pressed students report that they’ve actually had to forego purchasing required materials. According to a recent analysis by the nonprofit US Research Interest Group, 65 percent of students surveyed had passed on buying at least one required textbook because of cost and nearly half said the cost of books was affecting how many or which courses they took.

Fortunately, there are more book purchasing options offering significant savings available than ever, including buying used, renting, and going digital. A growing number of online sites can also save you big bucks, but you need to consider certain factors before deciding which option is right for you.

“Students have the ability now to decide on price point, delivery method, and quality,” says Steve Turco, general manager of Barnes & Noble at BU. “The message I give students and parents is, there’s no one size fits all for everybody. Some students think the best value is a brand-new book that’s never been highlighted. Some think the best option is a used book with highlights or notes in the column. Some don’t want to lug books up and down Comm Ave, so they buy digital.”

So before you buy your books for the semester, read on. We’ve put together lots of practical information to help you figure out what option is best for you and save money.

Used textbooks and textbooks for rent on a store book shelf

This year 85 percent of all textbooks at Barnes & Noble at BU will be available as rentals and 23 percent digitally. Photo by Jackie Ricciardi

Renting, whether from popular websites like Amazon and Chegg, brick-and-mortar stores like Barnes & Noble at BU, or directly from other students, can provide big savings. And renting used textbooks brings even steeper discounts. Brea Allen (CAS’17) prefers renting textbooks from fellow students. “It’s like $20 per semester, per book, and then I return it to the student,” says Allen.

Several Facebook groups have sprung up to connect students buying and selling books, among them BU Students Selling BU Books for BU Courses, which lists nearly 5,000 members.

While renting may be the cheapest way to go, it’s not for everyone, warns Turco. “In some cases the lowest possible price is going to be a rental used book,” he says. “But if a student rents one for two semesters, that’s not their best deal. If a student rents a digital book for 120 days and that’s the lowest cost option, but they’re unable to study out of that digital book the way they want to, that’s not their best deal. As much as I’d like to say the best priced option is a used rental, it really just depends on the needs of the student.”


Sometimes buying really is the more economical way to go. Take, for example, the 10th edition of Advertising and Promotion: An Integrated Marketing Communications Perspective. CampusBooks website rents the book for $30 a semester. But you can purchase it used for $77 and factoring in the estimated buyback of $74, buying the book is just $3.

If you decide to buy, you need to consider the buyback price, something many students neglect to do, says Alex Neal, CEO of textbook price comparison website CampusBooks. He says his site’s “Buy vs. Rent” price prediction tool takes this critical element into account. “Should I buy, should I rent, what’s better?” asks Neal. “Part of that equation a lot of students aren’t aware of is that when you purchase the book, you also have the buyback price you get at the end of the semester. You want to know what that price is going to be. We give you your net cost of the book after getting back your buyback price so you can compare apples to apples.” He also recommends waiting to sell your books until August, when the buyback price is significantly higher. “It’s classic supply and demand,” he says. “There’s a lot more demand for those books in August and a lot less supply because everyone’s selling in May and buying in August. You want to go the opposite of those cycles. You typically get 20 to 30 percent more at buyback if you wait until August to sell your books.”

But Turco warns that you can’t depend on buybacks. “The buyback value is always an unknown commodity,” he says. “We’re unable to tell a student at the start of the semester what the buyback cost is going to be. It depends on whether or not a professor is going to be using the same book again the following semester. We find that the risk is greater with buybacks than with renting. When you rent a book for $40, you know what the cost is going to be at the outset. But if you buy a book for $100 and hope for a $50 buyback, you may not get that price if the book isn’t being used again.”

Sam Farnsworth (CFA’15) says he now buys rather than rents books if there’s any chance that he’s likely to refer to the book again. “If it’s an English class or some class where you’re going to be reading more novels or plays, always buy those books. You never know when you’re going to want to come back to them.”

Shopping around is the only way to guarantee you’re getting the best deal. Searching sites like Amazon, Chegg, and Half.com can turn up a range of prices for the same book. For example, a new edition of Financial Accounting for Executives and MBAs listed recently for $227.50 on Amazon, $175 on Half.com, and $161.99 on Chegg.

For students who don’t have the time to comparison shop, there are now a variety of online sources that will do it for you. Big Words will scan online sellers to find the lowest price for a book and even take into account factors like coupons and shipping costs to come up with the best deal. Another useful site is Valore Books, which offers a low-price guarantee on all textbook rentals. If you find an identical book for less on another site within seven days of purchase, the site will match the lower price.

If you prefer a more personalized experience at a brick-and-mortar location, BU’s Barnes & Noble might be your best option. This year, beyond offering huge quantities of books in multiple formats, B&N has implemented a new textbook management system, something Turco says will allow the store to provide lower prices than ever. “Our systems used to limit our ability to price books differently,” he says. “In the past you’d have a $100 new, $75 used, and $40 rental. Now with the new system, we can look at each individual book separately and decide if a used book should be 25 percent of the new book price. You might be able to purchase a used book at 80 percent of the new book price.” He says that options like renting, buying used, and purchasing digital texts saved students a little over $2 million last year.

Some final tips to consider

Whatever way you decide to purchase a book, keep in mind a few basic rules. First, make sure the textbook you purchase or rent is the correct edition. Publishers frequently update textbooks. With the wrong edition, you may find yourself frantically trying to keep up when a professor refers to a page number that doesn’t correspond with your edition. The surest way to prevent this is by using the International Standard Book Number (ISBN) when buying.

Before buying an e-book, make sure it’s compatible with your reader. And if you’re renting, whether online or from a store, be sure you know the terms for marking up a book. Each site has different stipulations regarding how much highlighting and marginal note-taking is allowed. Exceed it, and you may have to pay for the book.

If buying online, don’t forget the shipping expenses. If you’re purchasing textbooks from multiple retailers, the collective shipping costs may undercut your expected savings. Many sites do offer free shipping. If you join Amazon Student, you get free two-day shipping for six months. Textbooks.com offers free shipping on any order over $25.

Last, if you’re renting a book, make sure the rental period extends through the entire semester.


2 Comments on Textbooks: Buy, Rent, or Go Digital?

  • Kathleen McKenna on 09.02.2015 at 8:09 am

    This article would have been more helpful a week ago! thanks for the tips though. There’s always next semester.

  • BU Mom on 09.02.2015 at 9:35 am

    I hate buying college textbooks.

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