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A Consumer’s Guide to Buying, Renting Textbooks

Things to consider before making that purchase


It’s time to get out your credit cards or checkbook. With classes starting today, the annual scramble for textbooks has begun. It’s always an expensive proposition, but students are getting better at playing the game. According to a study by the National Association of College Stores, students spent an average of $579 on textbooks last year, compared to $602 in the 2015–2016 school year. (That’s besides an additional $506 on school supplies and technology.) Steve Turco, general manager of Barnes & Noble at BU, attributes the falling costs to the growing number of books available for rental or for purchase or rent digitally.

“Last year, students saved over $1,400,000 by taking advantage of our new and used rental, used, and buy and rent digital options,” says Turco. This year, 85 percent of the store’s textbooks can be rented and 31 percent are available in digital format, up from 28 percent last year. And online sellers like Amazon and Chegg.com offer eTextbooks, rental, and buying options, as well as grace periods where books can be returned for free.

Upperclassmen say it pays to do your homework. “My advice to other students is to shop around a bit,” says Laura LaBrecque (CAS’18). “Rent used books when available. Through Barnes and Noble, the used rental books are the cheapest, and I’ve always gotten books in good condition. Unless it’s for a class that you’re extremely passionate about or plan to continue with in the future and you see some future use for that book, always rent.”

A quick review of one popular economics textbook, Principles of Microeconomics, underscores why doing a little research pays off. You can buy it new at Barnes & Noble at BU for $250, rent it new for $162.50, buy a digital version for $124.99, or rent it digitally (the cheapest option) for $74.99. On Amazon, you’ll find the same book new for $150, used versions starting at $86.40, and rentals starting at $60.01. An eBook version is available for $124.49. A quick search of Chegg.com shows the book available for purchase new for $182.99, for purchase used for $168.49, available for rent starting at $87.49, and available for purchase digitally for $65.10.

Rent or Buy sign

This year, 85 percent of Barnes & Noble at BU’s inventory is available for rent, and the campus brick-and-mortar store connects with students with its mobile app to remind them when books are due. Last year, students saved over $1.4 million by buying books at the store.

Turco says that as the start of classes gets closer, there’s less likelihood that there’ll be much discrepancy in prices between retailers and online sites. Most students wait until the last minute to buy books, which drives up demand, he says, and by extension, online prices.

Facebook groups like BU Textbook Buying/Selling Central, which has more than 4,500 members, allows students to buy, sell, and rent directly with one another.

Despite the online savings you can find, many prefer the convenience—and the customer service—that a brick-and-mortar store provides. In the 2016–2017 academic year, 82 percent of students surveyed said they shopped at their local brick-and-mortar bookstore.

“My plan is to purchase new books at the student bookstore,” says Cary Lenahan (COM’21), using discount codes he received from student ambassadors at Orientation this summer to help offset his textbook bill.

“We think there is value in a student being able to come to the store and buy what they need, and that there is someone here that can help and assist them with whatever their needs are,” Turco says. “Can the student find it in the format that they want it delivered in, the delivery method that they want or expect, at the price that they want to pay? That’s my goal.”

Last year, Barnes & Noble at BU implemented a price-match program, offered again this fall, that covers books sold and fulfilled only by Amazon or BN.com. This means that products sold and fulfilled by third-party sellers through Amazon and books found on other marketplace sites, such as Chegg, are ineligible. Here’s how it works: if you find a textbook for sale or rent at the bookstore that’s available at a lower price on Amazon or BN.com and you can show proof of the difference, the bookstore will match the lower price or refund the difference if you’ve already bought the book.

Barnes & Noble at BU also introduced a free mobile app last fall that shows students the various textbook formats and price points available for a specific book. In addition, the app sends reminders about rental due dates and other notifications.

“The response from students has been outstanding,” Turco says. “Anybody that deals with customers has to be in their space, whatever that space is. The app provides us the ability to communicate more directly with them.”

Textbooks stacked on the shelf

Spending on textbooks nationwide fell from $602 to $579 last year. While it can pay to shop around, 82 percent of students responding to a survey by the National Association of College Stores said they shopped at their local bookstore.

Tips and tricks

Before you decide how you’re going to order your books, here are a few tips and tricks to keep in mind:

First, whether you’re planning to rent or buy, be sure you purchase the correct edition. Publishers update textbooks all the time. Double-check your syllabus to be sure you’ve got the right version.

Confirm that the book you’re buying or renting comes with the necessary supplemental materials, such as one-time use codes for online platforms. If you find a book for much less online, but it doesn’t include the necessary add-ons and you have to buy them separately, you may not be saving as much as you thought.

Renting online, especially if you’re getting books from several sites, requires some major organizational skills: you have keep track of shipping labels and what book gets returned to what seller.

Before you decide to purchase or rent an e-book, make sure it’s compatible with your reader. Ask yourself, will I miss having a physical book to highlight and make notes in? Is the online version cheaper than the hard copy? In many cases, it isn’t.

Finally, always read the fine print, especially when renting. Be familiar with how much you are allowed to write or highlight in the book (policies vary significantly). If you’re renting, know when the book is due: missing deadlines can cost you money.

And if you’re shopping online, stick with places that offer free shipping and that don’t hide fees that could make your savings negligible in the long run.

Taylor Raglin can be reached at traglin@bu.edu.


5 Comments on A Consumer’s Guide to Buying, Renting Textbooks

  • Brian Morris on 09.06.2017 at 7:06 am

    Check out directtextbook.com and save money with our unique multi-price tool. Search for the best prices on all your books at once and save up to 90% on textbook prices.

  • Thomas Jones on 09.06.2017 at 1:06 pm

    Another really good platform for textbook is perlego.com

  • Bob Jones on 09.07.2017 at 2:35 am

    In your article you suggest that “it pays to do your homework”. I could not agree with you more. A study by the Association of College Bookstore reported that student who used a price comparison tool save a lot of money. Textbook prices change with the inventory levels. Using a price comparison tool like http://collegetextbookscheaper.com will point you to the cheapest rental and used prices. It may also uncover eBooks or International editions that would have been missed if the comparison service was not used.

  • BooksPrice on 09.07.2017 at 10:10 am

    The best way to avoid executive costs is to eventually not miss any opportunity. This can be ultimately be achieved only be leveraging automated tools, that can compare prices of the entire range of offers: ebooks, rentals, and used/new copied.

  • Ryan Will on 09.20.2017 at 7:29 pm

    Textbooks are a monopoly scam by the educational complex

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