"Toto, I've a feeling we're not relegated to the college bookstore anymore." In fact, the competition among book vendors is stiffer than ever. Having recently returned to college to pick up some continuing education credits and being shocked to learn that the college textbooks cost nearly as much as the courses, my frugal curiosity was piqued. Could I bargain shop for books and beat the bookstore prices? Perhaps even do better than typical used book prices? I branched out beyond my own course to investigate a wide variety of required reading, from English to Algebra, Engineering to Psychology. Of the ten books selected for my sample, this is what I discovered.
Traditional hardback or paperback copies of every textbook I investigated could be found for sale on multiple sites such as eBay, Textbooks.com, BuyUsedTextbooks.com, and Amazon.com. The cost of the books varied widely, even when comparing new copies of the same editions. For example, a new hardcover copy of Advanced Engineering Thermodynamics (ISBN: 0471677639, Wiley, 3rd ed.) could be purchased new for $82.95 through eBay.com. The same book was listed for $112.50 at Textbooks.com and $127 at Amazon.com. Much less expensive copies were also available; however, after closer examination of the fine print, many of these were paperback International Editions. Though these editions purport to be exactly the same as their U.S. counterparts, the quality can be inferior and the importation of these books may be illegal. If in doubt, it is best to ask the seller if the book is an International or U.S. Edition.
Online versions of some college textbooks are also available, presumably at a reduced cost, what with nonexistent printing and shipping expenses. Right? Not necessarily. The engineering textbook discussed earlier was available in an online version for an additional $28 from Amazon.com. Purchasing the hardbound copy was required to "upgrade" to the online copy. And, while sites like FreeloadPress.com aim to provide free or inexpensive e-textbooks, the selection was limited. None of the books in my sample were to be had through FreeloadPress.com. Major textbook publishers have yet to embrace the revolutionary idea of offering low-cost or free books.
All is not lost, however, in the quest for a less expensive textbook option. CourseSmart.com offers temporary online access to textbooks, or finite digital subscriptions, for about the cost of a used book and without the caveat of having to purchase a hardcopy. Psychology (ISBN: 0132387387, Wade & Tavris, 9th ed.) was listed for $132 brand new on Amazon.com or $66 used. Compare this to the 180-day e-textbook subscription of $66.60 and realize a 50% savings over a new, hardbound copy. In addition to the cost savings, advantages of the online subscriptions include immediate access to the material, the ability to search and annotate online, and a lighter backpack! Unfortunately, in this case, it's not possible to sell the e-textbook at the end of the course because of it being a rental of sorts. This could make the option less appealing to frugal zealots, as this particular textbook may be purchased for as little as $66 used and sold back in good condition at the end of the term for as much as $50 to sites like Textbooks.com or Cash4Books.net. (That is, if a newer version of the text hasn't already been sent to press and rushed to the bookstores!) This could result in a net cost of only $16!
Let's say you're still dissatisfied with the options and haven't found an inexpensive version of your required textbook. Do not overlook the possibility that a fellow student is selling the book you need at a heavily discounted price. Or, better yet, the book may be available through your neighborhood or university library for free! A quick visit to WorldCat.org revealed multiple copies of nearly all my sample books from libraries throughout the world. Though current editions were less plentiful, previous editions were widely available. The Bedford Handbook (ISBN: 0312419333, Hacker, 7th ed.), for instance, was available at more than 131 libraries in its current edition and at 487 libraries in all 11 editions. Out of the books I investigated, all but two were available in my hometown within a 20-mile radius. And, for the two titles that were over 200 miles away, I could easily borrow them through an Interlibrary Loan (ILL) request.
Finally, if it's literary classics you're after, Google Book Search is an especially useful tool. A cursory search of books.google.com turned up free online and downloadable versions of The Prince by Machiavelli, Shakespeare's Sonnets, and Heart of Darkness by Conrad.
Given the options, which can be overwhelming, what is a frugally-minded college student to do? First, close your eyes, click your heels, and repeat after me: "There's no reason to pay college bookstore prices. There's no reason to pay college bookstore prices." Then, assuming you have verified the necessity of the book and the latest edition with your professor, begin your cost-savings adventure by searching for your book at WorldCat.org where nine of the ten books I sampled could be borrowed for free from a local library or through ILL. If the book will be needed for an extended duration and you don't mind risking a buyback or resell option, search eBay for excellent prices on new books. In many cases, books can be purchased through the "Buy It Now" option on eBay for the same or slightly more than a used book could be purchased elsewhere! Savvy shoppers should always check around, however. Compare what you find with Textbooks.com, Amazon.com (where you can often secure free shipping), and BuyUsedTextbooks.com, the latter two of which seemed to be more competitive in the used books marketplace. And, based on my findings, you would not save much, if anything, by purchasing an electronic version of your required text (if you can even locate one!) though this medium is growing in popularity.
In the end, regardless of whether you purchase new books, used books, or e-books, you are likely to find your next bargain on college textbooks somewhere over the Internet connection.
Kelli Ellenburg is a freelance writer and human resources professional. Check out Wild Squirrel, a blog about common-cents strategies for modern living…and, of course, her four daughters.
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