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Tips for Buying Used College Textbooks

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College TextbooksMy wife started her first semester of classes this fall on her way towards a Ph.D. One of the best things about a Ph.D., besides the degree, is that candidates are paid to go to school. The salary isn’t something you can retire on but with the cost of education, anytime you can get college education for free (or less than free, in this case!), you jump on it.

With the start of classes comes the need for college textbooks. As I remembered years ago, college textbooks are not cheap. In fact, the prices seems exorbitant to me but that’s what happens when there’s a small market forced into buying a product. Fortunately, there are some techniques you can use to defray the costs.

Buy from Previous Students

The easiest way to get a textbook is to buy it from a previous student who took the class. This works best for “foundation” type classes where every student in the program is required to attend because it means the supply of books will be high. Be sure to check that the textbook and that edition will be used again your semester (check with the professor).

The best place to find willing sellers is bulletin boards, either online or physically in the department building. Once you find a willing seller, negotiate a little to see if you can knock a few dollars off the price. Review the prices you can find online so you don’t overpay. The benefit of buying in person is that you can get the book immediately and not worry about shipping costs or delays.

Buy Online

Just put your book’s ISBN or title into Google and see what pops up. There are hundreds of vendors selling textbooks from big names like Half.com and Amazon to smaller bookstores (too numerous to name). When buying, you want to buy used and in relatively good condition. Check the seller’s feedback to see if they can be trusted. If they have hundreds of thousands of results and good feedback, chances are they will be a store or textbook distributor and can be trusted.

I took a quick peek at the results for one of the books my wife bought, Biochemical Engineering by Harvey Blanch. Brand new, the book sells for $65.77 and resellers are offering it for as low as $63.45. In this case, I’d buy it new rather than used because of shipping costs.

Rent Textbooks

I’ve never tried this but there are services where you can rent a textbook for a semester. One site I found, but have never used, was Chegg.com. You can rent a book for 60 days, a quarter, or a semester. If their semester period ends before yours, they extend it for free.

Is it worth it? Not sure, because I checked the prices for renting Biochemical Engineering and it wasn’t that much cheaper than the $65.77 price at Amazon. For a semester, it was $56.99. You could probably buy the book new and resell it for more than $8.78 (purchase price minus the rental price). It’s an option worth considering if it makes sense for the books you might need.

Buy In Bookstore

This is the most expensive option for buying used textbooks and I’m always amazed that people will sell the books back to the bookstore, given how much they gauge you (or used to gauge you, I haven’t looked at bookstore book prices in a while). One strategy I used to use was buy the book new in the store, order it online, and then return the book when it appeared. In response, many college bookstores have now rejected returns unless you bring confirmation you dropped the class.

I believe I’ve covered all the good used textbook buying options available to the frugal minded college student. With the spring semester coming up, the used sections of these sites and in bookstores is likely to swell as people try to recoup their expenses.

Do you have any used textbook tricks up your sleeve? Tactics you used to defray the costs?

(Photo: psychobabble)

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41 Responses to “Tips for Buying Used College Textbooks”

  1. My university had two book stores, right across from each other. One run by the university, one privately owned.

    I’m not saying that books were CHEAP, but costs were probably a bit lower (and books were probably bought back for a bit more) than if there had been just 1 store. The privately owned one also had much more reasonably priced university apparel.

    The first day of my advanced business law class, the prof said “Officially, the book for this class is the red book [new edition]. But the blue book [old edition] basically has the same stuff, so if you have the blue book from Business Law I, don’t waste your money buying the red book.” Cool prof – he also managed to make a semester of contract law seem quite interesting.

    This was back in 1993-1997, when the web was just a toddler.

  2. Chuck says:

    I think they gouge you. (Unless by gouging you, they’re seeing how much gouging you will tolerate.) :)

  3. Jaye says:

    You should ask the professor if the book is required. Many professors will not teach from one specific book instead they will teach general concepts that can be found in any book on that topic.

    If this is the case then you many times buy the study guide instead of the book, and get the rest of the information from the Internet.

    I have checked textbooks out from the campus library. If you school does not carry the book you can do an inter-library loan program with another University. Or you can go and talk to the department teaching the class and have them request to have that book in the library on referance. Many times the department have several extra copies of the textbook and will check them out for a semester.

    I normally just bought older editions and used the referance copy in the library to fill in any informational gaps if there were any.

    • zapeta says:

      I’ll second this. For a lot of classes a professor is required to choose a book even if they don’t plan on using it. Check with the professor before you make any purchases unless its obvious that you’ll use the book.

      • saladdin says:

        My last semester of grad school the professors started using “customed” books. The books would only contain handpicked chapters from the “original” text books. The original text book would be $125 but the “custom” one would be $80. If more and more schools start doing this then the used text book market will be destroyed.

        saladdin

  4. zapeta says:

    Textbooks are a total racket. Unfortunately since I had no other options but using my financial aid to pay for the books I bought I had to use the expensive college bookstore. After the semester was over I would sell them on Half.com or to another student on campus if I found someone who needed the book. Towards the end of my program I ended up keeping most of the books in my field as reference. I definitely think the best deals can be found from other students on campus or at Half or Amazon.

  5. JPeteQ says:

    Sometimes you can find the textbooks you need on Amazon. If you know the isbn number it’s easier to find them.

    Also, sometimes you can use earlier editions. I never bought a used textbook if I could help it. If I had friends in the class, we’d sometimes share them.

  6. rbatt says:

    We shared textbooks quite a bit in college. Works well if you have roommates who are in the same major/courses. Doesnt seem like it would apply in this situation.

    Half.com is a great place to buy books. The only thing be carfeul about is shipping. In my experience you need to order the books well in advance to get them on time.

  7. Candy says:

    I’ve been renting my son’s textbooks from Chegg for the past two years and have saved a TON of money. This semester the books would have cost over $650 from the bookstore, and I rented all of them for under $300. At the end of the semester, I’ll print out the prepaid shipping label and send them back. No unneeded books cluttering the shelves and having compared the buy-back prices to the rental prices, it is beyond worth it to rent.

  8. daenyll says:

    I tended to get the overseas versions if I could find them, and then double check with a classmate to be sure how homework problems corresponded. As an engineering student I felt less troubled financially by not selling back books when I could get them cheaper to begin with.

  9. redivelli says:

    As a college student I have a little experience in this area and am able to comment. I am an Engineering Major and through my internships I’ve learned that the textbooks are good to keep.

    I always get books I know I am going to keep at the end of a school semester. The used market is saturated and the prices are lowest. If I am to resell, I place them for sale towards the end of the semester. Some bookstores buy up all of the books they can to make a level price.

    Digital books are making an entrance in the market, hopefully that grab hold. I hate clutter.

    • Martha says:

      A few kids in my classes have e-copies of books but its pretty rare. I wish they were easier to get and use. The other drawback is for open-book, open-note exams you can only use paper resources.

  10. Patrick says:

    When I was in college, I also had luck looking at the library on campus. Occasionally the book I was looking for was available there. The only problem is that you have to be really quick or the book will be taken.

    I used to buy books from Half and Amazon and had great luck with getting great books at a discounted price. I was even able to sell them back to the main bookstore on campus for more than I paid for them :)

  11. eric says:

    Wow Jim where did you find that picture of the biology book? I swear I’ve seen it in real life at one point….. :P

    Anyhow, good advice. My little sister has used Chegg before and it was a smooth process. You just have to remember to return it before the deadline and of course, to make sure the price is competitive.

    Some university bookstores have programs where they offer guaranteed buyback at the end of the semester for a certain percentage of the new book’s cost. This might be beneficial if it’s an obscure book that’s hard to resell.

    eTextbooks are on the rise too but some students dislike the format. It could save a lot of money if you only use the book for reference and not daily reading.

  12. pcallaghan says:

    There’s luck looking at the library at times. Many of the people in my major would take classes at different times (unless it was a group project class) and then share the books. So we’d buy books on half and amazon and pass them around. Depending on the class sometimes price could be split 2-6 ways.

  13. jsbrendog says:

    I helped my gf do this for grad school over the summer and she saved a bundle. What I found was that a lot of people are selling uk versions which are the same thing but with a different cover and I got one of them for about 80% less than the full price and more than half of what people wanted for it used.

    (she is much better off than I was as I never bought any books and just used google as my text book, which worked only in some instances ha)

    i never knew you could rent them. while that makes sense for undergrad it doesn’t really for grad and onward since you’d probably want to hold onto them and form a library of sorts in your field since you never know when you might need one for reference.

  14. vtomar says:

    I would ask my friends during vacations to get the books from India for the next semester. This way I would end up spending at a max of 18-20$ and minimum of 5$ per book since books are quite cheap overseas.

  15. My first semester I stood online at the bookstore for hours and spent hundreds of dollars. After that I learned that I could find the required books online before the semester started, so I would look for books on Amazon or other sites. I definitely also learned not to sell my books back to the bookstore, but instead list them online. I was one offered $1 for a $45 book in the college bookstore. Instead I sold it online for $30.

  16. Daniel says:

    I have always had good luck with bigwords.com for finding the lowest prices on text books.
    They are basically a price aggregator that searches the prices on Amazon, Half.com, etc. Think kayak.com for text books. They also have a selling price feature.

    I have also found that you will be able to find many text books in the school library. Be sure to check the book out or put on hold before the semester is about to start. Otherwise a classmate will beat you to the library copy.

  17. BrianC says:

    To get a good idea of prices across multiple sites, try addall.com.

  18. Andrew says:

    http://BookLookr.com is a great place to get cheap textbooks, I saved 100-200 going through that site… highly recommend! Textbooks aren’t cheap!

  19. Caitlin says:

    Chuck is right – the word you want is “gouge”, not “gauge”. To gauge is to measure, to gouge is to overcharge.

    Selling books back to the bookstore is such a racket. They’ll give you $5 for a $125 book, and turn around and sell it the next semester for $10 off the new price. :P

    Ask the prof if the book is required. It usually is, but sometimes it’s merely a suggestion.

  20. Chris R says:

    My wife is also going for her Ph.D but we have to pay for hers ourselves :(

    Her books are of a very specialized subject but we were still able to find used ones online.

    Once she is done, she sells them again, so they are basically free.

    Occasionally she will want to hold on to a book though.

  21. Kevin Cesarz says:

    It was a very nice post. Buy online has worked for me.

  22. Wilma says:

    Thanks to all the ideas on this page. Just like ticket scalpers gouge people, you have book scalpers too. They should be ashamed.

  23. atexasgirl says:

    I can also recommend Chegg for serious savings. My niece’s textbooks were going to be $400+ used, but I rented them for $175.

  24. AmandaDRowe says:

    At my college, the student government ran a book exchange. Your name and information went inside the book and if it sold, a check was sent to your mailbox. It was much cheaper than the student bookstore and raised a little bit of money for a good cause. If your campus doesn’t have this yet, think about getting one started! This was especially helpful for less common textbooks that professors used.

  25. drriffe says:

    I just purchased from Bookholders.com
    The text was in excellent condtion and the shipping was resonable. It may not work as well for popular textbooks, but its another resource.


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