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Digital textbooks will save you money and other nonsense

2226696853_f39a41811e_bA few weeks back Amazon announced their digital textbook rental program. You can probably recall how many bloggers wrote about how this new program would save students so much money.

I didn’t say anything at the time, but I was reading the posts  from all the major tech blogs and I was wondering why I was the only who remembered my college years. I’d always gotten a better deal than offered by the college bookstores, digital bookstores, or anyone. Most all of the articles on renting and buying digital textbooks looked at the cost as it compares to the retail price.

Hah. I very rarely paid retail for my textbooks. To put it simply, the best option for students is to buy a used paper copy in good condition and then sell it again.

The reality of digital textbooks: Amazon might sell you a digital textbook for 60% of retail, but since you can’t sell that textbook again you are stuck with that full price. If you buy a paper textbook you can often times get a much better deal because you can sell it again and recoup at least part of the cost.

My usual final cost for a paper textbook averaged less than 20% of retail. That is, I’d buy a book at the beginning of the semester and sell it at the end. The difference between the prices was a lot smaller than most people realize, and there were even a couple semesters where I made money.

Yep, I could usually use a textbook (for one or more semesters) for only 20% of retail. That is the reason why I looked at the prices offered by Amazon for digital  textbooks and wondered why anyone would throw their money away.

Let me give you some of the ways I managed to spend so little. It took a small amount of work but it wasn’t that difficult.

  • Buy low and sell high – I found the best places to buy my textbooks online and I also found the best places to sell them. The prices of textbooks varied from one market to the next (websites, college bookstore, etc), and I used that market variation to buy low and sell high. (Isn’t market capitalism grand?)
  • The best time to sell and buy – I also picked the times that I bought and sold textbooks quite carefully.  The best online prices for buying a textbook were usually found during the last month before a semester began. This was also the worst time to sell a textbook.
  • Buy and sell in 2 or more different markets – The best place to buy a textbook is rarely the best place to sell it. You want to buy in a market where there are a lot of sellers competing to for your purchase; this will drive the price down. And you want to sell your textbook where and when you don’t have a lot of sellers to compete with; this gives you a chance to get the best price for your textbook.

So where’s the best place? Well, I’m hesitant to recommend my preferred sites. It’s been years since I used them and you might be able to find a better deal by pairing 2 other retail sites. With that in mind, I found my best deals by buying on and selling the textbook to the college bookstore.


But when it comes to finding the best deal, that I can help you with. First, you’ll need to have a number of different websites open in your browser:

  • your college bookstore
  • CampusBooks
  • 1 or more textbook rental websites (chegg, etc)

You need your college bookstore so you can find the ISBNs for your textbooks.  Then you take the ISBNs to the second website and find which site offers the best price. Go to the site that offers the best price and see if it offers a better deal directly on the site.

  • You want to look for a used book in good enough condition that you can sell it back to the college bookstore. Generally, "like new" textbooks have been the best value for me. Few will have a used sticker on them.
  • Avoid textbooks with used stickers if you can. That cuts the resale value in half at most college bookstores.

I’m also pointing you at the textbook rental sites because they might offer a better deal. I don’t know; I never had the opportunity to use them. But I will point out that there’s also a downside to renting; you’re forced to return the book after a finite amount of time. If you bought the book you don’t have to sell it immediately after this semester ends; you could hold on to it and use it for your next class (Calculus 1,2,3 all used the same textbook at my school).


Most of the time I took the lazy-man’s approach to selling. If my college bookstore offered to buy a textbook for a price within $10 of what I could get online, I usually took them up on it. It saved me the hassle of shipping and waiting to get paid. Plus I got paid in cash.

So there you have it. This may not be the best way to buy and sell textbooks, but it’s what worked for me.

image by pmccormi


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U.L. Harper August 8, 2011 um 3:01 am

Great post. I almost absolutely agree. My thing is this: If you have an Ipad with the kindle app, and perhaps that text book is available on that app, man, it’s better than the book, straight up. It’s not all about price. The reading experience of text book is better electronically. I mean to stay you’ll learn more and study better with an electronic book. That’s the thing for me, not to mention what you failed to mention–all the books that the stores simply won’t buy back. Uh huh, I’ve had a number of them. If I could read my geography book and make the print bigger and carry a number of books easier, then that’s what I want to do. But in your post you make all valid points. It’s just that you missed this little thing. Thanks.

Nate Hoffelder August 8, 2011 um 7:12 am

Even factoring in those non-returnable titles, paper textbooks will still cost you less. At the very least they cost less than buying a digital textbook from Amazon.

Free E-Textbooks for Students: Piracy, Open Educational Content, and the Future of Academic Publishing | Hack Education August 31, 2011 um 2:19 am

[…] year on textbooks, about 26% of their yearly tuition, and the move from print to digital textbooks doesn’t appear to provide much cost savings. Even worse, unlike print books, there is no secondhand market for e-books — no returning […]

Yedda November 16, 2011 um 6:00 am

Hey friends, always remember, your college bookstore should be the last option when you sell your textbooks, as they will undoubtedly offer you the lowest price around. So stop by our site, bookmark it and send it to your friends so that you can all compare book prices and receive the highest offers and best service possible!

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Arnold February 3, 2012 um 4:44 pm

Some good tips, and I think you hit the nail on the head. It’s important to be smart and shop around, whether you are looking to buy or rent textbooks, or just looking for whatever is the cheapest.

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