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Used Textbooks Still Offer A Better Value Than Rental, Digital

This might be an ebook blog, but the cost of textbooks has always been an important topic for me. I’ve written a number of times about how to get the best value for your textbook dollar, including a detailed look at exactly how I went about it.

I’m taking a couple college classes this semester and that has given me a good reason to revisit this topic. I’ve said that in the past that rented textbooks weren’t a good value, and after buying my textbooks for this semester I’ve concluded that it is still true.

I’m not going to list the specific steps that I used to buy my textbooks; you can find that in an earlier post. I’m also not going to list the books I bought; the prices won’t matter in 6 months.

Also, I strongly urge you to do your own comparison shopping; don’t just take my word for it.

But I will discuss some of the things I’ve learned in the past few days.

First, digital textbooks simply cost too much, and renting the ebook wasn’t an option for any of the books I needed. The ebook prices looked good compared to list price, but the honeymoon ended when I matched them against the used price.  With one exception, the used price was far lower than the ebook price that I found on Inkmesh.  And that one exception still cost more than the used price, but only by about a dollar.

Next, rental prices might look good in the college bookstore, but when you go to a comparison site like you will see that the used prices can get a lot cheaper than you might expect. Of the 6 books I need, the used price was often less than the best rental price. Even when renting presented a cheaper option, a used book was often less than a couple bucks more than the rental price.

And guess what? That price is strictly the out of pocket cost. While a rented textbook has to be given up at the end of the semester, the used book can probably be sold again. In the long run the used book will cost you less.

So at this point I have just found that all the hype about how renting saves you money, or how ebooks save you money, or that renting an ebook saves you money, is exactly that.


I predict that used books will continue to be the best value going forward, and I think they will stay that way unless and until open source textbooks become popular. They have all of the benefit and none of the cost.

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Robert February 2, 2012 um 4:09 pm

You are absolutely right. I have done some comparing and you cant beat the used book market. Most of the times the books look brand new!
I tried the digital textbooks and I dont care for them. There are times when I have had several books open at the same time for references when writing a paper and that is something you cant do with etextbooks. Also, how many times have you fanned the pages of a book looking for something you saw the other day. You cant put your finger on it but you fan the pages looking to see if you recognize something.

Vanessa February 2, 2012 um 8:17 pm

Totally. BUT the advantage of renting is that you’re getting the latest, most accurate information, which can be important in fast-moving fields like tech. If you’re studying English lit, of course, the textbook isn’t going to change much.

Having said that, I’m thinking of taking a few classes this year as well, and I’d rather pay a little more to go fully digital than lug around masses of dead trees – even for static ebooks. Obviously the interactive kind can offer other advantages that make price less relevant.

Nate Hoffelder February 2, 2012 um 8:30 pm

Latest info? Nope. The rental textbooks were the exact same edition as the used and new.

Vanessa February 2, 2012 um 8:45 pm

Ah. Maybe I should have stuck a 'theoretically' in there… 🙂

Luke February 2, 2012 um 9:35 pm

Spot on! I personally love for comparing prices of textbooks; if you haven’t tried them yet it’s definitively a great engine. Rentals are often a decent deal, but you have to remember that there is no resale value like there is with a used book.

Arnold February 3, 2012 um 4:42 pm

The important thing to remember is to compare prices. It’s sketchy to make a blanket statement like "buying used textbooks is cheaper than renting or ebooks," because there are far too many textbook titles out there. Sure, buying used copies is probably better sometimes, but each book is a different ballgame. It’s a good idea to take the time to compare prices, book by book.

Nate Hoffelder February 4, 2012 um 6:54 pm

Yes, but I do tell readers to compare prices. It’s up near the beginning of the post.

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