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The Quick Guide to Cheap Textbooks

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You’re smart enough to get into college; so don’t pay the stupid tax on new textbooks. The simple trick of buying used textbooks could save a regular college student thousands of dollars.

The College Board estimates that current freshmen at four-year public schools can expect to pay about $4,800 in total costs for books and supplies. Relatively speaking, textbooks now cost as much as 14% of tuition at four-year public schools and 39% of tuition and fees at a community college.

The average price of a new textbook for an introductory-level college course is $175, and many, especially sciences such as biology, chemistry and engineering, can easily reach the $200 to $300 range. And if a student pays for textbooks using student loan money or, worse, credit cards, the added interest charges will stealthily increase the book’s real sticker price.

A Bigger Price Tag

College textbooks haven’t always been this expensive. Since 1998, the cost of textbooks has grown 150%, whereas the cost of recreational books has risen a meager 0.08%, according to University of Michigan Professor of Economics Mark J. Perry. Another study, “Fixing the Broken Textbook Market,” found that, “just five textbook companies control more than 80% of the $8.8 billion publishing market, giving them near monopoly and protecting them from serious competition.”

The high price of textbooks is needlessly causing academic harm to students. The study also found that 65% of student consumers have opted out of buying a college textbook due to its high price, and of those students, 94% say they suffer academically. Furthermore, 50% of all students surveyed in the study said the cost of textbooks influenced the number of credits and which classes they took each semester.

Textbook publishers realize that college students are captive consumers — the professor picks the book and the student pays the price. George Washington University, one of U.S. News & World Reports’ “Top 5 Most Expensive” colleges, recently escalated the textbook pricing battle against its own students.

Just weeks before the semester started, the University reportedly sent a warning letter to all faculty instructing them, “not to tell students about cheaper online resources for ordering required books, insisting instead that they only refer students to the [official campus] bookstore.” In the face of widespread faculty objection, and a public relations nightmare, the George Washington University eventually backtracked.

College students should not let the price of textbooks determine their academic destiny. There are many options available for students to obtain cheaper textbooks; these include open (free) textbooks, textbook rental services, and e-textbooks options. However, the quickest and most cost-effective method to saving money on textbooks is to buy used books.

Students also have the legal right to buy and re-sell used textbooks. Under the “first sale doctrine” of copyright law, once a publisher sells the textbook, its copyright ownership interest in that book is exhausted. The U.S. Supreme Court recently upheld this principle in the case of Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., when it ruled against a textbook publisher that sued a graduate student who made $1 million by selling used textbooks on eBay.

Used Is the New New

Buying used textbooks is easy. First, students should determine which textbooks are required for their classes by checking the course requirements on the class syllabus, the campus bookstore website, or the university’s student academic portal.

Specifically, students need to make a list of the following information about their required textbooks: title, author, edition number (if available), and ISBN number (a 10- or 13-digit number on the book’s title page; every book in the world has a unique ISBN number for identification.) Helpfully, even books with multiple editions are required to have unique ISBNs for each new edition.

Second, students should use an ISBN search tool such as Amazon ISBN search, DirectTextbook.com, or ISBN.nu. (The search engine ISBN.nu is like the Kayak.com of searching online bookstores and will return results from multiple sources.) Type in the ISBN number and search for the book; then browse the “used” book options.

Students can also use free mobile apps to find the best deals on used textbooks. At the official campus bookstore, where books are often organized by course number, use a smartphone camera to scan the barcode on the back of the textbook.

These apps can instantly show the book details and pricing information. The free barcode scanner apps DirectTextbook.com App, Amazon Student App, and Red Laser App are useful for finding good deals and are available for both iPhone and Android.

On a site like Amazon Marketplace, where you can see used book options from other sellers, evaluate the book’s condition and shipping times prior to purchase. To reduce shipping times, choose a seller that’s in your region. Students should also checkout the local, independent bookstores around campus, which often have stockpiles of used books from last year’s classes.

Even as the prices of textbooks climb, by simply committing to used textbooks instead of new, students can save themselves thousands of dollars.

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