School Bookstores Can't Afford Cheap Textbooks

I'm taking just one course this semester, with just one reasonably priced textbook. According to the back cover, the price was $29.95, but that isn't the price I paid. I purchased a brand new copy at for $19.77. I could have bought it for $15.89 but I would have lost out on free shipping.

How did the other students in my class get their copies?

  • One bought it for full price at the bookstore ($31.75 after sales tax). She said that she'd considered buying online but she only had one book to buy this year and had to walk by the bookstore anyhow.
  • One student works at the university's bookstore and gets a 20% discount. She paid $25.40.
  • One student works at Barnes and Noble and gets a 30% discount. Her price? $22.23

All that variety for the same 195 pages and some glue. It's pretty obvious that the school bookstore was the worst rate, too. Even if the girl who worked at Barnes & Noble didn't get a discount for working there, she could have gotten a similar discount by using coupons or by using a store membership — same goes for Borders.

But why is the university's bookstore in such a bad way?

University bookstores are almost all owned by a few big corporations these days, rather than the schools that house them. Most of my personal experience has been with eFollet and BN College Booksellers. I don't know about anyothers — if you do, please chime in — but from what I've learned in casual conversation, these booksellers simply can't afford to offer much in the way of discounts. In part, this is because of their obligations to universities: the bookstore has to stock enough books for the number of students enrolled in a given class and have to absorb the shipping costs to return the books when students buy online, through other stores or entirely avoid picking up their textbooks. They have to pay to ship back used books that are sold back (more money!) at the end of the semester and deal with various other costs. On top of all this, the companies are not non-profits — they have to make money. I'm not suggesting propping up these bookstores, though. I'm just saying that the high prices are logical. It's also logical for students to stop buying their textbooks at the stores with the highest costs.

What other textbook options are out there?

Other retailers: Barnes & Noble, Borders and independent bookstores may not stock your particular textbook, but just about every bookstore is happy to put in a special order for you. Just keep in mind that most of these stores charge the same cover price as the school bookstores, so you aren't much better off unless you have coupons or a members' discount.

Online booksellers: There are a slew of websites selling off used textbooks. Most of them are dirt cheap, too. Shipping can get a bit expensive on books, though, if you aren't careful. Buying all your books from one seller can often get you a break on shipping costs. I've run into a couple of problems with edition numbers as well — but in most classes, the edition of your book won't stop you from reading it.

Amazon: Amazon is in a class of its own when it comes to online booksellers for one — free shipping. If you have Amazon Prime, you can get free shipping on an amazing variety of Amazon purchases. I don't have an Amazon Prime account myself, but I use my boyfriend's, as does my mother and several of our other relatives.

Trade: Sophomore year of college, I traded a junior lunch for the textbook for a class I was taking the next semester and that he had taken the semester before (he still made more than he would have by selling it back to the bookstore). Facebook and college message boards have made this technique amazingly easy.

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Guest's picture

I usually buy all of my textbooks on, saves me a TON of money.

Xin Lu's picture
Xin Lu

I used the library a lot when I was in college!

Guest's picture
Rick Francis

I like the idea of getting textbooks for less- especially because they are very expensive and seldom useful after the course is done.
One caution in general using an older edition isn't a problem unless the exercises at the end of the chapter have changed. You may end up with a huge hassle to verify that the instructor's assignment is the same one in your book!
-Rick Francis

Guest's picture

I'm putting in another vote for Very often I can buy like new and sell books back for nearly what I paid for them since I take good care of my books. A cool way to verify the editions is to get the ISBN numbers from the college bookstore or amazon. I usually cross shop the college bookstore with and amazon and pick and choose to get the best prices.

Guest's picture

When I was in college, I would trade books with my friends. One semester I swapped an Environnmental Science Book for a Psychology book.

For my literature classes, which required a thousand little paperbacks, I used the library.

And then I used to find cheap books. Like Hardware Guy said, if you have the ISBN numbers, it's easy to get the exact book.

One other thing... check your school library and academic (tutoring center), sometimes they have text books on reserve. They can't leave the library, but you can study them all you want when you are there.

Thursday Bram's picture


I always relied on the ISBNs for finding my books online, but in my junior year the school bookstore changed policy — they didn't list ISBNs or edition numbers on the website, and if they caught you writing down number in the physical bookstore, you were asked to leave.


Guest's picture

If you attend a public university, it is usually illegal for the bookstore not to allow you to write down isbn numbers. Although it may vary state to state.

Guest's picture

I recently had to get a textbook and could only find it for over $100 even on amazon, however I did discover that the same book is published as a paperback in the UK and retailing at less than half the price of the hardback (only version available in North America) even with international shipping I saved over $45. Sometimes it is worth checking international versions of sites- etc. I can also recommend which has free worldwide shipping.

Guest's picture

We're not allowed to set the price of the books and we make jack sh!t on them. Trust me, I've worked at a college bookstore (Big 10 school) for 7 years.

Guest's picture
Brian Blank

I am current a grad student at UMUC and found that a number of their books are listed as custom. Basically, what they are doing is taking a standard book and bundling it with some random item. When I search for the listed ISBN, nothing comes up because it is only made for the one school. I guess this is one way to circumvent the discounters...

Guest's picture

In Ohio, some legislation is being considered that would prohibit professors from changing textbook editions except for every three years, unless there is a substantial change in material. They're being hung up over the definition of "substantial" (last I heard at least) but the thought's on the right course, I think. Most professors I've had recognise that books are expensive and that not much changes from edition to edition (last year one said that he only chose the 7th edition because they sent him one, but that we could get the 6th or even 5th). The proposed Ohio law will also ban the selling of bundles. For example, an intro to Spanish bundle included a textbook and workbook; since you wrote in the workbook, you can't take it back, and since it came bundled, you can't take the textbook by itself. The legislation would require them to be separate transactions. I heard that similar legislation has been passed already in around 15 states.

And on another note, my school's bookstore is actually university-owned. A few years ago, the administration considered outsourcing it, but after student protest (which was hard to organise since we had to convince students that, though expensive, our bookstore's prices weren't as bad as they would be if outsourced) the decision was made to keep it in-house.

Guest's picture

I always used or but the easiest things is to post the books you have around campus and sell them for like half of what the bookstore sells them for or swap if you can. I sold a lot of my books by posting a list of them and the classes when i first got to campus on the beginning of the semester and got great response. you dont have to deal with shipping and the person buying doesn't have to wait for the mail either so its win win.

Guest's picture

As a bookseller for one of the "big box" stores mentioned in the article, I'd like to offer up this little piece of advice.

Plan ahead. These textbooks have to be ordered 99% of the time, and it can take up to a week. It is not the store's fault if you waited until the last minute to get a book you need today. That goes for regular books too.

Also, if a professor or teacher (or Oprah...) recommends getting a particular book, and says the store has one, there could be a rush on that book and it will need to be ordered anyways, or they could just be wrong. Or things change. Call ahead-we're happy to check! Generally though, a non-campus bookstore doesn't have thirty copies of Macbeth on hand...

Guest's picture

For my entire higher education I've been using for finding where the cheapest textbooks are because the bookstores charge so much.

I wanted to recommend it to those who haven't heard of it before, you don't purchase the books through them, but you search the book/item by author/title/isbn/etc and it acts as a search engine of the major sellers and displays them in an easy to read list with shipping, coupons, and final price displayed in an quick format so that $10 book with $30 shipping is listed below the $25 copy with free shipping.

It takes all of 5 minutes to get used to and includes in it's result options a way to look at the older and international editions.

Guest's picture

Wouldn't it be great if professores (who don't really make a lot of money off of their textbooks) just published their books online for free downloads? There are a few sites that professors do this:

Textbook Revolution
Wiki Books

Encourage your professors to publish their books for free online (then you only have to pay for printing somewhere).

Until professors start doing that, hear are some tips on how to get cheap textbooks.

Textbook Truth

Guest's picture

I use to find all my cheap textbooks. They price compare all the major online textbook stores.

Guest's picture

The reason why textbooks are so expensive is because the cost of you selling the textbook back is factored into the price. Only the university makes money buying back used books. Buying books at the university bookstore and then selling them back serves no one but the university.

Guest's picture

As a science major (geology) I basically haven't paid for a textbook in about 3 years. You'd be amazed at what textbooks your university library carries, and even if it doesn't, services like Inter-Library Loan (which many colleges participate in, dig around on their websites to find) can snag it for you. When I'd otherwise have been paying ~$120 a pop for every textbook, this has been a lifesaver.

Guest's picture

i've save tons of money from buying damaged books from abe books. if you don't mind reading a completely highlighted or water damaged book, then this is the place to go!
i've saved hundreds of dollars here. i got a $150 book for less than $30 once because it was waterdamaged. i don't care about crinkly pages. so its all good. i ended up selling it later for more than i bought it for. yay for making a profit off my text books!
checking out the text from the library is useful too.
if you're in a class that uses classic books like dante's infero or the great gatsby and all those other staples of european and american literature, then project gutenburg is a life-saver. you can download text versions (generaly notepad or word docs) of over 100,000 books. most of the books on project gutenburg are legal (though some might not be). its a great way to get free books. you can print off chapters if you have to read on paper, or if you want to save a few trees, you can read off of your computer screen and avoid straining your eyes by increasing the font.

many schools also have a textbook black-market of some sort. my university used to have TSU-bay which developed into . this is a server that takes your class schedule, lists the books you need for it and then searches all the major book-buying sites all at once, including amazon, ebay and other smaller auction/seller sites, and arrages them in order of price all on one page. its pretty sweet.

hope this helps!!!

Guest's picture

The problem is that the college bookstores (at least the ones run by eFollett) will NOT let you have the ISBN. I really hate it because I want to shop elsewhere and they are preventing that!

Guest's picture

Amazon and only allow US resident to sell books online, in fact, NEW international edition books outside US are much cheaper, usually half price of hard cover, but content is exactly the same. I think paperback is ok if you just read it for 1 or 2 semesters. Before buying at Amazon or, I suggest that we can find some booksellers outsides US, for example, some ebay booksellers locate in Asia can offer a cheaper book price with shipping.

Guest's picture

I believe text books companies charge to much for their books, I try to buy used at but even then they are to expensive for someone with my income to afford.

Guest's picture

I forget what's been mentioned above in the comments, but here's the things I can think of to save money on textbooks.

*Don't buy new at the university/college bookstore unless you have to (like for bundled stuff only the university has).

*Try to find used copies - even at the university bookstore if need be

*ask your professor about using an older edition - many times they are almost exactly the same, with minor changes. If you can buy an older edition, you will save at least 40%....many times it's closer to 80-90% off!

*Look for international versions - these are many times softcover books with thinner paper, but are much cheaper. Be aware that you will have a harder time trying to sell them at the end of the semester...unless you can find another student.

*See if you can find a bookswap website for your campus or another campus and try to find your books.

*Shop Online - there are tons of online bookstores (Amazon,, Barnes and Noble, etc. Shop around.

*BETTER YET use a price comparison site....especially one that specializes in textbooks like They will compare prices at tons of bookstores for you to find the best price.

MOST IMPORTANT OF ALL - Educate your professors about what they can do to help you save money. Many don't know what to do.

Here's a short list:

*Publish ISBN numbers ahead of time so students can compare prices

*Let students use older editions of books

*Get your Professor to write his/her textbook and class materials online and give them away.

*Tell them not to choose textbooks that are bundled with un-needed things or with workbooks that make selling back your books impossible.

*Ask them not to require the use of publisher websites that go along with the textbooks. These contain questions and additional materials that have to be accesed using a "key code" found on the inside cover of the book. A student can only use it once and then it is expired. This means that a new textbooks has to be bought to get an unused code.

That's all that comes to mind right now

Guest's picture

If you have a lit class that requires you to read a lot of novels, go to the library. The local library, too, not just the campus one. If you're only working on "The Great Gatsby" for a week, you won't even have to renew. Or search regular used books stores' bargain bins. A copy of "Black Like Me" written fifty years ago, selling for a quarter is still the same text as the brand-new one in the college bookstore selling for $9.95.

Also, talk to your professors about what edition/publication you should use. One of my favorite professors listed the Penguin copy on the syllabus, but actively encouraged us to NOT shop at the college bookstore, and get any old copy we could find. During lectures, instead of saying "Page 95" he would tell us all to turn to Chapter 3.

Look at other options besides buying, too. Talk to other people in your major, dorm, or academic club. If they are keeping all their textbooks for future reference, ask if you can borrow the text you need for a semester. Share a book for your Tue/Thur class that your buddy is taking Mon/Wed/Fri. Heck, someone might even give you their old edition the college won't buy back--just be sure to contact someone in the department and ask if edition 3 is still ok.

Craigslist is still my favorite. A book selling on campus for $100 is listed for $50, then you can turn around and sell it next year for $40.

Guest's picture

I would suggest using
Save Money, Save The Planet specializes in the recycling of textbooks, DVDs, CDs. Buying used textbooks not only saves you money, but cuts down on greenhouse gases caused by the manufacturing of new textbooks.
With you're not only saving trees, you are saving some green.

Guest's picture

I've used, they only sell to purdue, but they solve the problem of using amazon and searching ISBNs. All i did was put in my courses. Shipping wasn't the cheapest, but its easy

Guest's picture

This site gives discounts (rebates) to many on the online sites ( -- who almost always undercuts their college bookstore arm -- ,,, chegg etc)

The site is:

(Also works if you don't go to a Texas school!)

Guest's picture

I rent texts from Chegg, which is much less than buying them from the bookstore. I wanted to share a code that will discount your order. Use code CC123047 when ordering to save money. The code will also give you an extra $5 back when selling Chegg your used texts. Put in the code when ordering and hit the "apply" button. Code does not expire so it can be used with every order.

Guest's picture

Get your textbooks at!!!

use this coupon code to get 5% off of your order total: GOLDFISH

check em out: Textbooks - Buy Textbooks | Rent Textbooks | Sell Textbooks | eTextbooks | Books | DVD + Blu Ray | Used Textbooks - - College Books and Gear. Cheap!

Guest's picture

Having just graduated, I can relate to the struggle to reduce the cost of textbooks, spending thousands of dollars on textbooks, even after dedicating hours to finding the best deals online. is a textbook price comparison site that makes buying textbooks easier and less expensive. The website offers options including purchasing new/used books/e-books or renting and standard or expedited shipping. Through, you may also look up a book by its ISBN or sell a book back.

Most uniquely, has school specific information so it knows what books you need for each class and which of our reputable affiliates sells them at the lowest prices. All you have to do is select your preferences along with the classes you are taking and does the rest.

Guest's picture

Having just graduated, I can relate to the struggle to reduce the cost of textbooks, spending thousands of dollars on textbooks, even after dedicating hours to finding the best deals online. is a textbook price comparison site that makes buying textbooks easier and less expensive. The website offers options including purchasing new/used books/e-books or renting and standard or expedited shipping. Through, you may also look up a book by its ISBN or sell a book back.

Most uniquely, has school specific information so it knows what books you need for each class and which of our reputable affiliates sells them at the lowest prices. All you have to do is select your preferences along with the classes you are taking and does the rest.

Guest's picture

Buying online is definitely the way to go. For my liberal arts classes, I would ussually use to get books because its completely free. For science/math classes I used and also sell them back through them at the end of the semester.