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Depending on your major, your average book expense may be much more or much less. Hefty textbooks used in math and science classes, for instance, tend to be more expensive than novels needed for literature classes. Still, no matter your course of study, you can apply some of these basic tips to save on college textbooks.
The easiest way to shop for used books online is to use ISBN numbers. These numbers are specific, so you'll get the exact book and edition your class is using. Websites such as Amazon, eBay and book.ly are great places to shop around. MyNextCollege.com also offers a free search tool that compares prices from dozens of online stores.
- Share. One option that works for some courses is simply to share. Split the cost with a roommate or close friend taking the same class, and share the book. As long as you can arrange study schedules so that you both get the book as often as you need it, this can work out well. Some professors are adamant that students have their books available during class, while others use the texts as supplemental reading and focus class time on lectures. Figuring out a professor's style before you decide to share textbooks may be a good idea.
- Check the library. While your school library may not have a copy of every single textbook, it's likely to have copies of some of them – especially fiction and non-fiction books for liberal arts classes. The key to using the library is to ensure you can get the books when you need them. Ordering books ahead of time or using the interlibrary loan system can help. But you might want to keep some backup cash in case you can't get the book at the library and need to buy a copy.
- Rent books. Renting books is becoming a more popular option and can be a good way to save. Rentals are especially popular for the most expensive books, like math and science texts. If you want to rent books, you will likely have to deal with your campus bookstore, but this is one case that makes sense to do so.
First, you need to make sure you understand the terms of the rental. You may need to take extra care of rental books so you don't lose money when you return them. And take time to see how much a used version of the book would sell for, as it might make more sense financially to buy the book and then resell it later. Finally, be aware that renting is not always the cheapest option, particularly when you factor in the resale value of a textbook you buy.
- Opt for ebooks. Many textbooks are now available in ebook format, and you can buy or rent them in this cheaper format as long as you have an e-reader. If you're taking classes that require historical texts, fiction, biographies, poetry and essays, you'll likely find those texts in ebook format. One key to success with ebooks is to make sure you can easily navigate the book. Sometimes it's more difficult to find a particular page using an ebook, which can be frustrating when participating in a seminar that involves jumping around by page number.
- Consider buying the older edition. The California Student Public Interest Research Group published a study in 2004 that found new editions cost 58 percent more than older editions. Newer editions are often not that different from previous editions – they just sometimes look nicer and have different page numbers. You will want to compare old and new editions to ensure there aren't any major differences between them, and you'll be prepared to hunt down information during lectures, since your page numbers will probably be different.
Decide which you'll use long-term. Once in a blue moon, it's a good idea to buy a brand new textbook, even if you have to pay full price. This isn't normally the case for introductory classes, as you'll likely never use those books again. But once you get into the upper-level courses for your major, those textbooks could come in handy during your future career. Think carefully about which books you might use over the long term, and consider purchasing just those books new. That way, you'll get a book without several students' worth of wear and tear.
15 Best Online Bookstores for Cheap New and Used Books
Best for: Independent presses, new authors
Why it’s great: Powells.com is the online arm of the beloved bricks-and-mortar Portland shop, and even though it’s online, it’s still got the feel of what may be the world’s coolest neighborhood bookstore. In addition to a wide range of new and used books, you can find extra goodies on their blog, which offers everything from the staffers’ picks to playlists of the tunes authors listen to while they write.
Bonus: Orders of $50 and up ship for free, everything else ships for a flat $3.99 in the US. Their sales, which are staff-curated by theme, will help you find deals on books that’ll broaden your literary palate.
Better World Books
Best for: eBooks, popular fiction and nonfiction
Why it’s great: “Better World” isn’t just a name — for every purchase made on BetterWorldBooks.com, a book is donated to someone in need (over 13 million to date!). These online booksellers also partner with libraries and college campuses to collect used books, many of which are donated to literacy nonprofits around the world. In addition to all of their reusing and recycling, you can also go paperless — Better World Books is one of the only discount sites that offers eBooks. Need it now? You can opt for eDelivery — any physical book can be scanned and sent to you in a digital format in as little as two hours.
Bonus: Free shipping worldwide — and they pay for carbon offsets to minimize the eco-footprint of all those books traveling around the globe.
Best for: Non-English language books, popular fiction
Why it’s great: BookMooch.com is basically free. Once you sign up, you enter a list of the books you have that you’d like to give away, and make a wish list of the books you’d like to get. When someone requests one of your books, you ship it to them (that’s the only cost involved), earning you one point. You can then use your point to request a book from someone else. BookMooch is an international community, so it’s an especially good resource for tracking down books that aren’t available in the US or that are in a language other than English.
Bonus: Just want to clean out your bookcase? You can also donate the points you earn to various charities that partner with the site.
Best for: Textbooks, digital textbooks
Why it’s great: Based near Coastal Carolina University, Skyo.com is primarily devoted to helping you save money on textbooks. Their rental program lets you choose your rental period, and even extend the due date if you need the text just a little bit longer. In addition to the usual ISBN search, you can also search by school to easily find textbooks that are required for courses at your college or university.
Bonus: Tired of lugging around heavy texts? Skyo also lets you rent digital textbooks with 24/7 tech support.
Best for: Popular books, kids’ books
Why it’s great: Washington-based ThriftBooks.com has a commitment to helping the environment, partnering with libraries and other vendors to ensure that used books wind up in good hands rather than in the trash. Any items they receive that they can’t sell go directly to a recycling plant. Their prices are extremely low, and they also offer three-book deals that let you get extra savings on sets of books from bestselling authors.
Bonus: For every additional book you buy from the same seller, you get an additional 50 cents off. Free shipping on any order in the US!
Best for: Hard-to-find titles, textbooks
Why it’s great: In addition to its own book buying-and-selling operations, Alibris.com also connects a large network of independent sellers. This means that if you simply have to have a particular rare book — whether it’s a signed copy, a first edition, or it’s just been out of print for years, you’re likely to find it here. Alibris has also recently gotten into the textbook rental game. They allow you to return rentals for a full refund within 21 days (convenient for those who have trouble committing to a class schedule), and so long as you keep the book in reasonable condition, they allow written notes and highlighting.
Bonus: Many items ship for free, and if you sign up for their newsletter, you get loads of coupons.
Best for: New books, rare and out-of-print books
Why it’s great: NYC mainstay The Strand boasts 18 miles of books, all of which you can search on StrandBooks.com. They’re picky about what they buy, so even used books are in good (if not better than good) condition. Even new books aren’t full price, and their staff picks give you the scoop on what New York’s hipster literati recommend. It’s not the same as browsing through their stacks IRL, but it’s close.
Bonus: You can pre-order books that haven’t come out yet (signed copies, in some cases) — and they’re all discounted, too.
Best for: Collectible and unusual books
Why it’s great: AbeBooks.com is another site that combines its own operation with a number of independent sellers. The site is easy to search, but clicking around gives you the feel of a virtual independent bookstore. There’s a page where you can see photos and read the bios of all of the cats who live in the indie shops that sell via AbeBooks. They also have a number of click-worthy curated lists, from the Best New Books to Funniest Books According to the British.
Bonus: The “Weird Book Room” is amazing — it’s like stumbling into an extremely bizarre library. You can check out titles like Jurassic Towel Origami, Your Three-Year-Old: Friend or Enemy, and many more legitimately out-there titles. And oh yeah — many of the books on the site ship for free.
Best for: Textbooks
Why it’s great: Owned by eBay, Half.com is sort of like an all “buy it now,” media-only version of the popular auction site (no bidding here). They have all kinds of books (as well as music, games, and movies), but textbooks are especially easy to find here. You can choose to rent or buy textbooks. If you buy, when your semester’s over you can sell that Chem 101 textbook and get some cash back.
Bonus: For textbook rentals, you pick how long you need the book (30 to 125 days), and return shipping is free.
Best for: Niche topics, rare books
Why it’s great: Biblio.com styles itself as one-stop shopping for true bibliophiles, with carefully curated collections from independent booksellers. Many are dealers who focus on specific niche interests, antiquarian books, and rare books, and in addition to searching for titles and authors, you can also browse by seller. Check the “Exclusive Specials” section for deals from the different indie shops!
Bonus: Your purchase helps do good! All shipping is offset with carbon credits. The company also has a nonprofit arm, BiblioWorks, which uses the site’s profits to build libraries in rural communities in South America.
Best for: Bestsellers, new books
Why it’s great: Trading site PaperBackSwap.com lets you exchange books for free with other members — you list what you’ve got, ship it to someone when it gets requested, and earn a credit. You can use your credit to request a book from someone else, or as a coupon to get a brand new book at a discounted price.
Bonus: You get two credits just for signing up, so your first two books are completely free!
Books A Million
Best for: New books, eBooks
Why it’s great: The online arm of this retail chain, BooksAMillion.com boasts discounts on new and bestselling books, as well as pre-orders. If you’re addicted to your eReader, they’ve also got great prices on loads of eBooks — plus pre-orders, too, so you can have that hot read on your device the moment it comes out.
Bonus: This site is generous with the coupon codes, helping you get even more savings.
Best for: Classic books, last year’s bestsellers
Why it’s great: DaedalusBooks.com brings you a curated collection of books that are remaindered by publishers — new books that went unsold. Sure, some books don’t sell because they’re not that good, but these folks are picky. If you’re looking for that one title you’ve always meant to read, they’ve probably got it.
Bonus: The prices are crazy cheap, and if you sign up for their email list you can take an additional 10% off your order.
Best for: Textbooks
Why it’s great: BookRenter.com does one thing, and it does it well — textbook rentals. It offers loads of options, including plenty of extensions and the opportunity to buy the book (with the cost of your rental going toward the purchase price) if you decide that you really do need it for more than just that one class. If you do return your book, they make it super easy, with printable shipping labels and several drop-off options.
Bonus: With free shipping both ways, all you pay is the cost of your rental.
Magers & Quinn Booksellers
Best for: Nonfiction, up-and-coming authors
Why it’s great: MagersAndQuinn.com offers deeply discounted new and used titles, with the quirky charm of the actual Twin Cities shop. It’s an especially great resource for readers looking to dig deep into nonfiction, with an extensive selection on topics like science, current events, and urban studies. Their staff picks are a terrific way to discover new books and authors you haven’t heard of yet.
Bonus: Are you a writer? Check out the selection in the “Loft Bookshelf” for a wide range of excellent books on the craft of writing.
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