College textbooks: Forget the campus bookshop, shop online

College textbooks: Forget the campus bookshop, shop online

Summary: Campus bookstores will want all students to take advantage of their offers and book availability. But the online marketplace will yield a cheaper result, provided you get there before the academic year starts.

TOPICS: Browser

While Chris Dawson, resident blogging counterpart royally annoyed the hell out of an association powering over 3,000 campus bookstores in the United States, I retreated to the Zackcave where I mulled over my evil plans for revenge and the causation of gratuitous havoc.

(I went to make a pot of tea and considered how to respond).

College bookstores are expensive, and this is a fact. Take it from me, who is now entering his fourth year of university after flipping off the original computer science degree course. In the midst of a recession, students worldwide have struggled to not only pay for their tuition fees, their living costs and alcohol 'expenses', their biggest concern for the first month of the academic year are textbooks.

The student loan comes in more often than not on the very day of the new academic term; the week after fresher's week of which would have been an ideal opportunity to pre-order the books before the mad rush of term starting. This is where the on-campus bookstores thrive.

The bookstores hope and pray that the convenience of being on or near to campus will allow students the access to the books they so desperately need. With no time before the reading commences, students have no time to wait for books bought online to arrive.

Wrong... well, kind of.

First year students who more often than not move into campus accommodation (that said, many universities are city campuses but their bookstores are usually in or around the vicinity of the university library) flock automatically to the on-campus bookstore. They are new, unfamiliar with what they will need or where to go, and take the only option that is readily available to them, with the concern they will get into trouble if they don't have the books they need on time.

Second year onwards, including master's and doctoral students will know otherwise. The online bargain hunting will begin before term starts, looking for exactly what they need, and even take advantage of the express shipping that some companies offer.

But is the online marketplace cheaper? Do the on-campus bookstores automatically have the 'priority' treatment by being a constant presence to their students? Do they have a right to throw a strop when students wake up to the post-first year coffee and search elsewhere? No, they don't. Generation Y consumer patterns at the best of times are unpredictable and at university, add an extra power of ten to the equation.

Universities publish their reading lists; the list of books, texts and journals that students will need to buy and/or read to benefit from the course or modules they are taking as part of their degree. These will be open to the students to have and to hold, more so as a way of dumping the responsibility out of the institution's hands. The bookstores will take this also, stock up in advance and make sure that every book that is needed for every course or module will be available to as many who will need them.

So for the record, the vast majority of university bookshops will have exactly the textbooks you will need for your academic year. Tick.

The problem is when it boils down to pricing. The bookshops will take advantage of this and you will find that more often than not the bookshop will offer a raised price than anywhere else. My student friends across the UK and indeed the world have shared their thoughts with me, and they agree that they are more expensive.

But by taking the reading lists offered by the university, which will include title, author, publisher, edition and all but always the ISBN number, you can whack that into Amazon or even Wikipedia and it will throw up the exact book you need from the various online sources.

I urge you to try it. Pick any random book you have - try the quirky ones too, to really test this out, note the price on the back cover, and enter the ISBN into Amazon. Eight out of ten times you'll find it's cheaper. The caveat to this is that you may have to wait that little bit longer for the book to arrive, especially if they are from third-party sellers.

Universities seem to be taking an even higher road by collating all of the readings that are necessary for their modules or degree courses: compiling them together, photocopying them in mass, binding them and offering them to students for a greatly reduced price.

Last year, the 09/10 academic year, I cut my numbers down from a total of 18 books to a combined 3 reading packs with all the appropriate chapters binded bound together, plus an extra 2 books which were needed for a wild module. I saved around £85 ($115) at a time where money was tight.

In short, it really pays to shop around. Just because your student loan hasn't come through yet doesn't mean you can't start looking.

  • Check Amazon and other major online bookshops for the textbooks you need.
  • Avoid getting e-books or Kindle/iPad compatible books, because though they're great for reading fiction, you will really need something physical in your hand to make notes on and reference to quickly.
  • If your academic department offers them, buy the designated course reading pack. It'll have all the reading you need, and it'll save you a tonne of money in the long run.
  • Only resort to your campus bookshop if you need a certain textbook immediately. But if you get in there before the rush, you'll save money overall.

And no matter how tempting it may be to burn your books at the end of the year, in some kind of ritualistic releasing of the academic demons, don't. You'll never know when you'll need them again, and it occasionally sparks an international diplomatic outrage.

Topic: Browser

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • RE: College textbooks: Forget the campus bookshop, shop online

    "a combined 3 reading packs with all the appropriate chapters binded together.."
    Zack, you must have flunked English. I think you meant to say "bound together". There are numerous grammatical and spelling errors in this blog.
    • RE: College textbooks: Forget the campus bookshop, shop online

      @cjc5447 Alright, I'll give you that one. Edited.
  • RE: College textbooks: Forget the campus bookshop, shop online

    I went back to school through a brick and mortar university's online program. I rarely ordered on the school's online bookstore because of the prices. International editions are often sold at prices that are 30 to 50% less and are the exact same book.

    When selling books to the B&N store in NYC I compared pages, the index and table of contents....exactly the same. The only difference I ever found was International Edition on the cover. I can only guess that the market overseas won't pay those prices (ever buy a Coke in a 3rd world nation?).
  • A cheaper option to purchasing your books

    Many schools now offer book rental. The cost runs about half. And rental keeps you out of the "Sorry, that book's not being used next year," issue, that makes you the proud owner, of a book you'll never open again.
  • and if you really want to save money...

    buy used, and buy the previous edition. Rarely does the newest edition have any critical content not contained in the previous edition. Saved $$$$ on college costs that way.
    • RE: College textbooks: Forget the campus bookshop, shop online

      @Level It entirely depends on the course you're doing. Physics and biology rarely change - but social sciences like criminology and film studies are constantly evolving.
  • RE: College textbooks: Forget the campus bookshop, shop online

    One problem with purchasing online is the merchant's ability (or inability) to scale. For one or two students, this isn't a big deal, but if half the school goes to Amazon, things will fall apart quickly.

    Case in point: I took a class a few years ago and the professor took the lazy way out: he didn't bother submitting the textbook information to the bookstore to preorder the books and instead told us all (about 30 of us) that the textbook was available from Amazon, so just purchase it there. And we all did. What happened in the end? Two people got their textbooks and everyone else went to the backordered list for the rest of the semester.

    For these kinds of books that have very little demand outside of college classes, online retailers aren't going to spend the money to keep a stock necessary to fulfill these kinds of requests. The campus bookstore can do a pretty good job of estimating how many copies they'll need based on the class enrollment. But online retailers will have a hard enough time knowing what books will be used by colleges all over the country let alone estimating how many students will go to their store to purchase the books.
    Starving Artist
  • RE: College textbooks: Forget the campus bookshop, shop online

    this is actually old news to some of us, real old news. This was the case in the 90s, though the sites to buy the books on have changed. One problem is when the required book is a special pack, that has a workbook, or other content added, that you cannot get outside the college bookstore.
  • Agreed.

    In fact last semester I saved at least $230 by buying online. $150 of that was just for one book alone which I found on Amazon for only $50. Sheesh.
    The one and only, Cylon Centurion
  • RE: College textbooks: Forget the campus bookshop, shop online

    Nice article, but next time you write one like this, try doing it in a timely manner. It would be much more useful BEFORE the school year starts instead of after we have all bought our books.
  • RE: College textbooks: Forget the campus bookshop, shop online

    With over a dozen textbook rental sites and another 20+ sites selling used textbook my recommendation is to use a price comparison tool to show the cheapest used, rental, ebook & international version price like the free service from . Makes it much easier to compare all the sources and make a decision.
  • RE: College textbooks: Forget the campus bookshop, shop online

    Don't forget a buyback price comparison site to get the most money at the end of the semester like <a href="" target="_blank" rel="nofollow">Price Books 4 Me</a> You can compare buyback amounts from 10 different vendors that all offer free shipping.
  • Online Readers

    Great article and some useful tips here! I found a pretty cool infographic on how online readers can save money on college textbooks - Thought it might be useful for the fellow readers - Hope it helps!