Chegg.com is the Netflix of textbooks

The New York Times ran an article this past weekend on Chegg.com (short for chicken and egg), a growing textbook rental service.

The New York Times ran an article this past weekend on Chegg.com (short for chicken and egg), a growing textbook rental service. That's right, textbook rental. How many college students buy used books and then return them at the end of a semester? Chegg allows you to simply rent the books at a substantial discount from list and then return them for free, much like Netflix has done for movies.

According to the Times article,

as Chegg prepares for its third academic year in the textbook rental business, the business is growing rapidly. Jim Safka, a former chief executive of Match.com and Ask.com who was recently recruited to run Chegg, said the company’s revenue in 2008 was more than $10 million. This year, Chegg surpassed that in January alone, Mr. Safka said.

Of course, in my ideal world, textbooks would all be digital and we could simply buy subscriptions to them. Obviously, we don't live in my ideal world.

I was, however, able to find some fairly obscure books on Chegg through their incredibly easy interface. A search for an old colleague (I use the term colleague loosely; at the time, he was chair of the Biostatistics Department at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and I was a mere statistical programmer, but still...) turned up his book on the analysis of gene expression data (among several others) for half the price of a new copy.

The service also buys used textbooks you already own, going so far as to provide you with free UPS shipping labels and planting a tree for every book you sell.

One possible drawback? While you can highlight rented books, you can't take notes in them. Here's their policy:

Highlighting in the textbook is OK - to a certain extent. Writing in the book is not accepted. We ask that you are considerate while using the book. A book returned with every other line of every page highlighted is overdoing it.

It's important that you try to keep the books you have rented in the best possible condition -- this way we can reuse them to help another person save money on their textbooks. We believe highlighting is a helpful study tool for others, but please use COMMON COURTESY when highlighting textbooks. You will be charged the full price of the textbook if it is returned to us in a condition that prevents us from reusing it.

Actually quite reasonable, but I happen to be a big marginal note sort of guy (and thus, again, in my ideal world, digital versions of textbooks would include annotation capabilities). These guys seem fairly innovative, though (and recently received $25 million in venture capital), so I expect they will remain players when my ideal digital world actually comes to fruition. For now, Chegg looks like a great way to save time and money on textbooks.