College textbooks: Forget the campus bookshop, shop online

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.
Written by Zack Whittaker, Contributor

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.

Editorial standards