The textbook racket

Bought textbooks recently? If you have, I'm sorry. If you haven't, I'm jealous.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

It's that time of year again, when college students pay more for books than they do for tuition (at least at a lot of public schools). I just shelled out several hundred dollars for my son's first semester in college and considered myself lucky that he wasn't a science or engineering major. There have been a few improvements to the whole process since I was in school, but it's still an absolute racket. Here's why, along with a few ways to save some cash for a better meal plan this fall.

Textbook rentals Back in the day, you'd buy your books, hopefully used, but new if you didn't have a choice. Then, at the end of the semester, you'd return the books (unless it was a particularly useful calculus or linear algebra book, for example), take some nominal credit, and start the process anew. While that's still the MO for a lot of students, textbook rentals at least cut out a few steps and save some money up front, even if they may not save much over 4 years.

Depending upon your school, you can rent many of your textbooks for a price that is fairly close to what would have been the difference between their used purchase price and the amount the bookstore would have given you for them at the end of the semester. Barnes and Noble rent many books through their website and the college bookstores they run; Follett also offers a more limited selection of rentals.

Rentals can happen either in the secondary market or with new books. In the latter case, though, higher rental costs mean plenty of money is still going to the publishers and both publishers and bookstores will be reaping repeated rewards for many semesters to come as they rent, rerent, and ultimately sell the books.

Not that publishers shouldn't make money. I'm all about capitalism. However, watching students and parents standing in line the first couple days of class, swiping their credit cards to the tune of hundreds of dollars per student has me convinced that there are better ways.

One word: Amazon Amazon sells kajillions (yes, kajillions) of books and, as a result, can hit price points even on new texts that its competitors can't. I'm not a giant Amazon fan for a variety of reasons, but I'm not made of money. I don't love every aspect of Walmart's business model either, but it doesn't stop me from shopping there.

However, Amazon's strengths in this regard go beyond cheap new textbooks. They connect you with a variety of resellers who have just about any used book you might want. I found one particularly expensive little paperback that wasn't available used at my son's bookstore and was $75 new. It was $5 plus 7.95 expedited shipping from one of Amazon's partners. Sure, it had every line highlighted (apparently someone didn't understand the concept of highlighting), but for $12.95, it served the purpose just fine.

Next: E-textbooks are not a myth »

E-textbooks are coming OK, so we're getting warmer with Amazon, but this is 2010. It seems as though e-books should be readily available, right? And there are a growing number of electronic texts that students can download using software that imposes DRM, limits the use of the books to a finite period of time, and allows note-taking and annotation. The cost of the e-textbooks is usually about a third to a half of the new cost and carrying one laptop around campus versus a few hefty texts isn't a bad way to help justify the cost of the computer.

However, in the case of my son's school, only a handful of books were noted on the bookstore website as available for download. Since the bookstore site was the primary location of textbook lists for every class, it was easy to assume that if electronic texts weren't listed then they didn't exist.

As it turns out, if Follett didn't have an agreement with a particular publisher or e-book distributor, then the e-books weren't listed. That actually had nothing to do with their availability. As I looked for an alternative to a $130 text, a bit of Googling brought me to the Pearson website (Pearson published this ridiculously pricey text). A bit more digging brought me to the Coursesmart site, where many Pearson texts (among others) were available electronically at huge discounts over their dead-tree counterparts. Mind you, this took some serious navigation and determination to make my way from sales of instructor review copies to actual e-copies that could be purchased and downloaded by students, but there are many more e-textbooks than the shelves of your school bookstore might suggest.

The Internet is your friend Most likely, classes have already started for you (or your students, or your children), meaning that it's too late to go back this semester. Here's your charge next semester, though: Don't buy a single text from your college bookstore. Google the heck out of the books to find electronic versions. Then hit Amazon to find any stragglers floating on the secondary market. Then look for rentals on Barnes and Noble's site. If all else fails, get a book from your college store, but then make sure to enroll in Internet Research 101. Finally, total up what your bookstore would have charged you and what you actually paid (most likely either downloaded in minutes or delivered to your door instead of waiting in line for an hour with the other students wondering how they would afford to pay their student loans back).

This is 2010. 3000 pages of expensive dead trees do not need to walk with you from class to class, no matter what the bookstores and publishers say.

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