Textbooks have long been a significant expense for college students, and they've only gotten pricier in recent years. Vox reports that textbook prices have risen almost as quickly as tuition, and students spend an average of $1,200 annually on textbooks. Because of how much money even a single book can cost, almost two-thirds of students say they don't buy the textbooks for their courses at all.
One reason textbooks are so pricey is that they're surprisingly expensive to produce: Vox estimates that the cost of making just one textbook can reach $750,000 due to all the workers who research, edit, and distribute the text. These books also have a short shelf life. In STEM fields, new discoveries are made almost daily, which means textbooks must be updated constantly. This shortens the cycle of production for new editions from roughly every five years to every two or three years. Consequently, expensive books become obsolete very quickly.
A lack of competition in the industry may also contribute to high textbook prices. A report from BusinessInsider points out that most textbooks come from one of five publishing companies: Pearson Education, Scholastic, McGraw-Hill Education, Cengage Learning, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. These five publishers produce about 80% of textbooks and charge high prices with little concern for the consumer.
The term "textbook" typically conjures to mind 800-page chemistry textbooks, and these are often the texts that cost upwards of $300, with new editions arriving every other year. But other kinds of books drive up your bill each semester, too. Liberal arts classes in fields like English or history may not require one expensive textbook, but many assign several novels or plays. Though each may only cost $10-$15, it's not uncommon for professors to assign several books per course, and the cumulative cost may exceed $100 in some classes. Additionally, some of the other resources we refer to as "textbooks" are expensive, single-use items like workbooks for math classes or lab notebooks for science courses.
So what can be done to combat this expense? Professors usually submit their textbook selections to a campus bookstore, where prices are at their highest. Before you buy, consider other options to mitigate the cost of your textbooks.
Buy Used Textbooks
Perhaps the easiest remedy is to buy your books used. University bookstores will often offer used copies of textbooks for a lower price. Websites like Amazon, Chegg, and OTHER act as marketplaces for people to resell their old textbooks, where prices are often lower than at university bookstores.
When buying online, there are a few things to keep in mind. Many textbooks have older editions floating around — which might have different page numbers, new sections missing, or outdated information — so it's easy to accidentally buy the wrong edition if you aren't careful. Make sure that the ISBN (a 10- or 13-digit number that should be listed on the school bookstore website or teacher's syllabus) of the book you're buying matches the ISBN of the book you've been assigned.
Also be aware that shipping from online retailers can take weeks, depending on the site and the method of shipping. Many professors will expect their students to have copies of the text by the second or third week, so if you order online and the book doesn't arrive promptly, you may need to borrow from one of your classmates.
Outside of those conventional methods, you should explore options like buy/sell Facebook groups for students at your school. Many professors reuse the same textbook from semester to semester, so you may be able to get a deal from a student who took the class previously. Additionally, larger campuses may attract competing bookstores that offer the same texts for slightly lower prices.
Not all textbooks can be purchased used. Aforementioned resources like lab notebooks and workbooks must be purchased new. Other textbooks may come with an online access code that's needed to view some of the materials, including required homework assignments, These access codes are often available only with the purchase of a new copy. In the case of brand new books, used copies may be unavailable.
Campus bookstores and some of the bigger textbook sites, including Amazon and Barnes & Noble, allow students to rent textbooks. This is usually even cheaper than buying a book used, but comes with a few caveats. You cannot significantly mark up or damage the textbook, so if you're a student who likes to highlight, underline, or annotate in the margins — or if you have a pet who gets toothy with nearby books — renting may not be for you.
Renting also means that the book must be returned by a certain date; make sure that the due date is after your final exams so you have access to the material for the entire term. Campus bookstores generally ensure their rental dates line up with the academic calendar, but other websites may not, so double-check before renting.
In case of damage or late returns, rental agreements typically require students to pay the full price of the textbook, so be aware of your obligations before renting.
Buy Digital Textbooks
Many textbooks are available in digital formats, which are usually cheaper than their physical copies. These editions are usually identical to the paper textbook, but may be optimized for specific hardware like iPads, Kindles, or Windows PCs. Make sure your computer works with the digital copy before you buy it.
As the digital textbook marketplace grows, companies have developed innovative solutions for the modern classroom: Vox reports that some textbook publishers have even launched subscription services. These allow you to pay an annual fee that guarantees you digital access to every textbook that the publisher offers.
A recent article from Wired also details the rising prevalence of open educational resources from providers like OpenStax, which offer free digital textbooks also written by experts in their respective fields.
Wait Until Syllabus Day
Sometimes waiting until the first day of class can help you save money on textbooks, too. In the case of introductory and general education courses, sometimes the department assigns a textbook to all sections of a class, a textbook that the instructor has perhaps opted not to use. In these cases, they might assign PDF scans from the textbook or articles online, alleviating your need to buy the book.
In other cases, professors may change the book requirements between when you signed up for the course and the first class meeting. If you buy all of the listed books before the first day of class, you may wind up purchasing books the professor has decided not to teach from.
Some classes may have optional textbooks or supplementary texts for graduate students (if the course enrolls undergraduates and graduate students side-by-side), delineations that the campus bookstore won't be aware of. Unless your course specifically requires you to use certain books before the first class, wait until your professor has reviewed the syllabus before you buy anything.
Once the semester ends, you may find you don't need a textbook anymore. If you want to get your money back, the easiest thing to do is sell anything you purchased back to the campus bookstore. You can recoup some of your expenditure by selling these textbooks back (especially that revised edition of a book you had to buy new), and there are several ways to do so.
Campus bookstores will usually buy your books back at the end of the semester. You return your books, they scan them into their system, and you walk away with cash. Be aware that the campus bookstore will not pay full price for your used book, and that you may only get a small fraction of your initial outlay back.
Other online marketplaces offer opportunities for you to sell the book at your own price, but also require a bit more work on your end. You may not find a buyer for all of your books, and even if you do, you'll need to find a way to ship anything you sell.
You can also take advantage of the online campus groups mentioned earlier to sell the book directly to other students at your school. Joining major-specific student groups can also increase the likelihood of finding someone who wants to buy your book, and you should thoroughly investigate these options.