Buying College Textbooks? SwoopThat Hunts Down Your Best Deals

The search for deals on textbooks can be a cat-and-mouse game: Students must weigh the convenience and full-retail prices of on-campus stores versus the more prolonged effort of hunting down used books, discount deals or rentals on the Web. Adding to students' woes in years past were tardy book lists, which sometimes only arrived before a day before classes began.

But that is all changing. Federal rules that went into effect in 2010 from the Higher Education Opportunity Act now require schools to provide book lists for students during class registration. San Diego start-up is capitalizing on that. Drawing on book-list data from more than 2,300 schools alongside price data from hundreds of online merchants, SwoopThat is a robust comparison shopping tool. It's a feat of remarkable transparency, doing for the textbook industry what comparison sites like have done for airline travel.

After many semesters of frustration and resentment over shelling out hundreds of dollars for his engineering and econ textbooks, SwoopThat founder Jonathan Simkin decided to take matters into his own hands. He rallied a group of engineering and computer science friends from alma mater Harvey Mudd, and they got to work devising a powerful comparison-searching platform. The site keeps no inventory itself and only makes money through partnerships with the hundreds of online merchants it lists, which include, and, among others.

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His primary motivation, he says, was to provide a transparent alternative to the campus bookstore. "Students are starting to rebel [against campus bookstores]," he says. "Only freshmen don't know any better. Everyone else goes elsewhere."

But going elsewhere was labor intensive. Typing in ISBN numbers to get the exact edition required was cumbersome for students who price-shopped on multiple sites. So Simkin re-imagined the way to shop for books, starting with the course lists and then backing up into all the options available for each book list. So far, it has been a success. With almost no marketing, and barely a year old, Simkin says word of the site has spread virally from campus to campus.

In addition, the site has a free local textbook exchange feature that allows students to advertise their used books to others at their own school.

"It's one thing to charge those prices, but at least give students the information and then they can decide [where to buy their books]," he says.