How to Get the Best Deal on College Textbooks

composition with stack of books
Around the country, newly minted college students are swarming office supply stores and stocking up for school, packing the family station wagon and prepping for the big move.

One thing many can't buy just yet, though, is their textbooks. And when the time does come to buy them, these students had better be ready for serious sticker shock.

A recent report by textbook price comparison website notes that 57 percent of college students foot the bill for their textbooks themselves -- even if mom and dad cover the cost of tuition. And while tuition is certainly one of the bigger costs of going to college (room and board being the other big cost), the books don't come cheap either.

Huffington Post recently reported that the cost of an average college-level textbook has outpaced even the steep rise in college tuition costs over the past 30 years. Textbook costs are up 812 percent, appreciating in price more than three times as fast as the inflation rate.

Which leads us to two questions: First, why do college textbooks cost so darn much? And second, is there any way to reduce the cost?

Why Textbooks Cost So Much

According to the no-profit College Board, the average cost of college textbooks and supplemental study materials recently hit $1,200 annually. Some texts, however, can run as much as $300.

According to the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, the standard industry practice of publishing new editions of textbooks once every four years or so works to devalue used textbooks, as students fear buying anything but the newest editions. Bundling high-margin multimedia CD-ROMs with texts also tends to push up the price of new books.

And yet, data published by the National Association of College Stores suggest there's room for students to avoid at least some of these costs. In a 2008 report, for example, the association noted that more than 15 cents out of every dollar of textbook costs goes to marketing the textbook. (Students might be forgiven for wondering how much marketing is needed to sell a textbook that's required reading for the class.)

Meanwhile, another 20 cents out of each dollar of textbook cost goes to covering overhead at the college bookstores that sell the texts.

And How to Cut the Cost

Traditionally, college students looking to save a few bucks do so by buying used textbooks that have been sold back to the college bookstore by the previous semester's students. And yet, it's often the bookstores themselves that make out best from this bargain. says 77 percent of students prefer to buy used textbooks over new. And yet, even students who play the buy-used/sell-used at the end of semester game often feel they're getting "poor" value.

Why is this? CEO Jeff Cohen gives as an example a student who buys a textbook for $100, then sells it back to the bookstore for $60 at the end of the semester. That's $40 lost in the buy-sell process; $40 that's missing from the student's wallet when it comes time to buy next semester's textbooks.

Granted, some might consider that $40 the cost of "renting" the textbook for the semester, a service which certainly has value. But as Cohen points out, these days, actual renting of textbooks is also an option. In fact, says Cohen, "if a student is low on cash, renting textbooks is typically the most affordable way to acquire a book," especially "if a student only needs a book for one semester."

The Economics of Renting

How affordable is renting, vs. buying used and reselling? It depends on from whom you rent (or buy) -- and if you do buy, to whom you later resell. Let's look at one example:

The eighth edition of Prentice Hall's "Organic Chemistry" has a list price of $277.20 -- toward the high range of textbook costs. You can buy it new for $216.54 from Barnes & Noble (BKS) or $216.54 on (AMZN). Or you can buy it used for as little as $158.99 on eBay's (EBAY) website.

When it comes time to resell, and you might get as much as $160.37 cash from a buyer such as, or as little as $59.96 from Marathon Books -- two book buyers listed on That's a big spread, ranging anywhere from a $217 loss on the transaction (bought at list, sold in good condition) to a $1.38 profit, if you score a good deal on, then convince that the book is in still in good condition at resale time.

Lest you be tempted by the potential riches of multiple $1.38 windfalls every semester, though, Cohen points out that "today's buyback price is not guaranteed" to be the same price offered one semester from now. And in fact, if ninth edition is published between now and then, the value of your eighth edition textbook could quickly plummet.

Don't want to take that risk? Then consider renting. will rent you the textbook for as little as $42.27 for 138 days, and rents it out for as little as $46.99 (plus $4.99 shipping) for 133 days-- enough time to finish out an average college semester and with no risk of the text devaluing while you own it.

So, if you're a student who needs this book, we've just done your first homework assignment and found that renting appears to be the best option (so long as you don't want to keep the textbook after class is dismissed). For the rest of your classes, you'll have to do your own textbook pricing homework.

Motley Fool contributor Rich Smith has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends and eBay. The Motley Fool owns shares of, Barnes & Noble and eBay.

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