Textbook Shopping

It’s no secret that textbook shopping sucks. Yes, it’s a great business to be in for the publishers and bookstores, but as a college student, I hate that I’m expected to pay hundreds of dollars for textbooks that I’m only going to need for a few short months.

My school’s bookstore, like any other, is making huge profits by selling overpriced books to naive students. Most of the people I know continue to buy their books at the bookstore, even though there are other options out there. By doing my textbook shopping online, I have saved hundreds of dollars.

Let me give you an example of how shopping for a textbook for one of my classes typically goes. The bookstore posts a list online of the books required for all classes about a month before classes begin. (There was a law recently passed requiring all colleges to do this, but mine has already been doing this for years.) I log on to the bookstore website and look up the class I’m planning to take. The new price for the book is $180, the used price is $150. I then search through various used book websites (my two favorites being Half and Amazon’s marketplace), and find that I can get a “like new” condition, completely unmarked copy of the book for $70, plus a few dollars for shipping.

Seriously, it is that easy. If I stopped there, I would have already saved at least $80. At the end of the semester, it gets even better. My college bookstore has a buy-back program where I can sell the book back for some money. The majority of the time, they’ll buy back books for a couple of dollars, no matter how much the book originally cost or what condition it is sold back in, which I consider a bit ridiculous. Instead, what I do is go back to the websites I mentioned earlier and put the book up for sale. I’ve noticed that online a book typically seems to depreciate about 30% over the course of a semester, so in the scenario I mentioned earlier, I can get back about $40 from the $70 I originally spent.

A new tactic my bookstore is trying out is giving students the option to rent the book for the semester. The student pays a cheaper price and signs an agreement to return the book by a certain date. In the above book hunting scenario, the rental price the bookstore offered was $90. I was still able to save money by buying the book online, not even considering the amount I could get by reselling it! Textbook renting has become a really popular option at my school’s bookstore, and I feel too many people are falling into the trap of believing they are saving so much money by renting.

A quick side story I would also like to share: Last fall I was able to find a textbook the bookstore was selling used for $130, online for $6! Yes, $6 for a book in great condition! Not only that, but for some reason over the course of the semester the online price range rose. The next semester, I sold it to someone else for $18. I actually made money! This is not a typical scenario, but it just goes to show that it’s good to shop around.

Back to my initial question: Why don’t more students do their textbook shopping online? Some may be naive to their options, but even friends I have mentioned my online experiences to still choose to buy from the bookstore. Some feel uncomfortable shopping online, worrying about scammers. All I can say is to buy from someone with good feedback from previous transactions. Others think it takes too much effort and it’s quicker to get them from the bookstore. Maybe so, but isn’t it worth a little effort to save money? To some, no it is not. Like a few people I know, perhaps their parents are funding their education and don’t care what their parents end up spending.

As a fellow student, I cannot understand this mindset, and consider it irrational. From the perspective of an economist, however, I realize that everyone’s incentives are different; perhaps buying from the bookstore works for some. One thing is crystal clear to me in all of this: textbook publishing is a good business to be in.

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