Did you know that college textbook prices are increasing faster than tuition rates, rental prices, and even the cost of our health insurance?
According to the American Enterprise Institute, college textbook prices have increased 812 percent since the 1980s and some books cost as much as $300.
The majority of students in the United States already say they don’t buy all the books they need for class because the price is simply too high.
We’ve created this guide for you so that you can still get all the books you need but at an affordable price or even for free. You’ll learn where to rent textbooks, the cheapest place to buy books, and how to get the most money for selling your textbooks.
Who Makes Money on Textbooks?
The campus bookstore and the publishers are making a lot of money off of every book you purchase.
This means that the textbook publisher is taking the largest cut of your purchase and their take gets even higher when you’re forced to pay for inflated materials like CDs or website logins.
Publishers seek new editions of textbooks every three to four years, even when there is no need for an update. The State of California even looked into textbooks and found that new editions are released with a big price hike but only minor or unnecessary adjustments to the content.
So, let’s go through some ways to help you keep your money.
How to Find Cheap College Textbooks
There are a lot of locations for free and cheap college textbooks, especially if you’re willing to buy eBook textbooks.
Before the semester starts, you’ll need to do your homework to figure out the books you need and then walk through all of your options. It’s best to test out all the options you have so that you’re getting the best price.
You want to figure out how to find cheap college textbooks early in your college career so you can repeat the process each semester.
Your school will provide the on-campus bookstore with the list of books for each class but you can usually find this information also in your classes’ syllabi.
When gathering your list of books, you’ll want to be as comprehensive as possible because you don’t want to discover on your first day at class that you ordered the wrong book online.
The ISBN is your best friend because it’s the only way to make sure that you’re getting the exact book that you need when ordering through cheap textbook websites.
Looking in the Library
Once you’ve got the information and the ISBN, head over to your campus library or to any local libraries in your city. Check the catalogs to see if they have your book in stock. Before checking the book out, make sure the library will allow you to check it out for the entire semester. You may have to go online or call the library to renew it every so often. Plug these dates into your phone or day planner to make sure you remember to renew the book.
You’ll need to get to the library early because supplies will be limited and you’ll have a lot of competition.
If you strike out here, try looking up the author and see if the library has copies of an earlier version of your textbook. Previous versions tend to have the same information and aren’t snapped up as quickly.
You can also check to see if your library has a reserve section. Some libraries allow professors to give a few copies to be placed on reserve for the semester. These books can be checked out for just a few hours at a time and usually can’t leave the library. If you want to go this route, just be careful because these books will get very popular around finals.
Keep in mind, while using library books are free, you don’t want to sacrifice your grade just to save money on textbooks. If convenience and total access to your textbook is important then the next option is to rent textbooks.
Renting Your Books
Some libraries and online services will allow you to rent textbooks for a semester. This can come at a greatly reduced price and will give you the book for as long as you need it.
Shipping on these books is usually free one way. Just be sure to get a firm return date from your service and make sure you get it back on time. These services will keep your payment information and may charge you if you don’t get the book back after the semester ends.
Rental prices vary greatly, so your savings may be large or small. However, rental services tend to have a lot of copies, so it’s always a safe bet. Since you’re unable to sell the book back at the end of the year, check the price of rental services carefully. You don’t want to end up paying too much by getting a rental that just comes in a few bucks cheaper than buying it outright.
Rental services are also sometimes the best place to buy used textbooks.
Semester Book Swaps
Many college campuses have book swap programs, run either by the college or the students themselves, and they’re even popping up online. These swaps allow people to donate books to the overall stockpile and take one away.
If your school doesn’t have one, use the student union and your online services to start one up. You can post what books you have and what books you need, and encourage other students to do the same.
However, with this program you will want to make sure you aren’t losing money on your book. Compare the price you could make from selling your textbook with the one that you want to swap it with. If the book you want is significantly less money online, you may want to just resell your book online and then purchase the one you want.
Check If You Need It
Pick a senior at just about any university in the U.S. and you’re likely to find a story about buying an expensive text book that they never needed for a class.
Since more and more teachers and universities are putting their syllabi on the Internet, you can check and see what books are being referenced in assignments and projects. If you see a book on your reading list but not mentioned at all in the syllabus of your class, you may not need it.
Since a lot of the options we’ve provided will get you a book very quickly, you might want to wait and see if the teacher says if you need the book. Since most teachers are also listed on course schedules, you can also email your teacher directly to see if the book will be referenced.
This may help you avoid paying for a book that won’t be used or that the teacher adds to their reading list as a helpful aid but not a mandated textbook.
Lots of classic literature that you may need to read for your classes is likely in the public domain, which means that no company can own a copyright to it. That means that you’ll be able to find a lot of great classics, fiction and even philosophical texts for free online.
One of the main resources for you with public domain books is Project Gutenberg. This service has more than 43,000 completely free eBooks and you can get versions that work on almost all of your electronic devices.
Book services from Google, Amazon, Apple and others also include a lot of free versions of these books, so you won’t need to pay for that Jane Austin or Jules Verne book.
While there are some textbooks on the service for microbiology and archaeology, these are likely going to be outdated. You won’t want to rely on them unless your course specifically calls for these texts.
What About eBooks?
Electronic versions of cheap college textbooks can also be a big savings method for you, especially if you’re taking classes on current literature. While many new titles aren’t available on sites like Project Gutenberg, you may be able to rent digital editions of new literature like “Divergent” from your library. Digital services are both a great way to buy eBook textbooks and where to rent textbooks on the cheap.
Libraries all over the U.S. are expanding rental programs to include digital editions of books and you can renew these books repeatedly. Getting the digital version will also allow you to take notes right on the book and save the notes to your device.
If there’s a new book that you can’t get from the library, you should also look at some other services available for eBook readers. Amazon’s Kindle Lending Library allows people to check out new books for free and this will likely cover many of your current literature needs – but, unfortunately not textbooks.
Amazon’s service requires you to pay for the Amazon Prime service, but you’ll get a discount for being a college student.
Digital versions of textbooks are great because you can take notes right within your device.
Cheap Textbook Websites
There are tons of book services available on the Web. We’ve combed through a lot of these options to figure out which are reputable and can deliver you a lot of great value for free or a low cost. In our list, is likely the best place to buy used textbooks for you and also the only list you’ll need when figuring out where to rent textbooks.
Here are some of the best cheap textbook websites that are safe to buy from:
- AbeBooks: The AbeBooks service is a specialty book service that has extended its great ability to get cheap prices to text books. The company will search many different vendors and shops to find your book and deep discounts compared to campus bookstores. One reason you’ll get a steep discount is that it offers international versions of textbooks, which can land you a savings of up to 75 percent. AbeBooks offers a money-back guarantee and will also let you know what it plans to pay if you want to sell the book back at the end of the semester.
- Amazon.com: Amazon is perhaps the biggest name in textbooks, both digital and print. The odds are great that you’ll find exactly what you’re looking for at a much lower price than what your college bookstore offers. Amazon’s used options typically help you out. Signing up for Amazon Prime will also help you get those items faster. Amazon’s support of the Kindle also means you can cheaply buy eBook textbooks and you won’t have to lug anything around wherever you go.
- BIGWORDS: Think of BIGWORDS as Google for buying cheap textbooks. The company is essentially a search and aggregator for buying books. You’ll end up purchasing from a lot of different companies, but BIGWORDS will provide you with some assurance of quality as well as the latest coupons and promo codes for each book. The site can help you figure out the shipping costs and even rental prices, giving you an easy to navigate platform to buy the book.
- Bookboon.com: This site offers a lot of free textbooks as PDFs and it covers a wide range of topics. Some are older versions but a few are current, and all are around 100 pages. These will come with ads inserted into the book, allowing the company to pay for its service, but they max out at around 15 pages.
- BookRenter: If you’re mainly concerned with renting books, BookRenter is a great company that touts stats saying it has saved customers millions of dollars each semester, totaling more than $450 million since 2007. The company provides savings through renting and the savings grow if you rent bundles that it creates. You get your choice of different timeframes and typically you’ll get free shipping.
- California Learning Resource Network: While the service started out as a resource for teachers, now you can find some free textbooks for higher education. These stick to very basic subjects, but you may get lucky and snag a free introductory text book.
- Chegg: Chegg promises deals of up to 90 percent off your textbook prices, but those deals are rare. However, a lot of books will be in the 50 percent to 75 percent off range. This makes it rank among the cheapest place to buy books. It provides a quick search using the ISBN and then will give you lots of options.
We like this because you have the chance to buy new, used, a digital format, or even rent it for a semester. You’ll typically save the most by renting – since you don’t get to sell it back – but you do need to return it in good shape. If you buy a print copy, Chegg will also give you a digital copy if one’s available.
- College Open Textbook Collaborative: If you’re going to a community or two-year college, this site can be your best friend. It is a group that’s trying to get colleges to use free, open text books and they provide books to you for free. You can also see if your teacher is on the list of professionals who’ve signed up to use the service.
Those are our eight favorite sites for getting your books and they’re also often the best place to resell textbooks. You can sell textbooks directly back to services like AbeBooks and Bookboon, because you get great rates and are helping others out.
If you want to sell your textbooks back directly to other students, Amazon, Half.com, Chegg and BIGWORDS offer great programs for you to set your own prices and sell to someone directly.
Rentback.com is another growing site that offers a unique model for renting your books out to others. You sign up for the service and ship your books to the company, and your books are added to its roster of rentals. Every time your book gets rented, you get a small payment. This can last for a few semesters and might be more than you’d get for selling something back directly.
What Your Seller Should Look Like
When it comes to getting cheap college textbooks, you want to make sure that you’re sticking to safe sites and services. We’ve put together these options to help you select the best place to buy used textbooks or to sell back your books.
Make sure you’re using websites that have refund options, just in case you get the wrong book in the mail. You’ll also want to read online reviews and make sure that sites are clear about their buy-back or rental-return policies. Look elsewhere if someone wants a book back in perfect condition because you need a partner with realistic expectations.
Use this guide to help you buy, rent and exchange your textbooks in a way that won’t leave a big hole in your pocket.