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Blog: Paper Doll, Tackling The Stacks And Piles
Save Money on Textbooks: Make the Law and Technology Work For You

College classes are starting up again. Almost exactly one year ago, we talked about ways of getting rid of textbook clutter, including renting textbooks from companies like Chegg, BookRenter, Campus Book Rentals and Skoobit. These options are still going strong, but thanks to new legislation and advancing technology, there are even more opportunities for college students (and their parents) to save some of those bits of little green paper when buying textbooks.


The Textbook Information subsection of The Higher Education Opportunity Act (AKA: Title 20, Chapter 28, Subchapter I, Part C, 1015b of the United States Code), was written into law in 2008 but just took effect. The new law aims to:

ensure that college students have access to affordable course materials by decreasing costs to students and enhancing transparency and disclosure with respect to the selection, purchase, sale, and use of course materials.

To make colleges (receiving federal financial assistance), as well as publishers and distributors, both responsive and responsible, the law has two basic provisions:

1) Institutions of higher learning must provide students with a list of required textbooks and resources, ISBN numbers and costs, at the time of class registration.

2) All materials need to be unbundled. This means that if a text has an associated DVD, CD or workbook, the law requires that they be made available for purchase as separate items. (Note: publishers and bookstores can still sell the items bundled; they just need to make them available for separate purchases, as well.)


In theory, the law should prompt professors to evaluate the costs and relative merits of the texts, and versions of texts, they assign. As for unbundling, professors have often been unaware that the most recent versions of the texts they've assigned have workbooks or CDs bundled with them and fail to assign their use. While the additional resources may be helpful to students in their pursuit of knowledge, some students can only afford the required materials. By selling the extras individually, students may do exactly what publishers wish they wouldn't, and form study groups to use jointly-purchased auxiliary CDs or DVDs.

Sub-paragraph (c) of 1015b requires that publishers provide the following information to professors and lecturers:

  • Pricing information for the texts they select
  • Prices and information on other formats of the texts, including paperback and unbound versions
  • The three most recent copyright dates for prior editions of texts
  • A summary of the substantial content revisions and material differences between current and older editions
This new transparency is supposed to give students ample time to seek out all possible alternatives, giving brick-and-mortar (on- and off-campus) stores less of a monopoly, and giving students the kinds of consumer options available in other areas of their lives (clothing, music, electronics, etc.). Also, knowing the prices of assigned texts will allow students to make educated decisions regarding whether they wish to take elective courses at all, or whether they might shift them to another semester, when costs are lighter or funds are more available.

Of course, for many college students, the registration period for Fall courses begins near the end of the prior Spring semester, and for Spring, at the end of the Fall semester. For schools that have all course registration mere days before the start of classes (and for freshmen and first-semester transfer students), this is slightly less of a boon, as in this situation, there's less time and opportunity for evaluating either the course options or the book prices (not to mention, less time for shipping books rented or purchased online). Still, it's a step in the right direction.


First, students should begin doing their online research and legwork as soon as possible after the start of the registration process.

1) Know Your Study Style

--Can the student study from a gently-used textbook with a prior student's notes, underlining or highlighting, or will this distract too greatly from the learning experience? Paper Doll learned early in her academic career that someone else's markings reduced critical thinking and ease of learning.

--Will the student want or need this book for more than one semester? If you're only taking Film Studies 101 for fun, or need one just math class to fulfill a graduation requirement (and will never need to remember calculus again), a book rental will make more sense. Conversely, if you're planning to spend the rest of your life learning (and possibly teaching) a particular field, you'll probably want to own a classic compendium.

--Does a digital option fit with your learning style? Older students might find traditional textbooks easier to use, but Generation Y is used to living a digital life. An always-available, eminently portable, ebook version of a textbook can be very appealing. Better still, many classic works of literature are in the public domain and are available, for free, through sites like Project Gutenberg.

2) Research Traditional Options

Depending on whether your campus bookstore has textbook prices online, you may be able to let your fingers do the walking, or you might have to do some legwork to check out prices. If your community is blessed with multiple colleges, consider road-tripping to another school's bookstore, as well. You won't be able to find texts by your school's class number, but if you're very nice to the people behind the information desk, they might search some ISBNs for you.

Because of economies of scale, college-run stores are also best able to guarantee that they'll be carrying the correct version of any given resource. The problem is that campus bookstores usually have the highest prices to go along with the convenience of being able to buy all your books, plus candy and an entire wardrobe in your university's colors, all in one place.

Next, check the main alternative bookstores near campus. Most college towns have only one or two independent bookstores that carry a full complement of textbooks; this allows professors to minimize the number of locations to which they must provide information. The problem here is that the alternative bookstores know that most students will take the path of least resistance and buy on-campus, so they're less likely to stock a full supply of books for any given class, and the lesser-priced used books are likely to sell out quickly.

3) Compare Online Options In One Place

The number of online bookstores is growing all the time, and while you can mouse through the options at Abe.com, Alibris, Amazon.com Marketplace, B & N Marketplace, eCampus.com, Half.com, PhatCampus, Textbooks.com, TexbooksNow, TexbookX.com and more, there's an easier way!

Campus Books allows you to compare the prices for new and used textbooks -- including all the extras, like tax, shipping, and available coupons and promotions from dozens of online bookstores. You can type in the ISBN, book title, author or even a keyword, and Campus Books will return a list of likely titles with information regarding both the 10- and newer 13-digit ISBN, the author, publisher, number of pages and edition, so you can make sure you have the right book. You then have the option of adding the book to your bag immediately, or comparing prices from multiple bookstores.

I sought The Era of Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1933-1945: A Brief History With Documents by Richard Polenberg (my favorite history professor in college). The resulting screen let me choose whether I wanted to sort by price or condition, and offered a summary of the lowest prices in each sub-category, as well as sub-lists for all of the options among used books, new books and international editions. Each list provided the seller, cost, tax, shipping charge, coupon availability, and total price.

CheapestTextbooks.com similarly offers a searchable database for finding discounted textbooks and resources. In addition to traditional texts, CheapestTexbooks.com offers access to discount medical texts, as well.

Enter an author, title, ISBN or keyword, and the site will locate the book you want. (Note: Although the instructions say to enter the search information and click on "Go", the button graphics do not appear clearly in all browsers. Simply enter your search data and hit Return or Enter to achieve the same result.) Next, click "Find the cheapest price" to yield your savings options. From there, you can click to select and purchase your textbook.

CheapestTextbooks.com works with about twenty online stores and is able to provide free shipping and dollar-off discounts for a number of them, if you purchase through their interface.

Campus Books and CheapestTextbooks.com offer similar services, including pricing for renting textbooks and a venue for selling books back after the semester, but they package their data differently. Think of them as the Travelocity and Expedia of textbook searches. While I preferred how Campus Books totals up all of the individual charges, it will be to your benefit to search both sites to maximize your advantages. (That's the beauty of using multiple windows or tabs in your browser--you can compare apples to apples...to find your Newtonian Physics text!)

4) Consider Renting

Are you gentle with books and add little or no underlining, highlighting or doodling? Is there little likelihood you'll need a text for multiple semesters? Renting might be for you. Conversely, if you have a deal with your parents that they'll pay for textbooks up front and your summer pocket money comes from whatever you can get back from selling books at the end of the semester, renting might not be your style.

Review last year's post for the heavy hitters in the textbook rental arena, and use the rental links at Campus Books and CheapestTextbooks.com to discover other textbook rental options. Read the agreements carefully and note the return dates to avoid incurring late fees.

5) Expand Your Horizons

You're probably already familiar with downloading ebooks onto handheld devices like the Kindle or Nook. CourseSmart expands the possibilities with digital ebook purchases you can read on your computer browser, iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad.

The process is simple. Search for an assigned textbook at the site. Then, purchase a subscription (at up to 60% off print book costs) to a title as either an online eTextbook (stored in the cloud) or a download. Online eTextbooks can be accessed through any computer connected to the web and are added to your online bookshelf, associated with your account (to make them easier to find during subsequent sessions). Meanwhile, downloads are restricted to one computer or gadget and require a free download of the CourseSmart Reader software.

In addition to downloading texts, you can take advantage of CourseSmart's partner publisher sites to download other resources, like lab manuals, workbooks, study guides, and electronic texts in non-CourseSmart formats.

Students may also wish to encourage their professors to make use of Flat World Knowledge, a remixable textbook service built on an open-source (i.e., free) model. (Click over and watch the stick-figure video. The pictures are hilarious.) Professors can select from a wide variety of peer-reviewed source material and alternative resources, which Flat World Knowledge makes available online to students for free. For students who prefer alternate formats, there are variable (but still low) prices for print-on-demand black-and-white or color texts, individual (downloadable on-demand) PDF chapters and audio books.

As technology changes, so do our students' educational opportunities. To keep abreast of textbook advances, keep reading Paper Doll and check out the Make Textbooks Affordable campaign by Student PIRGs, a public interest research and advocacy group.

Have a great school year!

posted on: 8/17/2010 10:30:00 AM by Julie Bestry
category: Paper

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Discuss This Post

by Raghav Singh on 2/25/2011 7:48:04 AM:

I have been using price comparison sites like thecollegetextbooks.net for buying my textbooks. It is better than going for standalone stores. As you can save on lot of money using them.

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Paper Doll, Tackling The Stacks And Piles

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