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Blog: Paper Doll, Tackling The Stacks And Piles
A Textbook Case of Clutter: 11 Tips for Beating the High Cost of Textbooks

Three years ago, when we first broached the subject of college textbook clutter, textbook rental was a relatively new phenomenon. Since then, we explored the Textbook Information subsection of The Higher Education Opportunity Act, designed to give college students access to affordable course materials. However, enhanced transparency and un-bundling of resources only go so far.

When Paper Doll attended college, options were limited: Buy textbooks at the campus bookstore or the sole off-campus independent store; buy new textbooks or used ones. It was a seller's market. Now, students have more textbook-buying options that ever before -- rentals, e-texts, comparative textbook search engines -- but caveat emptor, because there are still obstacles in the way of a positive textbook acquisition experience.

1) Do your due diligence.

Comb the course catalog and examine assigned materials carefully. But don't stop there! Explore the course syllabus to see how much and how often any given resource will be used.

Don't be afraid to contact the professor's office to find out whether you'll need to bring a resource to class (like a lab book) or whether a book can stay safely nestled in your dorm. Knowing whether you'll need to schlep the text to class every Monday, Wednesday and Friday will determine whether you'll be more comfortable opting for the 500-page hardcover or digital version.

2) Research whether a new text or edition is required every year.

Students may rationalize buying full-price new textbooks because they anticipate being able to sell them back at the end of the semester or year. A dirty secret of the textbook industry is that most popular texts undergo infinitesimal version "revisions" (like changing the font of an illustration's caption). If your school upgrades the required edition each year, the brand-new text you purchase in late August might be practically worthless by May.

If a textbook is an evergreen, used year after year, especially if it's in your major field of study and the material will be a useful resource long-term, lean towards buying it.

If the textbook changes every year, especially if it's a subject you're taking solely to fill core (non-major) requirements, consider renting it.

3) Find out whether the edition or version matters at all.

Check with the professor to make sure that the selection of an assigned reading wasn't more a matter of university politics than a true course requirement.

For literature courses, unless a professor requires a specific annotated version, one copy of My Last Duchess or The Odyssey might be just as good as any other. Check the college library, Project Gutenberg, Amazon and other sites to access free copies.

4) Identify whether the whole book is assigned or just a chapter.

Check that syllabus. If you'll only be required to read a relatively small section of a large book, might you borrow it from the college library and take notes before the due date?

It's also possible to rent or purchase partial sections of books.

Reference Tree was the first source for renting textbooks by the chapter. Because materials are digital, there are no shipping costs or time delays. Reference Tree rents electronic versions of whole textbooks, sections and individual chapters, promising a savings of at least 25% and upwards of 40% over traditional text purchases. (Note: Reference Tree is a UK-based company.)

CengageBrain is similar, granting access to whole electronic texts, sections or chapters, as well as traditional (printed) text purchases and rentals. Register for an account, and then search the database by title, author, keyword or ISBN. Preview the chapter and the index of any textbook as a PDF file by clicking the "Free Stuff" tab on that textbook's page. You'll have to download special CengageBrain viewing software (which prevents file-sharing).

Access your purchased chapters online through your CengageBrain account. You can even download chapters to your hard drive and print them out, so you can scribble and highlight to your heart's content.

CengageBrain is U.S.-based, but supports sales to Latin America, Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Canadian students should shop via NelsonBrain.com.

5) Know your study style: New vs. Used

If you're germaphobic, like Paper Doll, every tiny stain or stray mark in a used textbook may distract you from your work.

Can you study from a gently- (or not-so-gently) used textbook with a prior student's notes, underlining or highlighting, or will this distract too greatly from the learning experience? If the prior owner was a star student, you might benefit; if someone else marking what he or she thought was important will divert your critical thinking skills, you might need to opt for a new book.

6) Know Your Study Style: Rent vs. Own

There are two big concerns with renting texts. The first is the gap between ordering a printed textbook and its arrival. With most classes, it won't be an issue, but if your professor assigns a reading on the first day of class and your delivery is delayed by hurricanes or Labor Day, you'll be scrambling.

Second, lowering your costs by renting instead of buying makes sense as long as you return your books on time. Most book rental companies will let you request extensions, but extensions bring extra fees. Forgotten returns bring extra fees. Lost books bring really large extra fees!

Obviously, book-return obstacles are only an issue with tangible books. With digital books, the system just makes it all go "poof!" and you no longer possess your rental. However, if health issues or extenuating circumstances earn you an extension from your professor, but you haven't requested an extension from your e-textbook rental provider, you'll have trouble...and yes, extra costs.

Renting texts is a great alternative to buying, but it requires personal responsibility. (Parents, make sure your newly independent students understand this.)

7) Know your study style: Digital vs. Print

Just a few short years ago, digital textbooks didn't even exist. Now, Amazon Digital Textbook Rentals exists specifically to deliver e-texts, and many of the standard online textbook sales and rental companies, like Chegg and eCampus, have developed e-textbook apps and services. And the iPad was designed, in part, with digital texts in mind.

Does a digital option fit with your learning style? Consider:

Advantages of Digital Texts

Digital texts are portable and convenient -- they lighten the load on your shoulders and are more accessible; you'll never unthinkingly grab your Calculus text when you wanted your Bio book just because both covers are brown.

They're digitally searchable, so you won't waste time flipping through pages to find a barely-remembered concept.

Notetaking and highlighting has gone high tech. See Chegg's e-Textbook Reader video for an example of the note-taking potential.

You can usually control the type-face of what you're reading, making it easier on your eyes.

Text-to-speech capabilities mean that for some books, you can just plug your earphones into your e-reader or computer and listen. If you tend to recall and understand concepts better once you've heard them, digital materials have a tremendous advantage.

Disadvantages of Digital Texts

The selection of digital textbooks is still much smaller than the paper versions.

Taking notes and highlighting is neither quite as simple nor as tactile as using a pen or a highlighter, and research shows that the kinesthetic experience of manually taking notes makes material more memorable.

A printed book never runs out of power, but your e-reader or computer may lose its juice If you don't have your charger handy, you'll have to traipse back to your dorm.

Technology changes over time -- while your heavy Psych 101 text may have elements that become somewhat outdated over the decades, barring fires or flood, you'll still be able to access concepts in a matter of minutes. Formats change -- Paper Doll's brilliant (!) college papers, written in WriteNow (an ancient Mac precursor to MS Word) and saved to diskette, are largely inaccessible.

8) Don't count on digital books saving you a bundle over printed texts.

Yes, the lack of production costs, the lesser impact on natural resources and the reduced need for human involvement should vastly reduce the cost of digital textbooks. But it doesn't. The Chronicle of Higher Education has found that, on average, purchasing an e-book version of a textbook is only about $1 less expensive than buying the book in print.

There are many great reasons to go digital, including lightening your backpack. Just don't assume you won't also lighten your wallet.

9) Watch out for international versions of printed textbooks.

Students studying abroad may find that the textbook they'll need for a class once they return home is available at a much lower price. The problem? International versions may have different pagination, different problem sets or examples, and different terminology (and not just different spelling). International versions of textbooks may also be printed on flimsier paper than North American students are used to, so highlighting and ink notes may bleed through the pages.

10) Compare costs for textbook purchases.

Since we last discussed it, the alternatives for comparing textbook costs have multiplied. In most cases, you enter the title, author, ISBN or keyword to search the book you want to buy or rent, and you'll be presented with options that list availability of new/used/rentable texts, condition, price, and shipping costs, sorted by vendor. Newer comparison search engines include:


Campus Shift


LocAtoZ (in Canada)

But my favorite tool is from the Twenty Million Minds Foundation. Select your state, university, department and course from progressive drop-down menus, and the resulting screen compares prices for the university's campus bookstore, major textbook sellers, textbook renters and e-text providers. (If your school doesn't participate, just search by book, author or ISBN.)

11) Keep an eye on the end of the semester.

When deciding what version of a textbook to buy, consider its long-term value to you. If you struggle with math, and will not be taking upper level math courses, don't hold onto your textbooks, filling up your parents' basement or your tiny post-college apartment with books you'll never use.

If the material really isn't up your alley now, you're unlikely to develop a passion to learn quantum mechanics in your copious spare time, ten years from now, when you're juggling work and family. (Paper Doll's money is on there being much more to know about quantum mechanics in 2022, anyway.) Use the same kinds of sites at which you buy used and new textbooks to sell them back when the semester is over.

Have a great school year. Learn well!

posted on: 8/28/2012 10:30:00 AM by Julie Bestry
category: Paper

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Paper Doll, Tackling The Stacks And Piles

by Julie Bestry

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