Comparing Textbook Prices
Best Textbook Sites: What We Considered
Used Textbooks and International Versions
Textbook Sites Comparison
Where to Buy College Textbooks Online
The average undergraduate shelled out about $579 on course materials during the 2016-2017 school year, according to a survey by the National Association of College Stores, and about 8 out of 10 shopped at the campus bookstore. But many students also shop for cheap textbooks online in an effort to cut costs. Online vendors typically claim that students can save anywhere from 40 percent to 90 percent over campus bookstore prices. Proceed carefully, though — some textbook sites fail to deliver in more ways than one. Cheapism zeroed in on sites with money-saving options such as free shipping and compared reviews and policies to name the best website for cheap college textbooks.
While the NACS survey suggests that Amazon is the most popular online source for textbooks — no doubt because of convenience and familiarity with the brand — our research identified a few other online vendors that often post better prices and earn high marks from many customers. TextbookRush is at the head of the class, and Chegg and eCampus earn distinction alongside Amazon.
All the vendors we considered for this guide are full-service sites where students can buy and rent new and used college textbooks. Our top picks offer etextbooks in addition to hundreds of thousands of print titles. They also buy back books at the end of the semester, and most have third-party marketplaces where independent sellers (typically students and small businesses) set their own prices. ValoreBooks acts exclusively as an intermediary between buyers/renters and third-party book suppliers and often posts low prices, but with numerous complaints in online reviews, shipping charges on all orders, and no ebooks, it's one site that busy students might want to skip.
Comparing Textbook Prices
In preparing this guide, we found that no one site consistently offers the cheapest textbooks. Comparison sites such as BooksPrice, CheapestTextbooks, and Bigwords can point students to the sellers offering the lowest prices for the texts they need. But keep in mind that prices are extremely fluid, and those posted in mid-summer aren't necessarily the prices you'll see once the semester begins. Supply and demand can dramatically affect textbook prices. It often pays to be first in line to buy books at the beginning of the term, when the inventory is largest, especially for used books. Just be sure to check refund policies and hold on to all receipts. (Receipts also come in handy at tax time, when qualifying purchases made by undergraduates can be eligible for the American Opportunity Tax Credit.)
|TextbookRush||Yes||Free for orders over $35, rental returns, and buybacks||Within 30 days; 14 days for ebooks||Semester; varies for ebooks||10 days ($9.99 + tax); none on ebooks||Check, PayPal, or store credit (5% extra)|
|Chegg||Yes||Free for orders over $50, rental returns, and buybacks||Within 21 days; 14 days for ebooks||Semester; varies for ebooks||30 days free at time of rental, then adjustable for a fee; within first 14 days for some ebooks||Check, PayPal, or store credit|
|Amazon Textbooks||Yes||Free for orders over $35, rental returns, and trade-ins; free 2-day with Prime Student||Within 30 days; 7 days for Kindle books||Semester; customizable for many Kindle rentals||15 days or another semester (fees apply); anytime before the due date for Kindle rentals that allow extensions||Amazon credit only|
|eCampus||Yes||Free for orders over $35, rental returns, and buybacks||Within 25 days (10% restocking fee); 15 days for short-term rentals; none for ebooks||Semester, quarter, or short term; varies for ebooks||15, 30, 60, 90, or 130 days (fees apply); none on ebooks||Check, PayPal, direct deposit, or store credit|
|ValoreBooks||No||Starting at $3.95; free for rental returns and buybacks||Within 30 days||Semester (may vary by seller)||15 days (fee applies)||Check or PayPal|
TEXTBOOKRUSH REVIEW | Best Overall
- With a huge 600,000-title inventory that includes ebooks, there's a good chance of finding what you need at a low price.
- Large volume of international editions, which promise greater savings (and the same content as U.S. texts).
- A surfeit of 5-star reviews report that books are delivered on time, used volumes arrive in good condition, and prices are very competitive.
- Access to study tools such as summary briefs (usually for a fee) covering a variety of subjects.
- Reviewers generally say that book buyback goes smoothly, with the expected payments received quickly (TextbookRush also buys electronics, movies, and games).
- Some customers take issue in reviews with the amount they received when selling back books and dispute the site's claims about damage.
- As with most textbook vendors, complaints about mixed-up orders and returns, difficulty contacting customer service, and problems with third-party sellers are common.
- Stringent late rental return policy: 125 percent of the publisher's list price (minus the rental cost). Students who return books after being charged do not get a refund, or get the book back.
Takeaway: Nearly 11,000 customers have reviewed TextbookRush on Trustpilot, and nearly 80 percent rate their experience with the company either "great" or "excellent." This preponderance of favorable feedback solidifies TextbookRush's position at the head of the class. Reviewers highlight the site's massive selection, professional customer service, and (true to its name) speedy delivery as particular strong suits. Savings at this top-rated seller can add up quickly too, thanks to its large supply of international editions. We found one popular biology textbook selling new for more than $160 less than its U.S. counterpart.
CHEGG REVIEW | Good for Extra Services
- In addition to selling, renting, and buying textbooks, Chegg provides a variety of study tools and student services, including tutoring.
- Many reviewers report that the service is fast, easy, and reliable, and returns are simple.
- Free access to ebook versions of textbooks (when available) while waiting for print editions to arrive.
- Chegg's eReader provides access to etextbooks and round-the-clock answers to study questions on PCs, Macs, and mobile devices.
- More lenient rental and late return policies than competitors: semester-length rental periods can be adjusted to fit other terms, and forgetful students have multiple opportunities to avoid being charged full price for delinquent texts.
- Critical reviews claim that agents are rude, buyback payments fail to arrive, mistaken or excessive charges show up (particularly for subscription services), and so on.
- Many users express dissatisfaction with study services and the quality of the tutors on the site.
- Free shipping threshold of $50 is comparatively high (discounts are sometimes available through special offers).
Takeaway: Although nominally a textbook rental company, Chegg attempts to be all things to all students. Customers can buy, rent, and sell books; access etextbooks and download the Chegg eReader; get homework help and buy study guides; search for jobs, internships, and scholarships; and even watch music videos. Although the site should appeal to students who want the full monty, it's not a particular standout when it comes to bargain shopping, and we found many less-than-stellar reviews of the study services that make it unique.
AMAZON TEXTBOOKS REVIEW | Good for Last-Minute Orders
- Widest selection of textbooks around.
- Free 2-day shipping with Prime can net real savings and ensure books arrive on time; discounted Prime Student membership is free for six months and then $59 a year (vs. $119 for a standard Prime membership).
- Etextbooks can be purchased or rented through Amazon and read on Kindle Fire tablets, PCs, Macs, and iOS and Android phones via the Kindle app.
- Most reviewers say the textbook trade-in process is simple and reliable: Payment is duly credited to customers' accounts and most consider the amounts fair.
- Prices generally are not the lowest among cheap online textbook retailers, particularly for rentals.
- Some say policies around the condition of rented books are particularly exacting: Returned books deemed to have excessive highlighting or writing are rejected and students are charged the full purchase price (minus rental fees).
- As with competitors, some reviewers question Amazon's assessment of the condition of books sent in for buyback, resulting in payment of less than the quoted price.
- Amazon gift cards are the only form of payment for trade-ins.
Takeaway: Overall, textbooks on Amazon aren't a bad deal, and service is quick and trustworthy — but the ecommerce giant does use its textbook and Prime Student offerings to pull young consumers (and many online textbook companies) into its orbit. If you're already a satisfied Amazon customer, by all means, hitch a ride. But there's a whole galaxy of textbook websites awaiting exploration.
ECAMPUS REVIEW | Good for Rewards and Flexible Rentals
- Plenty of students have good things to say about the site's ease of use and praise the quality of the used and rented books, fast delivery, and affordable prices.
- Wide range of rental periods includes semester, quarter, and short term; rentals can be extended (for a fee) for 15, 30, 60, 90 and 130 days.
- Partnership with leading etextbook retailer VitalSource provides access to a wide range of ebooks, which can be viewed through free eCampus apps for iOS and Android devices, PCs, and Macs, or via the VitalSource Bookshelf platform.
- Frequent deals and promo codes; loyalty program awards points for discounts on future orders.
- Books can be sold directly to the company for a quoted price or listed independently on the eCampus Marketplace.
- Mixed reviews; ratings on Trustpilot and ResellerRatings are only average.
- Some users complain about orders that arrive late or not at all, arbitrary cancellations or error messages while trying to order, and books in poor condition.
- 10% restocking fee in addition to shipping charges on returned books; no refunds on ebooks.
Takeaway: ECampus has been around for more than 15 years. It launched as a digital textbook site and continues to offer one of the largest selections of etextbooks among full-service sellers. Despite reviews and prices that are about average, we'd say that ease of use, varied and flexible rental periods, multiple sell-back options, and its loyalty program make eCampus a worthy stop for students looking to save time and money on textbooks.
- Positive reviews of ValoreBooks laud the value prices for buying and renting textbooks.
- Marketplace model allows "one-stop shopping" across a wide network of sellers.
- Price-match guarantee on rentals from Chegg and eCampus and for buybacks.
- Numerous reviews on the Better Business Bureau's website and elsewhere complain about orders that take weeks to arrive (even when paying extra for expedited service), overdue fees for books that were returned on time, orders canceled without notice, disputes over the condition of books sold back to the site, misrepresented books in the secondhand stacks, and inaccessible third-party sellers.
- Many users complain of trouble placing orders; for example, items listed as in stock when they're actually unavailable and no shipping to P.O. boxes.
- Free shipping only on rental returns and buybacks; standard shipping starts at $3.95 per item and usually takes 4 to 14 days, although a 30-day wait is possible.
- No option to choose ebooks instead of hard copies.
Takeaway: An intermediary between customers and third-party suppliers, ValoreBooks often posts the cheapest prices for a given title. But scores of reviews tell of delivery snafus and buyback issues. Given the breadth of competition in the online textbook market, you're likely better off heading elsewhere to buy, rent, or sell back books. If you prefer digital versions of the books on your syllabus, skip ValoreBooks entirely — this site doesn't list ebooks.
Best Textbook Sites: What We Considered
Only a few review sites that monitor online businesses, such as Reseller Ratings and Trustpilot, bother with online suppliers of college textbooks, but we found more than enough reviews of textbook websites to form general impressions.
Even our top picks receive stinging criticism from some customers expressing anger at receiving less than the quoted buyback price or not getting paid at all because the vendor asserted that the book never arrived at the warehouse. Some reviewers find fault with customer service for refusing to address minor disasters such as delayed shipping (even when expedited shipping was paid for), mistaken orders, unheeded requests for cancellation, etc. Still, we read plenty of reviews lauding the experience and the books provided.
The primary reason college students turn to online textbook vendors is to save money, and, overall, users assert that prices are almost always cheaper than the campus bookstore. But while each of our top picks garners its share of raves about the bargains enjoyed, there are other things to consider, including shipping fees, the buying vs. renting conundrum, and whether to opt for a new, used, international, or digital version.
Used Textbooks and International Versions
All the college textbook websites on our list have large marketplaces for used books, which generally sell for less than the cost of a new book. For example, at the time of writing, a new hardcover copy of the widely assigned "Campbell Biology" (now in its 11th edition) was $199.89 from Amazon. A used copy of the same book sold by a third party but shipped from an Amazon fulfillment center was $149.99, and a used copy directly from an Amazon marketplace seller was $105.98. Online reviews indicate that students have found other attractive deals in the secondhand market.
While consumers who buy new can be reasonably confident they're getting a pristine book, used textbooks often come with defects, such as missing pages, highlighting, and handwritten notes. Vendors generally provide some clues about the condition of the book, but even in reviews of the best online textbook sellers, we read complaints about used copies in disappointing condition.
Another potential complication with pre-owned texts: missing access codes for resources available only online and no guarantee of getting supplemental materials. Sometimes students can obtain an access code through customer service, or by going directly to the publisher, but they're often charged hefty fees. Although most textbook sites disclose this upfront, it's often buried in fine print and easy to miss. Students who need these materials should be prepared to pay up or default to a new copy.
Similarly, international editions promise sizable savings but may present some of the same difficulties in terms of missing supplemental materials. There also may be slight differences in the cover design, ISBN number, or even paper quality. But TextbookRush, which offers a large number of international textbooks, guarantees that pagination, contents, and problem sets are the same across editions or the cost of the book will be refunded. The site lists a new, softcover international edition of the "Campbell Biology" textbook mentioned above for just $37.03. For that price — about 80 percent less than the new book on Amazon — many students may not mind the trade-offs that come with purchasing international textbooks.
According to the NACS survey, buying books outright remained the preferred option for most students, but about 43 percent said they rented at least one book in fall 2016. Textbook rental prices are lower than purchase prices (for example, $25.98 to rent "Campbell Biology" from TextbookRush), and students say the savings mount quickly. Plus, they avoid the question of what to do with the book when they're done with it — no buyback hassles or overcrowded shelf space in a dorm room.
When renting textbooks, expect used copies that come "as is," although some lucky customers may receive a new copy. Supplements, such as access codes to online materials, generally are not part of the package. Rental periods typically span 30 days to a semester, with due dates depending on the site, and prices vary accordingly.
In our price comparison research, eCampus and Amazon had the cheapest semester rental rates for "Campbell Biology," with eCampus undercutting Amazon by 25 cents at $21.64. ECampus offers a semester due date of Dec. 21, 2018, as well as quarter- and short-term rentals for less, while Amazon's rental is due on Dec. 18. Among our picks, semester rental of this particular text cost the most at TextbookRush ($25.98), with Chegg just behind ($24.49). The 11th edition wasn't even available at ValoreBooks; there, the 10th edition would cost $20.86 (plus $3.95 shipping) and require return by Dec. 14, 2018.
Most textbook sites let students extend the rental (for a fee, of course) or convert it to an outright purchase. Students who don't return a book on time generally are charged for an extension automatically or assessed a fine. Customers who remain delinquent after the allotted extension must pay the purchase price of the book, usually minus the rental cost and any fees assessed. TextbookRush has one of the most stringent late-return policies: Customers who keep books beyond the final grace period must pay 125 percent of the publisher's list price (minus rental fees). Chegg is much more forgiving: Even a student who exceeds the extension period and gets fined the full price of the book can claim a refund if the book reaches Chegg's warehouse within 7 days of the charge. The site also offers a 30-day extension for free at the time of purchase if the school's semester runs longer than the standard rental period.
If renting texts from several vendors, be prepared to keep track of multiple due dates. Some send text or email reminders, but we read some grousing in online reviews about notifications that never appeared. Other student reviewers report that they were smacked with overdue fines even though they returned the books at the appointed times. Some also assert that they returned books in excellent condition but the rental site insisted otherwise and assessed an extra fee. Still, student reviews suggest that renting is a good deal on the whole.
Amazon offers two-day shipping for free with Prime Student, which is similar to Prime membership but costs only $59 a year after a six-month free trial. Otherwise, Amazon orders over $35 ship for free within three to five business days. Most of our other top picks also offer free shipping on orders exceeding $35. The threshold at Chegg is $50 (although it frequently offers shipping deals).
Charges for smaller orders vary by company, and expedited shipping naturally costs more. For example, TextbookRush charges $3.99 for standard five- to seven-day shipping for a single item under $35. Two-day delivery costs $8.99, and overnight shipping starts around $39.99 (prices shift based on the number of items in the order and the shipping destination). With Chegg, there's not as much reason to rush: Students waiting for a textbook to come in the mail receive free access to the digital version for seven days.
Shipping for rental returns and book buyback is free at all the sites we researched. Unlike our top picks, ValoreBooks always charges a shipping fee for the initial order; the least expensive option is $3.95 per book.
All online textbook vendors take heat in reviews regarding delivery. Students complain about books going missing in transit, waiting for what seems like eons for an order to arrive, or receiving a different book than they requested. ValoreBooks seems to fall particularly short, with a good many transactions that fail to get to the delivery stage at all: Reviewers say the company canceled orders after they were made because items were not in stock as listed, or without any explanation at all. Some students claim they were not even notified that books they needed for class would not be coming.
Conversely, TextbookRush stands out in reviews on Trustpilot for delivering the right books within days. Of course, Amazon also is known for solid performance on these fronts. Chegg customers likewise seem satisfied with the pace of delivery and the condition of books overall, while eCampus seems to be a bit more hit or miss.
Across the board, delivery of orders from third-party sellers, as opposed to the companies themselves, can be unreliable. We noted frequent complaints in reviews about delivery problems with marketplace orders. In these cases, customers typically have little recourse, as the host site has limited control over the independent operators using its platform.
Selling books back to the campus bookstore typically nets a small fraction of the purchase price. Although students often assert that they do better online, many of the grievances aired in reviews of every textbook site surround discrepancies between the stated buyback policy and the amount of money students receive. Some sites claim that students can collect up to half the price paid for a textbook. The reality is somewhat different, according to reviews.
Students call out ValoreBooks as a serial offender. Comments posted across review sites contain plentiful stories about checks not received (or checks that bounced), clashes over the condition or the edition of the returned book, and books not being returned after buyback disputes. We also found similar complaints filed with the Better Business Bureau, and disgruntled users posting on ComplaintsBoard who insist the company is scamming its customers.
By contrast, reviews of our top textbook websites say the companies pay fairly, and fairly quickly, for the most part. Still, some reviewers complain about not receiving the expected sum. One major quibble students have with the buyback process is that the company, not the student, determines the book's condition. Excessive highlighting and notes, water damage, weakened bindings, and loose or missing pages generally are not acceptable. Amazon is said to be a particular stickler when it comes to the condition of books. Students who plan to turn over their textbooks at the end of the term should remember that each mark made in a text and each bent or scratched cover will lower the value. Consider taking a few small precautions upfront — such as using sticky notes for note taking or painter's tape to protect book edges — to ensure that textbooks are as well-preserved as possible.
Buyback prices also are influenced by the newness of the edition and whether the company expects the text to be marketable in the future. Checking buyback rates in advance can help determine which edition of a book it's best to purchase and whether renting might be a better option for a textbook that will soon be replaced by a newer version or generally has very low resale value.
Most of our recommended sites offer students selling back books the option of a cash payment, PayPal, or credit toward a future purchase, although Amazon offers gift card credit only. Opting for credit at TextbookRush nets an extra 5 percent. For the 11th edition of "Campbell Biology," TextbookRush was offering the highest buyback quotes: $89.75 for cash and $94.24 for store credit. Amazon's trade-in rate was the lowest, at just $69.38.
Keep in mind that the online store where a book was initially purchased may not always offer the highest resale price or may not offer to buy back a particular text at all. For example, eCampus would not accept "Campbell Biology" (11th ed.) for resale, although users were invited to find a buyer on the eCampus Marketplace. It pays to consult a search engine such as Bigwords or BookScouter to compare buyback prices at multiple vendors. CheapestTextbooks even has a section in its search results that advises users whether it's smarter to buy or rent a particular text based on typical sell-back rates.
Surveys show that students overwhelmingly prefer print textbooks to digital, but ebook use is slowly on the rise. Aside from the environmental benefits, obtaining and unloading an etextbook is a breeze compared with buying, selling, renting, and returning print copies. There's also no anxiety about defacing a book that's destined for buyback. And let's not forget how much easier it is to carry an ebook.
Ebooks often cost much less than new hard copies, as well. That said, on the sites we researched, used print copies were generally cheaper than ebooks, and ebook rental was considerably more expensive than renting a paper copy. Keep in mind, too, that the refund windows are usually shorter for ebook returns than for hard copies. Sites that let customers return ebooks they've already accessed usually specify that a return won't be accepted if more than 20 percent of the text has been viewed. Still, renting digital textbooks may be an ideal solution for students who procrastinate or forget about deadlines: The rented etextbook simply appears immediately after payment and disappears at the end of the rental period — no worries about receiving a physical book in time for class or forgetting to return it and being hit with overdue fees.
Before buying or renting a digital textbook, check to make sure it's compatible with the devices you own. Most can be used universally on computers, tablets, and smartphones with the right app, but it's always best to double-check. The digital platforms are vendor- and/or publisher-specific and free to download or access through a browser.
Ereaders and apps are loaded with features to make the transition to digital easier for students who value the experience of flipping through a physical book or taking notes in the margins. Highlighting and note taking within the text are standard functions, as are search and print (the latter may be limited to a certain percent of the content, and is often available only on desktop readers). Some platforms also let students create virtual study groups, share notes and highlights, and ask each other questions. Some incorporate videos and interactive material and offer additional online study aids, such as in-depth explanations of quiz answers.
Given the raft of issues that arise with textbook websites — from ordering and delivery to returns and buybacks — it's likely that, sooner or later, students will need to speak with customer service. Reviews confirm that different people have different experiences dealing with the same company. While some reviewers gripe about indifferent Chegg representatives, for instance, one parent writing on SiteJabber says a rep agreed to forgive more than $500 in lost-book charges after determining the fault was with UPS. A number of the complaints levied against Chegg through ConsumerAffairs concern the site's online study services. They come from customers who were dissatisfied with the help available or saw charges on their credit cards after their subscriptions had been canceled.
Some reviewers report unproductive encounters with eCampus representatives. One extremely frustrated customer says multiple complaints about an issue processing a credit card yielded only the same automated response, with no resolution. Yet we were impressed to find company staffers engaging with consumers on review sites such as ResellerRatings and attempting to resolve reported issues.
Then there's ValoreBooks. Its review page on ResellerRatings is full of input from customer service representatives, yet we found very few resolutions made in consumers' favor. Also, online chat is available for customers who have questions, or should a dispute arise, but there is no way to reach customer service by phone, and ValoreBooks lists no contact number whatsoever on its website.
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