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 PricesIn 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.)
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Features Comparison Buying Guide continues below table
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 VersionsAll 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.
Textbook RentalsAccording 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.
ShippingAmazon 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.
BuybackSelling 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.
EtextbooksSurveys 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.
Customer ServiceGiven 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.