Cheap College Textbooks
Published on By Elizabeth Sheer
Saving on college textbooks is one great way that college students can maximize their budget. Check out more ways here: 10 Tips for Living on a College Student Budget
Avoid potential financial pitfalls and check out 10 Things You Need to Know About Student Loans Right Now
Textbook Rush Review
- With a huge inventory for sale or rent, including etextbooks, there's a good chance students will find what they need at a low price.
- A large volume of international textbooks makes for greater savings; their international versions are guaranteed to provide exact content of 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.
- Reviewers are generally upbeat about the textbook buyback process, with most stating they received the amount expected and payments showed up quickly; users can also sell electronics, movies, or games to the site.
- Students looking for additional study tools have access to summary briefs (usually for a fee) covering a variety of subjects.
- Some TextbookRush reviews take issue with the size of the payments and dispute the vendor's claims about damage.
- Comments posted with the Better Business Bureau mostly share common gripes about textbook sites: mixed-up orders and returns, difficulty contacting customer service, and problems with third-party sellers (e.g., no-show delivery, wrong books). Overall, however, the customer service seems to satisfy users.
- Particularly stringent rental return policy charges 125 percent of the publisher's list price (minus rental cost) for any book that exceeds allotted late period. Books returned after the charge has been made will not be refunded or sent back.
Takeaway: As its name implies, TextbookRush offers speedy delivery. Reviewers highlight the positives about TextbookRush, including its massive inventory and professional customer service. The weight of favorable reviews justifies TextbookRush's position at the head of the class.
Where to buy
Amazon Textbooks Review
- Boasts the widest selection of textbooks around.
- Amazon offers Prime Student package that's free for six months and then $49 a year, as compared to usual $99 Prime membership fee; free two-day shipping that comes with membership can net real savings and ensure books arrive on time.
- Prime Student members also have access to music and instant streaming of movies and TV shows, as well as a large number of Kindle books that can be read for free.
- Etextbooks purchased or rented through Amazon can be read on Kindle Fire tablets, PCs, Macs, and iOS and Android phones via the Kindle app.
- For the most part, reviews posted regarding the buyback process indicate that the value owed is duly credited to customers' accounts and most consider the amounts received for texts to be fair.
- Prices are generally not the lowest that can be found among cheap online textbook retailers, particularly when it comes to rentals.
- Some say Amazon is especially stringent regarding marking up rental books and that they are quick to reject returns and charge the full purchase price for books deemed to have excessive highlighting or writing.
- Strict policy for late rental returns: one-time,15-day extension for a fee, books not returned within that time period are charged full purchase price (minus rental fees and late fees).
- As with competitors, some reviewers air differences of opinion concerning the condition of books sent in for buyback.
- Receiving Amazon gift cards instead of money for buybacks is certainly useful for ordering next term's books (or any number of other things) but also gives Amazon a hold on its customer base.
Takeaway: Overall, Amazon's textbook offerings aren't a bad deal, and they're a quick and reliable service -- but they do pull consumers into the Amazon universe. If that's where you like to orbit, by all means, hitch a ride. But there's a whole big galaxy awaiting exploration.
Where to buy
- 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.
- A wide range of rental periods are offered, including semester, quarter, or short term; rentals can be extended (for a fee) for 15, 30, 60, 90 and 130 days.
- Those wishing to sell back books can sell directly to company for a quoted price or list them independently on the eCampus Marketplace.
- Users granted 7-day instant access to digital versions of texts (when available) while orders ship.
- Partnership with leading etextbook retailer VitalSource means access to wide range of etexts; digital textbooks can be viewed through free eCampus apps for iOS and Android devices, PCs, and Macs, or via the VitalSource Bookshelf platform.
- A loyalty program awards customers points they can trade for discounts on future orders; the site also has frequent deals and discount codes available.
- Earns only an average rating (5.98 out of 10) on Reseller Ratings. 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.
- Some reviewers grouse about problems loading ebook apps and a lack of technical support.
- Shorter than average refund window; users have only 25 days to return books and must pay shipping and 10% restocking fee.
Takeaway: ECampus has been around for more than fifteen years. It launched as a digital textbook site, and it continues to offer one of the largest selections of etextbooks available among full-service sellers. Despite reviews and prices that are about average for this end of the college textbook market, ease of use, varied and flexible rental periods, multiple sellback options, and its loyalty program make eCampus worthy of recommendation to thrifty consumers looking to save both time and money on textbook buys.
Where to buy
- In addition to selling, renting, and buying textbooks, Chegg provides a variety of study tools and student services, including tutoring.
- In comments posted on Reseller Ratings, the company scores fairly high, with an 8.6 out of 10 rating. Reviewers frequently say the service is fast, easy, and reliable, and returns are simple.
- Customers get free access to ebook copies of texts (when available) while waiting for the printed versions to arrive.
- With Chegg's eReader, users can stream etextbooks to PCs, Macs, and mobile devices and also have access to round-the-clock answers to study questions.
- Although rental periods on most items cover a traditional semester, adjustments are possible where the term duration differs.
- While some reviewers express satisfaction with the operation, critical Chegg reviews claim that agents are rude, buyback payments fail to arrive, mistaken or excessive charges show up in accounts (particularly in relation to subscription services), and so on.
- Many users express dissatisfaction with study services and the quality of the tutors on the site.
- Free shipping is often only available through special offers. "Standard" shipping fees are in no way standardized and will vary based on content, shipping location, and shipping method.
Takeaway: Although nominally a textbook rental company, Chegg tries to be all things to all students. Customers can buy, rent, and sell books; buy or rent etextbooks and download a Chegg ebook reader; 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, we found many less-than-stellar reviews of its study services, and it doesn't particularly stand out for the usual business of buying, selling, and renting textbooks.
Where to buy
- Positive reviews of ValoreBooks laud the value pricing and user-friendly ordering process for buying and renting print textbooks (they do not offer etextbooks).
- Marketplace model allows "one-stop shopping" across a wide network of sellers and their inventories.
- 30-day, full refund policy for returns is among the most generous among the competition.
- Provides price-matching guarantee on sellbacks.
- Numerous reviews, including postings on the Better Business Bureau's website, complain about orders that take weeks to arrive (even when expedited service has been paid for), overdue fees assessed for books that were returned, failure to receive notice of order cancellations, disputes over the condition of book buybacks, misrepresented books in the secondhand stacks, and inaccessible third-party sellers.
- Strict policy for late rental returns: one-time, 15-day extension for a fee, books not returned within that time period are charged current retail price (minus rental fees and late fees); the site makes a point that it is quick to send unpaid accounts to a collection agency.
- Free shipping is only available on rental returns and buybacks. Standard shipping starts at $3.95 (per item) and usually takes from 4-14 days, though the site says it can sometimes take as long as 30 days.
Takeaway: An intermediary between customers and third-party suppliers, ValoreBooks often posts the cheapest prices. But scores of reviews tell of delivery snafus and buyback issues. Given the breadth of competition in the online textbook market, this is one site that could be checked out last.
Where to buy
Choosing Where to Buy College Textbooks
The average undergraduate shelled out around $579 on course materials during the 2016-2017 school year, according to a survey by the National Association of College Stores. That figure represents a drop of about $23 from the total spent the previous year.
One way students are cutting down on textbook costs is by shopping for cheap textbooks online. 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 to name the best website for cheap college textbooks.
Best Sites to Rent or Buy Cheap Textbooks.While NACS's data suggests Amazon continues to reign with students as the most popular online source for textbooks -- no doubt because of convenience and familiarity with the brand -- our research identified several other cheap online vendors that often post better prices than the e-commerce giant and earn more than a passing grade from many customers. TextbookRush is at the head of Cheapism's class of booksellers. Online retailers eCampus and Chegg also earn distinction alongside Amazon. ValoreBooks, on the other hand, is one site that our research suggests is unworthy of honors.
All of the vendors that we've considered for this guide offer full-service sites where students can either buy or rent cheap (new or used) print copies of college textbooks. Our top picks maintain inventories with hundreds of thousands of print titles in addition to a large stock of etextbooks. All offer direct buyback options, and all but Chegg also host third-party marketplaces where independent sellers (typically students and small businesses) set their own prices. ValoreBooks is strictly an intermediary between buyers/renters and third-party book suppliers. They also do not deal in digital texts.
In preparing this guide, we found that no one site consistently offers the cheapest textbooks. Comparison sites such as CheapestTextbooks, BooksPrice, and Bigwords can point students to the sellers offering the lowest prices for each of the texts they wish to purchase. But keep in mind that prices are extremely fluid in the universe of online textbook sales and rentals, and those posted in mid-summer aren't necessarily the prices students will 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 when buying used. 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.)
Cheapism.com participates in affiliate marketing programs, which means we may earn a commission if you choose to purchase a product through a link on our site. This helps support our work and does not influence editorial content.
Features Comparison Buying Guide continues below table
Textbook Website Reviews: 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 textbook website reviews to form general impressions.
None of the textbook sites we researched consistently earns top marks from customers. Even our top picks receive stinging criticism from some users expressing anger over not receiving a quoted buyback price or not being paid at all because the vendor asserts 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 products provided.
That said, the primary reason college students turn to ecommerce 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, students' choice of vendors will also be affected by other considerations, including shipping fees, the buying vs. renting conundrum, and whether to opt for a new, used, international, or electronic textbook.
Used Textbooks and International Versions.All the college textbook websites on our list sell pre-owned books at prices cheaper than the cost of a new book. For example, at the time of writing, a hardcover copy of the widely assigned "Campbell Biology" (now in its 11th edition) was $220.08, if purchased new through Amazon. We were able to find a used copy of the same exact book at TextbookRush for $180. Comments posted on a range of review sites indicate that students have found attractive deals in the secondhand market. For this reason, many students prefer vendors with large marketplaces that provide greater access to used book bargains.
Yet, whereas 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. The 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 the disappointing condition of used copies.
Another potential complication with pre-owned texts: missing access codes for resources only available online and no guarantee of getting supplemental materials such as CDs. Sometimes students can obtain an access code through customer service, or by going directly to the publisher, but they're often charged hefty fees. Most textbook sites disclose this upfront, but 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.
Buying international versions of texts may also present some of the same difficulties as buying used copies in terms of missing supplemental materials. There may also be slight differences in the international edition versus the US edition of a textbook when it comes to cover design, ISBN number, or perhaps even paper quality. But at TextbookRush, which offers a large number of international textbooks, purchasers are guaranteed that pagination, contents, and problem sets will be the same across editions or the cost of the book will be refunded. For the sizeable savings to be had -- the site lists a new international edition of the "Campbell Biology" textbook mentioned above for only $45.41 (softcover) -- many might be willing to make any tradeoffs that come with purchasing one of these alternate texts.
Textbook Rentals.According to NACS's survey, purchasing books outright remained the preferred option for most students, but about 43 percent said they rented at least one book in 2016. Textbook rental prices are lower than purchase prices (for example, $31.85 to rent "Campbell Biology" from TextbookRush), and students say savings mount quickly. Plus, they know where the book is going when they're done with it -- no worries about buyback hassles or overcrowded shelf space in a dorm room.
When renting textbooks, a used copy that comes "as is" is standard, although some lucky customers may receive a new copy. Supplements, such as access codes to online materials, are not part of the package. Rental periods generally span 30 days to 180 days, depending on the site, and prices vary accordingly. In our price comparison research, TextbookRush and Amazon, respectively, had the cheapest semester rental rates for "Campbell Biology," with Amazon charging $39.95 and both sites offering the same due date of Dec. 18, 2017. Of our picks, semester rental of this particular text cost the most at eCampus, although students renting the 10th edition as opposed to the newer version would find eCampus' price to be among the lowest.
Most textbook sites let students extend the rental (for a fee, of course) or convert it to an outright purchase. Late returns are usually automatically charged for an extension or assessed fines. All require customers who remain delinquent after the allotted extension to pay the purchase price of the book, usually minus the rental cost and any fees assessed. TextbookRush actually has one of the most stringent late return policies: Customers falling to get books back during the final grace period must pay 125 percent of the publisher's list price (minus rental fee) for texts. Chegg is more forgiving, and even after users have exceeded the late-extension period and been charged the full price of the book they will refund the cost if the item reaches their warehouse within 7 days of the charge being levied.
If renting texts from several vendors, be prepared to keep track of multiple due dates. Some send text or email reminders. That said, 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 claim books were returned at the appointed times. Some also assert that, although returned books were in excellent condition, the rental site insisted otherwise and assessed an extra fee. Still, student reviews suggest that renting is a good deal, on the whole.
Etextbooks.Studies suggest that students overwhelmingly prefer print textbooks to digital, but ebook use is slowly on the rise. Etextbooks can hold great appeal. Aside from the environmental benefits, obtaining and disposing of an etextbook is a breeze, especially when compared with the headaches associated with buying/selling/renting/returning print copies. There's no anxiety about defacing a book that's destined for the return bin. And let's not forget how easy an ebook is to carry.
While all of our top sites carry etextbooks, digital versions of textbooks are not available for every title or course, nor are available versions offered by every seller. Ebooks are frequently offered for rent but not for purchase. For the largest selection of ebooks, it may make sense to visit sites such as VitalSource (formerly CourseSmart) that are dedicated to etextbook sales and rentals.
Digitized books often cost much less than new hard copies. That said, used print copies on the sites we researched were generally cheaper than the cost of buying a digital copy, and ebook rental was considerably more expensive than renting a paper copy. Still, renting a digital textbook 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 worry about receiving the rented physical book in time for class or forgetting to return it and being hit with overdue fees.
Before making a buy or arranging a rental of a digital textbook, check that 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.
Ereaders and apps are loaded with features to make the transition to digital easier for students who value the ability to flip through physical books or take notes in the margins. Highlighting and note taking within the text are standard functionalities already, as are search and print (the latter may be limited to a certain percent of the content, and is often only available on desktop readers). Some etextbooks 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. The digital platforms are vendor- and/or publisher-specific and free to download or access through a browser or mobile app.
Free Shipping.Amazon offers two-day shipping for free with Prime Student, which is similar to Amazon Prime but costs only $49 a year after a six-month free trial. Otherwise, Amazon orders that exceed $25 will ship free within 5 to 8 business days. Some of our other top sites for cheap textbooks also offer free shipping on orders exceeding a certain threshold: a high of $59 at eCampus and a low of $35 at TextbookRush. Free shipping at Chegg is often available through special deal offers, while ValoreBooks always charges a shipping fee. The least expensive option on that site is $3.95 per item, for delivery in four to 14 days.
Charges vary by company for smaller orders and obviously cost more for expedited shipping. For example, TextbookRush charges $3.99 for standard 5- to 7-day shipping for a single item under $35. Two-day delivery costs $8.99, and overnight shipping starts at around $39.99 (prices also shift based on the number of items in the order and the shipping destination). On the other hand, there's probably not as much reason to rush with eCampus or Chegg, which offer digital versions of texts free for 7 days to students waiting for an order. Shipping for rental returns and book buyback is free at all the sites we researched.
Buyback.Selling books back at a 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 ecommerce textbook vendor concern discrepancies between the stated buyback policy and the amount of money students receive. Some sites claim 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 at SiteJabber contain numerous stories about checks not received, disputes about the condition or the edition of the returned book, and books not being returned after buyback disputes. According to one 2015 complaint filed with the Better Business Bureau, a consumer was promised a buyback price of $312 for law books and received only $2.35.
By contrast, most reviews of our top textbook websites say the companies pay fairly and fairly quickly. Still, reviews on numerous sites tell of students not always being paid 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. In reviews, 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 either soon be replaced by a newer version or has very low resale value in general.
Most of our recommended college textbook sites offer students selling back books the option of a cash payment or credit toward a future purchase, although Amazon offers gift card credit only. Opting for credit at TextbookRush nets a more generous price, although only slightly: $111.57 (cash) vs. $117.15 (credit) for the 11th edition of "Campbell Biology," for example. The 10th edition of the same textbook will garner only $25 for a cash resale and $26.25 in store-credit.
Keep in mind that the online store where a book was initially purchased may not always offer the highest resale price. It pays to consult a search engine such as Bigwords or BookScouter to compare buyback prices at multiple vendors.
Customer Service.Given the raft of issues that often arise with textbook websites -- delivery, returns, buybacks, a book's condition -- it's likely that sooner or later consumers will need to speak with customer service. Reviews show that different users have different experiences even when dealing with the same company. Some reviewers gripe about indifferent Chegg representatives, for instance, while one parent writes in a post on SiteJabber about a wonderful customer service experience where a rep agreed to forgive more than $500 in lost book charges after determining the fault was with UPS. A number of the complaints against Chegg on Consumer Affairs 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.
Reviewers generally report productive encounters with eCampus representatives, who actually engage with consumers on review sites such as Reseller Ratings and attempt to resolve ongoing issues. One extremely frustrated customer, though, says multiple complaints about an issue processing a credit card yielded only the same automated response, with no resolution.
Then there's ValoreBooks. On the Better Business Bureau's website, nearly 170 complaints have been lodged over the past three years, and 94 percent of reviews are negative. Unhappy customers allege a variety of irritants, notably that calls to customer service are a total waste of time.
Delivery.ValoreBooks also takes a lot of heat in reviews regarding delivery. Students complain about books going missing in transit, waiting for what seems like eons for an order to arrive, not being notified when orders were canceled, or receiving a different book from the one requested. One student reports on Complaints Board that she ordered a book that didn't arrive until a month after a class had started. When she returned the book, which was no longer needed, the company claimed the return was not received despite tracking information that suggested otherwise.
While ValoreBooks garners its fare share of positive reviews on Reseller Ratings, we found enough one-star ratings and complaints about failed or delayed deliveries there, on BBB's website, and on SiteJabber to suggest that potential users proceed with caution and plan to pay close attention to the status of all transactions made with this vendor.
Conversely, TextbookRush stands out in reviews posted at Trustpilot for accurate (i.e., the right book) and speedy (i.e., within days) delivery. One reviewer says a book came even faster than expected. Amazon is, of course, also known for solid performance on these fronts. Customers of our other top vendors likewise seem satisfied overall with the pace of delivery and the condition of the books, although several posts gripe about canceled orders -- although vendors usually had the courtesy to provide notifications.
Delivery on orders executed through a textbook website's marketplace are more of a crapshoot. We noted frequent complaints about delivery problems in reviews related to third-party sellers. In these cases, customers may have little recourse, as the host site has limited control over these independent operators.