Better Than the Bookstore: Best Sites for College Textbooks

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TEXTBOOKS 101

College students shopping for textbooks at the campus bookstore are likely to start the year with a case of sticker shock. One remedy: online textbook vendors and apps. Savvy student shoppers are taking advantage of ever more options for buying and renting new, used, and digital textbooks online. Many sites also buy back textbooks at the end of the term, so students can pocket a little cash to put toward books for the next semester.

There are sites that specialize in selling — Alibris, AbeBooks, and Textbooks.com are a few of the major names — and others that focus on renting, like Campus Book Rentals, TextbookSolutions, and Knetbooks. For this roundup, Cheapism.com compared full-service textbook websites to find reliable options that save students money. Here are the top picks for 2018, along with a few other recommended sites for price comparison, ebooks, free open-source textbooks, and buyback.

TextbookRush
Photo credit: Courtesy of textbookrush.com

TEXTBOOKRUSH

Best Overall
High ratings and low prices distinguish this popular textbook sale and rental site, which offers new, used, and digital books and features a large selection of international textbooks for even greater savings. TextbookRush customers say the delivery speed is true to the company's name, and its $35 free-shipping threshold is lower than many competitors'. Students looking for additional study tools can access summary briefs on a range of subjects. TextbookRush also does big business in textbook buybacks. Users can even buy and sell electronics, movies, and games through the site.

Shipping: Free on orders over $35.
Returns: Full refund within 30 days; 14 days for ebooks.
Rental Periods: Semester for hard copies; varies for ebooks.
Rental Extensions: 10 days for hard copies ($9.99 plus tax); no extensions for ebooks.
Late Fees: One-time, automatic 10-day extension fee; after that, 125% of list price (plus tax) minus rental and late fees.
Buybacks: Check, PayPal, or store credit (extra 5%).

male student holding college textbooks in college bookstore
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CHEGG

Good for Extra Services
Chegg offers print and digital textbooks for sale, rent, or buyback. Customers waiting for books to arrive in the mail receive access to the ebook version for seven days. The Chegg eReader mobile and desktop app lets users download digital books and read them anywhere. The company also markets a range of additional student services, such as access to online tutors (for a fee) and homework help for more than 22,000 textbooks, with step-by-step solutions to the problems in books purchased or rented through the site. Other extras include college and scholarship search services and an internship database.

Shipping: Free on orders over $50.
Returns: Full refund within 21 days; 14 days for ebooks.
Rental Periods: Semester for hard copies; varies for ebooks.
Rental Extensions: Free, advance 30-day extension to fit longer semesters; before the return date for a fee; within the first 14 days for some ebooks.
Late Fees: One-time, automatic 10-day extension (25% of the rental cost); after that, purchase price minus rental and late fees (refunded if the book is received within 7 days of the charge).
Buybacks: Check, PayPal, or store credit.

Amazon cardboard package delivery at front door
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AMAZON

Good for Last-Minute Orders
An Amazon Prime Student membership, offered at a discount, promises big savings on shipping and speedy delivery of books in a pinch. Although print textbooks or ebooks bought or rented through Amazon may not always be the cheapest, other perks — like convenience, an incredibly wide selection of new and used books, and the comfort of dealing with a well-known and reliable retailer — may offset any added expense. Buybacks net Amazon gift cards rather than cash, but quoted prices are generally said to be fair.

Shipping: Free on orders over $35; free 2-day shipping with Prime.
Returns: Full refund within 30 days for purchases and rentals; 7 days for Kindle books.
Rental Periods: Semester for hard copies; can be customized for many Kindle rentals.
Rental Extensions: 15 days or another semester for hard copies; anytime before the due date for flexible Kindle rentals (fees apply).
Late Fees: One-time, automatic 15-day extension fee; after that, purchase price minus rental and extension fees.
Buybacks: Amazon gift card for trade-ins; Amazon marketplace for selling independently.

eCampus
Photo credit: Courtesy of ecampus.com

ECAMPUS

Good for Rewards and Flexible Rentals
Students who buy, rent, download, or sell textbooks on eCampus can sign up for a loyalty program and earn gift card credits up to $20 for future orders. Points are awarded for purchases, referrals, and social media activity, and various discounts are available even to non-members. A wide range of rental periods has potential to save students money if they don't need a text for an entire semester. With the eCampus Reader, customers can use iOS, Android, Windows, and Mac devices to read digital textbooks. The site offers a buyback program and the option to list texts on the eCampus marketplace. Of the sites we considered, eCampus receives the most mixed reviews, but for bargain hunters, the savings may outweigh any pitfalls.

Shipping: Free on orders over $35.
Returns: Full refund within 25 days for purchases and most rentals (minus 10% restocking fee); 15 days for short-term rentals; no refunds on ebooks.
Rental Periods: Semester, quarter, or short term for hard copies; varies for ebooks.
Rental Extensions: 15, 30, 60, 90, or 130 days for hard copies (fees apply); no extensions for ebooks.
Late Fees: Up to the full list price (refunds may be available).
Buybacks: Check, direct deposit, PayPal, or store credit; eCampus marketplace for independent sales (the company takes a 15% commission).

stack of college textbooks in library
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BOOKSPRICE

For Comparing Prices
Cheapism's research found that no single vendor consistently delivers the best pricing. Turning to a comparison site with a list of required texts in hand is an efficient way to find the cheapest source for each book. BooksPrice provides a roundup of the best available online prices for books searched on its website or mobile app. Users can also set up price tracking via RSS feed or have alerts emailed when a selected item meets a specified price.

female college student with stack of textbooks
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CHEAPESTTEXTBOOKS

For Comparing Prices
Not all price comparison sites are created equal, and what we like about CheapestTextbooks is its full-service approach to helping buyers find books at the best prices. Results are plentiful — for any text entered, users get a detailed list of purchase (new and used), rental, and ebook rates across a wide variety of sellers. The site also provides helpful extras alongside each option, such as coupon codes and deal information. It will even tell you whether it makes more sense to buy or rent a particular book based on sell-back options.

Bigwords
Photo credit: Courtesy of bigwords.com

BIGWORDS

For Comparing Prices
Bigwords has been called "Kayak for textbooks." It lets users specify search preferences (new, used, rental, international editions, etc.), load a virtual book bag, and amuse themselves with onscreen jokes while the searchbot finds the dealers with the lowest prices for each title. Students already overwhelmed with the whole book-buying process will appreciate that the site narrows results down to the option with the very best price — and usually the picks are on track. There are also advanced filters that can take into account whether a given text will be eligible for buyback or whether a user has an Amazon Prime Student account or Barnes & Noble membership.

pile of college textbooks
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CAMPUSBOOKS

For Library Books
Truth be told, we didn't find the results from a sample search performed on the price comparison site CampusBooks particularly robust -- some of our favorite sellers were missing from the lineup, and the best price was a little higher than we'd seen on other sites. Where CampusBooks shines, however, is in letting users know where they might be able to find copies of the textbooks they need at local libraries. Free books trump cheap books any day. Similarly, the Google Chrome plugin Library Extension shows library availability when you search for books on sites like Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

male student on tablet in library
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VITALSOURCE

For Ebooks
In many ways, etextbooks replicate their print counterparts. Pagination is the same, and students can highlight and make notes. They can also search the text. Ebooks from VitalSource (formerly CourseSmart) can be read online or offline using a web browser or the VitalSource Bookshelf app for iOS, Android, Chrome, and Kindle Fire. For a price, the site offers interactive material along with some texts, including links to associated websites, online homework and quizzes, and related videos. Using notes and highlighting tools, students can even share annotations within texts with other licensed users.

female student on tablet
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REDSHELF

For Ebooks
RedShelf is another, rapidly expanding name in the etextbook marketplace, with services similar to VitalSource. Its cloud ereader makes purchased and rented texts available across devices. The reader is designed to work with assistive technologies for students with disabilities, and the company recently partnered with many institutions to deliver inclusive-access digital course materials directly to all classroom students.

open college textbook in library
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OPEN EDUCATIONAL RESOURCES (OER)

For Free Textbooks Online
Recognizing that the high cost of textbooks and study resources has become prohibitive for some students, many schools and educational services have created online texts and course materials that are accessible to students for free. Textbooks on these open-source sites don't exactly match those offered by large publishers, but they aim to provide reasonable facsimiles. Some of the best-known names are OpenStax, Merlot, and Saylor Academy. Digitized copies of many classic texts that are not subject to copyright laws — from Plato's "Phaedrus" to Melville's "Moby Dick" — can be found on Project Gutenberg.

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BOOK BUYBACK

All our top picks provide options for unloading books when courses end. Students can also use aggregators such as BooksPrice and Bigwords to browse sell-back options. Other sites such as BookScouter are specifically dedicated to comparing buyback quotes across vendors. But it's not about simply finding the highest bidder; you want to make sure you actually receive payment, and in a timely manner. Two reputable buyback sites are Cash4Books and Sell Back Your Book. Both provide free shipping and receive high ratings on the review site Trustpilot (currently 8.9 and 8.7 out of 10, respectively). Sell Back Your Book gets particular praise for prompt payment via check or PayPal. Customers can usually expect money for their books within three days of receipt at the company's processing center.

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