Textbooks tear wallets

Like many students this week, Justin Shaw, an English grad student, is looking for books for his Literary Theory course.   |  Joshua Mann /The Daily Cougar

English grad student Justin Shaw looks for books for his Literary Theory course. | Joshua Mann /The Daily Cougar

Students preparing for the semester have probably spent the last week scouring the Internet for ways to save money on textbooks required for many of their classes.

The National Association of College Stores’ Student Watch 2012 found that students’ estimated spending was approximately $655 on required course materials in 2011, down $12 since 2010.

Much of the cost stems from physical textbooks, which are still the preferred option for many students despite the often hefty costs and difficulty reselling them that are not as common as their e-book alternatives.

“I prefer traditional textbooks because of the availability — you can carry it around with you,” biology sophomore Jonathan Chang said.

“Compared to e-books, you don’t need to turn it on; you can just open it. If you’re stuck on a certain area or want to get back to the area you were in, just (use) a bookmark,” Chang said.

However, the price and hassle often associated with traditional textbooks has convinced some students to opt for e-books instead.

“They’re cheaper, and sometimes you can download them for free legally,” biology senior Chandler Collins said.

“There’s nothing physical to turn, no pages, so sometimes it doesn’t feel like you’re making as much progress. But, having said that, you get the search function so that’s better than (physical) textbooks.”

Despite what may seem like the growing popularity of e-books, digital textbooks still only account for a small percentage of the textbook market. Less than 8 percent of respondents to an survey preferred e-books.

“We also have news for anyone thinking that print books are heading the way of the dinosaur,” CEO Matt Montgomery said in a press release.

“College students flat-out prefer old school, hardcover textbooks to e-textbooks.”

Aside from decisions about the format, students also must decide between online retailers, discount stores and the on-campus bookstore. They may have to do research to learn where they really save the most money or which store is most reliable.

“The University of Houston Bookstore is a full-service operation, and its mission is to ensure that the right book for the right course is on the shelf at the right time,” said Felix Robinson, manager of the UH Bookstore. “Online retailers can’t guarantee that or accept financial aid or provide revenue, services or benefits to the students or school.”

Buying is not the only way to acquire traditional textbooks — renting textbooks allows students to save a significant amount of money.

“Students really do save a lot from renting. Rental prices can be anywhere from 55 to 60 percent off the list price,” said Sean Johnson, online marketing manager for

Aside from the lower prices, other motivations to rent textbooks are free shipping and return postage and large inventories that ensure students can have their books by the first day of class. In a recent survey conducted by, 79 percent of customers rented their textbooks and preferred it to buying used copies or e-books.

“I would say the only possible drawback would be that you might get a book in bad condition,” mechanical engineering sophomore Hosanna Escalante said.

“But (renting websites) usually say what condition the book is in. I’ve never gotten a book in bad condition.”

While textbook renting does have some restrictions — like not being able to highlight or write in the book — it allows students to return books they do not wish to keep once they have completed a course.

“There are no worries about selling them back and getting much less than what you paid,” Escalante said.

“Plus, if you decide you might need to keep the book, there’s always an option to do that and you only have to pay a little extra.”

Students are also advised to use peers and classmates as a resource.

“Being involved in the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, books generally don’t change too much,” Escalante said.

“So I find other people who’ve used the same books before.”

Students have many of options to choose from when purchasing textbooks. If price is a factor, then renting textbooks may be the best option — it saved students 60 to 70 percent according to a press release by — followed by used books, which can save students 35 percent, and then e-books, which save students only about 15 percent, according to USA Today.

Price aside, students should experiment and shop around.

“Look at all the choices (freshmen) have, whether they want to go buy the traditional hardback textbook or if they want to go with e-books,” Chang said.

“First-year (students) just try to experiment with what they’re good with and if they can focus well; what helps them focus; what helps them be successful.”

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  • Check first on a textbook price comparison website to make sure what option and merchant is cheapest. Sometimes a used textbook can be cheaper than a rental or e-book. Remember to include shipping price in your consideration !!!

  • I have to laugh at the UH bookstore thing. It’s common knowledge they have the highest prices (95% of the time in my experience) for new, used, and rental textbooks. You’re not even guaranteed used books and you have to wait in lines a lot.

    Rentals are definitely the way to go IMHO, and the popular services will let you extend or keep them forever if you pay up for it. eBooks are not reliable, especially if web-based, if you do so legally and have to deal with cumbersome software and permissions.

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