How-To Geek

Three Potentially Risky Ways to Save a Lot on Textbooks

Photo by Sultry

You can always save money on textbooks by buying online, going ebook, or renting what you need. But there are riskier ways to save a buck that just may yield even greater payoff, such as getting the international or earlier edition of the text, or avoiding the purchase altogether.

You already know that the textbook system is a scam. Publishers often crank out new editions without making substantial changes. Schools follow standard procedure over saving students money. And sometimes a class hardly uses the textbook at all.

If getting that perfect A is what you’re aiming for, it’s safer to play by the rules and buy your the required edition. However, if you just need to pass, are taking the class for fun, or are really that stripped for cash, consider the alternatives. And keep in mind that none of these alternatives come without some risk involved.

The Risky Route to Obtaining Your Textbooks

Before you invest time or money in any alternative to buying straight from the school bookstore, you need to know:

  • The ISBN of the required book
  • If the book comes with any CDs or DVDs — and if you’ll need them for class
  • If the book comes with any online access codes — and if you’ll need them for class (and if you may be able to purchase them separately from the text)
  • Roughly how much you need the text and/or supplementary materials to succeed in the class — so check up on your instructor early on, find out how they run the class, and talk to past students about how important the textbook was in their experience

Once you’re familiar with each of these, you can weigh the costs and benefits of each of the alternatives listed below. Determine what route to take given your own academic goals and what it takes to reach them.

Get the International Edition

What students in the U.S. don’t realize is that other countries manufacture textbooks much cheaper than the U.S. This means is that you can buy essentially the same book for less.

The international version will be different in that it:

  • Will likely be softcover
  • May be printed in black and white in instead of color
  • May have different cover art
  • May have the title page in another language
  • Will have a different ISBN

For some texts, you can find the international version with the same content as the U.S. version — those are the books you can use with no risk. But you won’t know that the content is the same until you can compare it with the officially required version (at your school bookstore). So be sure the return policy covers you in case you find that the content doesn’t match up as you need it to. And if the product description doesn’t ensure the exact same content, don’t hesitate to ask the seller about it directly.

Risks involved with getting the international edition:

  • You may end up with slightly different content, and have to return it. Which means shelling out more cash to get the official version.
  • It may be harder to sell after the course, if buyers aren’t aware that they can use an international copy with no problems. So make sure to advertise this in any listings.

Get an Older Edition

Photo by Wyoming_Jackrabbit

Sometimes you don’t need the exact edition for a particular class, because:

  • You’re taking a course on a topic you’re already familiar with, and just need to the book to refresh on topics
  • The course is particularly easy and/or the instructor will provide most of the materials through supplements such as lecture slides and handouts
  • The course doesn’t rely so much on the actual text, but refers to it in a more conceptual way
  • In these cases, it’s a good idea to search for older, as in earlier editions, of the text. So if your class requires the 7th edition, you may be fine with the 6th or even the 5th edition. With each older edition, prices drop significantly.

    Risks involved with getting an older version:

    • Review questions, activities, or other sections required for assignments can be slightly different or shuffled around. So you might need to reference the current edition from a classmate or compare the tables of contents online in order to locate certain sections.
    • You might find out you do need the current edition halfway through the class. So be sure to ask your instructor what specific coursework requires the text (or refer to the syllabus) to be prepared.

    Don’t Actually Buy the Book

    Photo by abrinsky

    Another option is to avoid buying the book altogether. You can do so by:

    • Using a textbook exchange service at your school — swapping one of your old books with another student for the one you need
    • Borrowing from a friend, or even sharing a copy with another classmate (you might end up buying half of the book)
    • Photocopying or scanning only the sections you’ll actually need for the class — based on the syllabus and/or what you instructor says you’ll need
    • Using a school, city, or county library copy, even if it’s a reference book and you have to visit the library to do your reading
    • Completing your reading and book assignments in a couple of sittings at your local bookstore, which actually puts you ahead of schedule

    Risks involved when avoiding the purchase:

    • Depending on the situation, you may not have as much time with the text to absorb the material at your own pace, which could compromise grades. So plan wisely and stay updated on the class schedule.

    Have a Backup Plan in Place

    Anytime you choose one of these risky ways to obtain your school textbook, have a backup plan in place. Be ready to buy the officially required version in a tight spot, if the course changes midway, or something else renders your method impractical or insufficient for meeting your academic goals. This is the ultimate risk of obtaining your text in nontraditional ways: you risk having to buy from the school bookstore — and on top of your first purchase if that’s the case.

    It’s up to you what risks you take, as well as how much money you save.

    Melissa Karnaze is an experimental psychology masters student. She's interested in how we can use technology with greater mindfulness, writes about emotional productivity at Mindful Construct, and loves how the web is changing the world.

    • Published 08/26/10

    Comments (7)

    1. KayDat

      Has been mentioned on Lifehacker, but if you decide to buy a version not native to your area, you may end up with unit/measurements you are not familiar with; Celcius/Centigrade versus Fahrenheit, Metric versus Imperial, etc.

    2. Art

      When I was in college 10 years ago I wouldn’t buy any books until at least two weeks into the class. That gives you time to determine which (if any) of the “required” books are really required. I usually ended up buying less than half of them.

    3. Melissa Karnaze

      @Art, that’s some big risk-taking! It just goes to show that students can benefit from using their discernment instead of following every “instruction” to the tee. And it’s good to learn that in school, because things only get more expensive later on. :)

    4. Ryan

      One of the risky ways I got through college was scouring the web and torrent sites for the PDF files of my textbooks… this works well for textbooks that are widely used across a common subject like general math or physics.

      Amazon and half/ebay dont technically allow this, but people do it anyway – buy the pdf for a fraction of the price. This is especially useful for a technical class like math or physics where there are problems to solve and there are often pdf solutions manuals that will illustrate how the problems are solved in addition to just the answers, which in my opinion was infinitely more helpful than trying to see a TA or most professors. at my college most TA’s spoke little english and the professors had 1 office hour per week…

    5. Mike

      The Library of Congress is putting a lot of their books online.

      There are sites in China that put up manuals etc. online, a quick print at your local print source can make them yours.

      Contacting the publisher for a review copy.

      Contacting the author/s for a signed copy.

      Decommissioned copies can also be found in out of the way places i.e. water stained, missing covers etc.

      Publishers have over stocks and misprints they are willing to cut loose of for little money. This one is particularly appropriate for the Lit. majors who have to read through stacks of books that are commonly printed for the general public.

      One of the greatest sources is your friendly custodian. They liberate all sorts of stuff from the trash, including books.

      Lost and found departments often sell unclaimed copies of books.

      Library sales. The Phoenix library often does massive sales of their old books and so do other large city libraries. Often a book on mathematics will not really change through several printings.

      Second hand book stores are always worth a quick check and some of these stores have massive inventories. If they have 10 or 20 copies they usually sell them for much less.

      I also knew a guy who would watch for drop outs and pick up the leaving student’s “inventory” for pennies on the dollar. Then he would sell them again to new students. Look for these guys, there is always someone playing an angle like this on campus.

      Finding text books is really a matter of keeping our eyes open and just asking. Many people just don’t care and will give their old books to you as an easy route to dealing with them.

    6. Jurgen Malstrom

      There are trillions of dollars floating on the market yet poor students have to splash hundreds of borrowed pounds for books. Fresh graduate’s competition is fierce, and one of the ways to gain an advantage is to simply have more money. And easiest way to achieve this is to firstly save more money. Never buy any books you can download for free from sources like Just search ” rapidshare”. Then You’ll be amazed by the results…

      For example, all the Focal Press books are available to download for free from Rapidshare sources. When something is not available, you can always scan borrowed copy. If it is legal to borrow a copy from library, it is legal to download a pirated copy and delete it after reading. Same thing!

    7. Charles Cohn

      How about checking whether Amazon has the book cheaper than the campus bookstore?

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