Reducing Textbook Sticker-shock

One of the rudest awakenings a college or university student can have at the beginning of each term is seeing the bill for their required texts. There are a few things you can do to minimize the sticker shock each semester, but all of them require a little work and planning to have your books in hand by the time you arrive for the first day of class.

Plan ahead: cover yourself. Politely request that your professor put a copy of the required text(s) on reserve at the campus library. Typically, reserved materials may be checked out for use in the library only-not taken home. Don’t rely on it being always available, though. You’ll have classmates who may be counting on it as a stop-gap measure, too. The other thing you should ask your professor is that they make a list of required course texts available to students. Many, if not most, faculty members keep some sort of web page for their teaching and scholarship on their respective college or university’s web site. Be sure to check it. If you’re unable to find a list on the web page, add that request to your email as well.

Should you still be unable to get a comprehensive list of required texts, it’s time for some footwork. Most campus bookstores start receiving and organizing texts for the upcoming term several weeks ahead of time. Pay a visit to the bookstore with a pen and notepad. Typically, texts are arranged by department name, course number, and instructor’s name. Find the right combinations for you, and start making notes,

Writing down the title, author, publisher, and edition number for each of your texts can be a hassle, but it will pay off in money saved. The most important piece of data you can write down is each text’s International Standard Book Number (ISBN). Each edition of each title published has a distinct ISBN, a 10-digit number (the tenth character is sometimes the letter “X”), so you can be assured that if you record each of the ISBN’s correctly, you’ll get the right books. Make sure to note the prices for the books as well. Typically, some texts will be sold new, and some will have been used by previous students. If you’re willing to buy used books, and are satisfied with the prices you see at your campus book store, it’s best to grab the copies you want (check the pages for marks and the like) now, because the best copies go quickly. If you’d rather try to save more money, take your list with you when you leave.

If your classes use a lot of literature or general interest books, poke around in your local used bookstores for inexpensive volumes. Here’s where it’s essential to have the authors and titles of the books-you don’t want to try to scan the stacks for the proper ISBNs. If your texts for the term are more specialized, or if your classes are general survey courses, you may have to look elsewhere. Many used bookstores shy away from traditional texts. It may take some shopping around, but many of your books can be found for a fraction of the campus bookstore price. Do make sure to check you have the proper author or editor and edition number. You could find yourself in a very uncomfortable position if the page numbers of your text don’t match those in your professor’s.

Once you’ve exhausted the brick-and-mortar options, it’s time to consider turning to the World Wide Web’s numerous resources. Here’s where the list of ISBNs you wrote down will come in handy. Four websites you can use to comparison shop are Half (, Amazon (, Daedalus Books ( and Powell’s Books ( Searching for the right book at any of these sites is as simple as typing the ISBN into the search field. Compile a list, and compare the sites’ prices on the books you need. Be sure to account for both the cost of shipping and the time it will take for your books to arrive. Once you have some solid numbers to work with, you can place your orders and take pleasure in the money you’ve saved.

The last idea for getting your textbooks cheaply is to look for advertisements around campus. Often, students want to get rid of their old textbooks, but aren’t satisfied with the bookstore’s buyback price. Typically, if two students arrange a sale of used books, both students benefit-the buyer pays less than the bookstore charges, and the seller receives more than the bookstore would pay. Watch for flyers posted around campus or advertisements in the student newspaper. If you’re having trouble finding books you need, there’s nothing wrong with putting together your own “Books Wanted” sign and hanging it up, too.

Ultimately, you need to ask yourself whether the time and effort it takes to buy your books more cheaply is justified by the actual savings. If you’re like most students, it probably is: that extra cash can go toward a late night pizza, a tank of gas, or a book you might actually want to read.

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