College Textbooks: Shop Around, Ask Your Professors, And Save

It’s that magical time of year, when the bright, shining faces of college freshmen fall as they take their first look at modern textbook prices. Reader S., a manager at a college bookstore, read our post yesterday about custom college bookstore “packets” used to prevent students from purchasing their textbooks used. He sent us some tips about how to spot and avoid special profit-seeking textbook bundles, and how to actually save some money by…purchasing from the college bookstore?

I manage the textbook department of a locally-owned college bookstore, and there are a few things I noticed concerning a textbook article that I wanted to address. I’m writing this because I figure it is good information for people to think of before they buy books or start bashing bookstores (which I’m glad this article did not do).

First, a school textbook store is about the only store that is told what to stock by an outside party with no stock in the store’s success (professors). Professors are the ones who tell us what to stock for their courses, and those professors are “courted”, if you will, by textbook company reps. These reps are sleazy. The low level psychology class here at the university uses a textbook that comes with an online access code – for years students have said they don’t use the code, so we ordered used copies of the book. The textbook representative found out, and told us that he is going to do a demonstration to all of the psychology students the first week of classes (all 800 – mostly impressionable freshmen) to show them why they NEED to have that access code. A difference of about $50 for the student. Textbook reps make it worth the professors’ while.

Seriously, as sleazy as textbook representatives are – professors are to blame. Professors – or departments – are the final say, no matter how hard the text reps try to get their book used. Professors and departments make that choice to use the dumb bundles, packages, new editions, CDs, online codes, etc. If you have a problem switching to a new edition – ask the professor if you can use the old edition of the book. Often times the professor knows the difference (hopefully they do if they are changing editions!) and will be fine with it.

Second, watch for custom editions – many “custom” editions we have are the exact same textbook you find on Amazon, with a special ISBN to our store from the textbook company that is shrink-wrapped with a single piece of paper that says “CUSTOM FOR [University Name].” Literally, a single piece of paper can make a book “custom”. Also, custom editions can have different covers than the normal editions, but be the same book, albeit with a chapter missing. Professors decide to use custom books because publishers will let them choose what chapters from a book they want, and take those chapters out and bundled the book together with a generic or special cover. 99% of the time the chapters is a custom edition that has been put together in this manner are the exact same chapters as in the regular textbook you can find on Amazon. It might take some investigating, but it can be worth it.

Third, many custom books are “loose leaf” or “binder ready”. Many, many times these are not any different than the normal bound book you can buy used somewhere. Professors choose these books because they are either coaxed by “gifts” from textbook reps, or because they are dumb enough to think that the reps line of “this is much easier for the student to carry around, they can take only what they need!” is true. These custom loose leaf books will not be bought back by the bookstore at the end of the semester. Talk to the professor, and ask them if you can just use the normal bound book you can buy elsewhere.

Also, don’t open bundles. I know this might be the only way to find out what is in them, but 99% of bookstores will not accept refunds for bundles. Textbook companies put in CDs, small supplements, and the worst, online access codes, into bundles which is opened or used cannot be sold or used again. Most textbook companies only accept 5%-20% returns from the store of custom books or bundles…book stores want to get rid of them and are not easily swayed on accepting them as a return. Just wait until you go to class to see if someone else has the bundle, or maybe the professor will have the books with them or more information on the syllabus.

One quick thing about selling back your books. If a book is adopted and a bookstore needs to meet their quota – most of the time you’ll get 50% of what you spent – not a bad deal. BUT many times the reasons you get really bad prices is because the bookstores buy for wholesale companies (we get commission on what we sell them, not much, but we do). When professors request a book it is worth more. Often times you should be mad at the professor for not requesting their books on time rather than mad at the bookstore. If the store has no reason to buy your book, we’ll buy for wholesalers, who buy very very low. The bookstore is a business that needs to make profit, and if we don’t need your book (remember, professors tell us what to stock) you won’t get much for it.

And finally – please don’t be mad at bookstores. Publishers set the prices, and we mark them up so we can make a profit to pay employees, heat/cool the building, keep the lights on, feed our families, or pay tuition. Yes, Amazon offers new textbooks cheaper (they get a discount because they are so huge) and sellers on Amazon/Half.com sell cheap to get rid of their books. You can find great deals online, but don’t always skip the bookstore. Often times – especially with very new books – the college bookstores will have cheaper prices, mainly because publishers are trying to sell as many of the books as possible and are able to give us the books for a better deal than normal.

Overall, S.’s advice is similar to advice on how to be a good consumer in nearly every other realm: do your research, ask the experts (your professors), and shop around. The college library even may have an older edition of your book available to borrow, or available on reserve to read in the library in delicious three-hour chunks. Just ask at the reference desk.

Remember, your professor has spent nearly a decade (or more!) in college and will probably be sympathetic to your frugal plight.

RELATED:
Textbooks Publishers Using “Packets” To Fight Used Book Market
Students Can Use Internet To Rent Textbooks Rather Than Buy Them
Cheap Textbooks And Other Discounts For College Students
Harvard Bookstore: “We Own ISBN Numbers”
Busting the College Textbook Monopoly
Man To Run NYC Marathon Carrying Textbooks To Protest High Cost Of College Texts
Save On Textbooks By Borrowing Them From The School Library…
Getting Jacked When Selling Textbooks Back

(Photo: tillwe)