Now that the title caught your attention: the truth is, you won’t get all of your textbooks for free, but you can probably get a few without paying for them. There’s a difference – you’ll see.

I’ve been trudging through the textbook debacle for several semesters, and like the student-cheapskate I am, I have some very creative solutions. I’ll also share a few more money-saving secrets for when there’s no choice but to drop the dollars. In other words, I’m not going to refer you to a bunch of websites that sell cheap textbooks and call it a post. This monster-sized article will turn you into a true textbook skinflint.

The Ultimate Free Textbook Reserve

Every school has a vast resource that furnishes students with free books. I’ve gone through whole semesters without paying for a single book, relying solely on this stockpile, but it’ll depend on your school’s program. Okay, here it is (you’re going to hate me): the library. Honestly, if you learn how to use the library – which you should anyway – then you’ll get through many classes without spending a cent.



The Weakest “Link”

Almost every library these days has some sort of book sharing network. They’re normally identified by some clever a portmanteau using “search” or “link” (i.e., “Link ” or “SearchOhio”). Ask about your school’s program. These services utilize other local libraries to expand your reach to just about any book you can dig up at Borders, or even – your school’s bookstore.


You should never buy another novel as long as you’re in college. They’re all available in your library’s network. Soren Kierkegaard? Choose from eight different translations. But not just novels or philosophical transcripts – many, many textbooks are also available. Libraries frequently get textbook donations, and they’re not going to burn them just so the bookstore can rip-off more students.

But how do you keep it for the whole semester? A teacher tipped me off on this one freshman year: rotate different copies of the same book. When the copy you have is coming up for its last renewal, order another one through the same book network (or, a different one, depending on your school’s policies). As long as two or more libraries have a copy of the same book, you can continue rotating between the two until the semester’s through.


Selecting from the Selection of Selections

Next time you see A Communist Anthology of Native American Poetry or The Children’s Compendium of Short Stories About Pregnancy on your required texts for a class, don’t buy them. Selections, collections and compilations are filled with articles and narratives that are being re-published. Be fastidious: (expensive) books like Freakonomics and The World is Flat are mostly made up of previously published material also. You can find such material online: your school probably has a subscription to EBESCOhost, ProQuest, LEXIS-NEXIS and plenty of other databases (including ones that cover obscure texts like literary criticism and screenplays) – but you can even try a google search or a login with the original publisher’s website.


Or, you can try less-expansive compilations and go through the semester in a piecemeal fashion. For instance, if your Short Fiction class has a two-week stretch on Edgar Allen Poe, check out one of the 257 Poe digests in your library and it’ll probably hit all of the sick stories your class requires. Use a copy machine if you need to make notes on the pages or if you’ll need to reference the story again for a paper/final.

If all else fails, hit up the research/reference desk where your school probably employs a lackey whose sole responsibility is to find material for you.



Your new book strategy might end up costing money if you’re not careful. Inter-collegiate book sharing networks usually charge hefty fines for overdue books. Luckily, you can renew most of them online (or convince the student-worker to back-log them for you). Loosing a borrowed book can also cost you a fortune. Also, be aware that many schools’ library rules can get difficult. For instance, at my local library, I can’t check out a book through another network if there’s a copy some where in the county library network – even if they’re all checked out with a line-up of 90 holds. That’s not the case at my college.


Look out for old editions of the same book. Publishers make miniscule changes in a book so that they can release a new edition and make more money. Your library probably doesn’t have the most recent edition of your Conjuring 101 textbook. That’s okay, though. I’ve gotten through 8th edition classes with a 2nd edition text before (with an A). The changes are often subtle: page numbers are shifted by a longer introduction, chapters are switched around for a more fluid curriculum, etc. The best way to wade through an old edition is by looking through the table of contents and finding the old version of the new topic. In fact, some teachers will furnish you with an older syllabus that corresponds with your book – they hate the new editions just as much as you do because it means revamping their class’s program.


Textbook Gambling

Textbook gambling is the real deal. It takes balls, but it rarely fails. The bottom line: you will vastly reduce your all-around textbook-spending if you only buy what you need. You don’t need all the textbooks listed on your school’s computer system – or even all the books in the syllabus.


I’ve never bought my books until at least two weeks into a class, for two reasons: I’m never sure which class I might drop and I’m never sure which books the teacher might drop. When it gets to crunch time towards a semester’s end, sometimes teachers dump the last novel (or, the last few). Often, the school requires a certain book for College English, but your particular teacher doesn’t use it at all. In other classes, the lectures cover all of the reading material and the textbook is just redundant. There are only a few ways to know for sure: ask the professor, ask a friend who took the class or just wait it out.

Textbook gambling can be nerve-wracking: at any time, the teacher might deploy a surprise reading assignment, assuming that everyone already owns the book. It’ll take a website at least a few days to ship your book. What to do? Instructors are often generous enough to make copies of the first few assignments. (I even had a professor who let me borrow his extra teacher-edition.) Try the library (above) or one of the several penny-pinching techniques below to get you through until your delivery arrives.


Other Tools of the Textbook Penny-Pincher



The Net

Indeed, many people scorn the publishers’ needless manipulation of the textbook market. Helping the cause are a few organizations that provide textbooks in their entirety online, completely free of charge. Though they only stock less than a few hundred books apiece, it’s worth it to browse their catalog just in case. The two parties on the block are Freeload Press and Textbook Revolution




The Bookstore

Don’t ever buy a book from the book store. The way I see it, no class assignment is worth getting that ripped-off. But you can still exploit these awful conglomerates while you’re waiting for a book to ship. Sometimes, it’s easy enough to read a small assignment right there in the store. Some stores might be plush enough to get through the whole semester in that fashion. Early in the semester, bookstores have a longer return policy. Buy a book for as long as they’ll let you, then return it when you obtain your permanent copy.


Most bookstores have wised up to our cleverness. Some books come shrink-wrapped like a Playboy magazine. I’ve even been threatened by bookstore kingpins: “We don’t accept returns if there are any signs of having been read.” So most of the time, dealing with such evils are a last resort.

You can spend a lot of time trying to find the cheapest used book online. I advise that you keep it to a minimum. In the end, there’s no real way of knowing exactly what condition the book will be in, so a five to 10 dollar difference in price is negligible when you consider how much it’ll re-sell for. When I do have to buy a book, my one-stop-shop is It’s a big market that drives prices way down and it works directly with your eBay feedback, creating a little synergy. Most of the sellers are students just like you, and sometimes, it’s a kid right down the hall.




Perhaps a friend who’s already taken the class will sell you the book directly. Sharing a book with someone else in the class is a huge saver. In fact, sometimes, “Can I borrow your textbook?” can double as a sexual overture.