I’m not sure which supervillain is poised to star in the next blockbuster superhero movie, but if I had my druthers, I’d say any college’s campus bookstore director or textbook publisher would fit the bill: They prey on the innocent, their avarice is second only to Lex Luthor’s, and oh — I think they eat puppies for breakfast.

Textbook preorder season, where scholarship dollars semiannually go to die, is in full swing with the dog days of August upon us, so don’t fall victim to your unscrupulous, unfriendly neighborhood bookstore. Instead, consult our list of alternatives to stretch your dollar as far as humanly possible.


What’s the point in buying something, be it used or new, if you’re only going to end up returning it at your bookstore’s buyback event a few months later? Unless the required text is interesting because it’s from a course you’re genuinely passionate about or you can see yourself referring to it for years to come, “renting” should be the first word that comes to mind when you hear “textbook”.

Although brick-and-mortar bookstores are now increasingly offering this affordable alternative, that still doesn’t mean you won’t get screwed over. Oftentimes, the best prices come from the companies that are solely dedicated to the rental industry, like BookRenterChegg, Knetbooks, and eCampus.

To definitively know that you’re walking away with the lowest price and to save you time from manually searching every rental service on the planet, copy and paste the textbook’s ISBN number into an aggregate search tool like TextBookRentals. From there, it will scan competitors’ availability and subtotal plus shipping costs before returning to you the best deals on the market on a slick, easy-to-read list. One thing to keep in mind, though, is that rental companies’ prices fluctuate in accordance with consumer demand, so prices are subject to change — and they often do multiple times a day.

Consider TextBookRentals the New York Stock Exchange of the book market and play book broker with your friends, challenging them to see who can walk away with the lowest price in class. That’s right, you just gamified the textbook buying, err…renting experience like a badass.


Chances are your school has a textbook exchange Facebook group where you can buy, sell, and trade books with fellow students. If yours doesn’t, then create one. Your classmates will thank you, your wallet will thank you, and your bookstore will hate you. If your college does have an exchange, but one that claims only a meager twenty student users (like mine), spread the word through friends and campus bulletins.

Exchanges come in handy when your booklist includes a special-order book — you know, the one your professor penned and sold his soul to the devil with by licensing exclusively to your campus bookstore. Otherwise retailing for a pretty penny, circulating a single copy amongst peers in-house keeps the student body self-sufficient and hopefully the bookstore more competitive with its prices.

Plus, if you’re an international student, you can resell books you bought abroad to turn a profit in the States. The Supreme Court said so.

Buy Used, Buy Old

In last year’s HackCollege advice on the topic of practicing thrift in the textbook department of your finances, it was suggested that older issues of required English course literature — like classics and other novels — work just as well as their brand-spanking-new counterparts. So much so that they’re worth rooting out at a local used bookstore to save a pretty penny.

What you may not know, however, is that this same principle often applies just the same to standard textbooks in your other courses. Ask the instructor if older editions will get the job done. Chances are they can, but publishers would like you to think the “new and improved” edition effectively renders all previous editions outmoded and antiquated. In actuality, a revised preface, updated book cover, and online access code you most likely won’t end up using anyway are hardly reason enough to shell out the big bucks.

Go Paperless

No, I don’t mean skipping out on reading altogether. You may not have to go to class, but reading is usually a must in college life.

There may come a day when digital textbooks outnumber their printed counterparts, at which time the publishing industry giants are sure to migrate their stranglehold on pricing to the paperless format. But until Dunder Mifflin and other non-fictional paper companies become relics of a bygone era, eTextbooks will consistently retail for cheaper, considerably so in some cases. Forbes reports that they can undersell paper-and-ink editions by up to 60%.

Pricing aside, digital versions often boast a bevy of neat features that breathe new life into otherwise dull course reading, such as interactive exercises, immersive animations, and video tutorials. Plus, judging from firsthand experience, I tend to keep up on course readings more diligently in classes where I use an eTextbook than I do in classes where I lug around the unwieldy inconvenience of the traditional tome.

Not only are digital versions more readily accessible since you can open them on your device of choice at any given time, but they’re also far less intimidating to read, as you can be focused on only one page at a time, rather than be overwhelmed by the intimidating thousand-plus unread pages yet to be slogged through.


Should you share a class with a dependable buddy or forge a friendship with a trustworthy classmate, consider pooling your funds to buy the textbook. Before you go this route, though, gauge your capacity for organization, since you’ll need to be coordinated to pull off the scheduling of timeslots you and your comrade will be allotted for checking out the title.

Although this option may not be as ideal as the aforementioned suggestions, it enables you and your cohort to divvy up required readings. Devising a tag-team approach requires a lot of mutual trust between sharers, but it can pay off in the long run since you’ll only be doing 50% of the legwork, while still extracting 100% of the knowledge.

However, if the course in mind places a lot of weight on written assignments, collaboration may not be the way to go, since you could easily end up inadvertently plagiarizing by citing your partner’s notes in a paper. Bottom line: Be wary of making your first foray into academic dishonesty if you choose to join forces with a sidekick.


Image: Marquette LaForest