Saturday, April 23, 2011

Textbooks 101

I'm going to confess a slight secret here: I kind of don't mind shopping for textbooks.

Back in the day, when I was a young naive undergraduate, only knee-high to a grasshopper, I learned a cold hard truth: the cost of school will hurt, but the cost of textbooks will downright rip your heart out.

Now buying any book before you read it poses a risk, but textbooks are different. Regular books take you out for a nice dinner and occasionally offer to pick up the tab; textbooks take you to Taco Bell, order everything on the menu, make you pay and then puke in your Honda.

Ah but two bachelor degrees later and I have returned all the wiser. I'm now the ex-girlfriend who took off her glasses, let her hair down, and suddenly became hot. Now that I know how to work the system I have the pick of any textbook I want, and oh how I relish the power.

Actually, here: I'll make a list

Textbook Tips:

1.) Never buy books from the bookstore.
The price markups are ridiculous, and they buy them back at the end of the semester at a fraction of the retail price, if they even buy them back at all. Save yourself the grief and buy them online or from your inner circle of financially struggling classmates. There are two advantages to this: 1.) You get your books at an incredibly cheaper rate, and 2.) You may even be able to sell them back to someone else at the end of the semester for a similar rate, resulting in a more reasonable net loss (or even gain).

There are even places you can rent textbooks, but I wouldn't suggest it. It rely's on the fact that you have to return the books through the mail, in equal condition as when they were purchased. Semesters are packed with hectic, stressful days, and (parents avert your eyes) maybe even a kegger or two. Just being realistic.

Try some online sites like:

2.) Research the subject matter and newest editions.
Example: your professor says you need the newest edition of American History 101. No, you don't. It's history. It doesn't change. Unless the entire class will be based on the last chapter, it's not worth it. The same goes for Chemistry, Anatomy, Biology, things of that sort. The upper leg bone was called the Femur last year, it's called the Femur this year, and going out on a limb here, it's still going to be called the Femur next year.

Besides, many new editions are exactly the same as old editions, they've just switched the chapters around (it's true!). Buy the edition 1 or 2 years older. For many of my classes the newest edition of a textbook costs an average of $150.00. The used last year's edition? Under $10.00. And sometimes even less.

3.) Determine what is required and what is recommended.
You know what kind of learner you are. If you are someone who needs all the study material you can handle, then by all means, go for it. But materials like workbooks or studyguides are rarely actually used for the class. Ask students who have taken the class before you. How much did they use their workbook? Do they still have their workbook? If they do, would they be willing to part with it (you know where I'm going here)?

Also, many textbooks have FREE partner sites that come with them. You may have to do some digging in the front cover, but you can often find instructions (go the the publisher's site for a good start). These come with the majority of science and math books, and they're fantastic. No need to buy a workbook here, unless homework will be assigned directly from its pages. Use the sites, it's what they're there for.

4.) Wait to buy.
Yes this one is a bit tricky, but hear me out. For many of my classes, I actually ended up only using some of the textbooks I bought. Professors will often ask you to read the chapter to prepare for class, but the test will only cover the class notes. For most classes the strategy is show up, pay attention, take good notes. Reading the chapter can actually confuse you more, bombarding you with extra information you won't be tested on.

Wait untill after the first day or week of class. If it turns out you absolutely need the textbook on the first day of class, talk to the professor. They usually have extras they are willing to loan out as yours is "in the mail". Or better yet ask a classmate if you can meet to study. Besides, it'll do you good to find a study group in a class that assigns homework on the first day.

Exception: Online classes. In this case it might be smarter to have your books ahead of time. If you live in a different state it may be difficult to borrow someone elses until yours are within reach.

*Use your discretion though. Showing up to Physics or Organic Chemistry sans textbook is never a good idea. Save this tip for Intro to Folklore or something where you won't have to look up an actual diagram or formula.
5.) Sell, sell, sell!
Make some money when you're done! If it's a book you're never going to use again (which may not always be the case for graduate students, especially) sell it! Go the the same sites where you bought the book from, they will usually buy the book back. I have the most luck on myself, where I can set the price of what I'm selling. Beware though, people expect the book to be shipped in a reasonable amount of time, just like you would. So be honest about the condition (missing pages 40-46? back cover chewed off by your pet ferret?), and ship ASAP.

Other options, like E-books (Electronic Textbooks) may be useful. The site lists electronic textbooks to many classes. You just have to subscribe (usually free) for a certain amount of time; usually the length of a semester.

Downloading books to your Kindle, Nook, Ipod, etc. may also be an option. The point is, do your research.

So why do I kind of like buying textbooks? Mostly the thrill of the hunt, but when it's combined with the fact that when I find a textbook for $10.00 that's worth $150.00? I can sell it for profit at the end of the semester. And nothing is quite like the icing on the cake of an extra $140.00 in your pocket on the last day of finals.


  1. I know the feeling of breaking the bank and having a heart attack over text book prices and I must say...helpful tips.

    I found your page through Sarah at Ah! The Possibilities, and I'll be back. :)

  2. I LOVE your blog, three posts and I'm hooked!! I'm in my second semester of college and I learned my lesson the first semester when I spend $500 on books I didn't use.

  3. I'm thinking you'll get lots of Aussies reading your blog because of Sarah!

    I live in a rural area in Western Australia and a friend has set up a facebook page just for our little area to buy and barter. Assuming you're on facebook, you (or someone else) could start a page for buying, selling, swapping books and everything else you need...just a thought.

    Great blog.

  4. Doodah: What a great idea! Why haven't we thought of that up here?! As soon as I set it up I'll post the link.


  5. completely agree with shopping around for what you need. I found a book on amazon that was supposed to be around £50 new and i bought it for less than £10!

    as well as the library, what about hanging around bookshops if your really strapped for cash. if you can speed read a chapter then pop into the bookshop, find the book and job done! if feels a bit sneaky and sometimes if people catch you just reading they get a bit narked but it's worth it if you only need to read a specific bit!

  6. Hello you! To link to you I wrote about a post I hadn't been able to get out of my head. I highlighted the word "post" and then pressed "link" at the top of the blog post. It's a blue button. Then a box came up and I cut and pasted the hyperlink to the post you'd written (that's at the top of your page) into the box and clicked ok. I hoped you wouldn't mind. I think you're writing on a topic lots of us are interested in and you do it really well. x

  7. Thank you Sarah, I couldn't figure out how you did that! I absolutely don't mind it's very flattering!

    Fi x: You are absolutely right! There's no rule against reading in the bookstore, and as annoyed as people may get you are still getting done what you need to. My freshman and sophomore year I was notorious for camping out with a list of chapters in hand. Great tip!

  8. Color me impressed. I didn't even go to graduate school until I could do it online (Boston University! Online!) and my employer was paying for half of it.

    I agree with your points, and particularly endorse the thoughts about the online courses.

    The longer you wait to buy, the fewer your options. This can be death for online students as the schedule is very tight and they have to worry about shipping. I remember my section getting together to help one student whose materials hadn't arrived. We were literally scanning chapters of books so that he could do the reading before the first quiz.

    It is relying on the kindness of strangers.

    Another point on E-books: several of the proctored final exams in my program were open book. But since nothing electronic was allowed in the room for the proctored exam, the e-book students ended up - literally - printing the entire contents of the e-book.

    P.S. My blog started as an assignment for a course on e-commerce!

  9. I went to small liberal arts college where classes were usually obscure enough to never require actual textbooks. All the books I need I checked out from the campus library or requested through Interlibrary Loan. When due dates were approaching, I would either attempt to renew them or I would scan them (every page!) at the library, create a PDF file, and print 'em out (free printing, too!) I think I bought maybe a total of 5 books in 4 years as a undergrad. It's possible if you're diligent; I was extremely dedicated to never buying when I didn't have to.

    Great post!

  10. I hear you. My daughter has done doth amazon and and waited until the last minute to take advantage of all her options. Textbook prices are obscense and really add to the cost of college. Great post! (Luv all the photos in your posts - did you do any or are they stock ? )

  11. I wish I had this information when I was in college 20 years ago:) Thanks for linking up to the NOBH

  12. Oh AMEN! I just snagged my books on Amazon rather than the x3 markup of the school's e-store. I am starting on line classes on the 6th and believe it or not I am VERY excited!!

    I really should try to look into ebooks, but I am already spending sooooo much time on line, that I NEED the paper and pen highlighting and notetaking. That's just the way I roll. :)


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