The Lit Maven

Textbook Dilemna: Is There a Cheaper Alternative?

Posted on: December 1, 2010

Everybody loves a pristine textbook – the fresh, straight-off-the-printing-press smell, the pages that are so sharp you are in danger of slicing into a finger while studying for that early morning exam, the pictures devoid of etchings donated by students long ago (you know, the moustaches, airplanes flying over a civil war battlefield). But, at what cost? Textbooks are among the highest priced titles in the publishing industry. In an article, “Most.Expensive.Textbook.Ever” by Jackie Burrell, college students have reported science textbooks that sell for $190, $225 and even (gulp!) $3000. In 2008, College Trends reported that U.S. students pay $3.5 billion for their textbooks. An average student could shell out $1000 or more per school year. The NY Times editorial, “That Book Costs How Much?” highlights the new (and, as yet, not very popular) trend of some colleges to have students pay a nominal fee to access their textbooks online. With the increasing popularity of digital book readers (Kindle, Nook, etc.), more and more textbooks are available in e-form. But, beware: just because the popular fiction titles are cheaper in digital form, doesn’t mean that a textbook will be. The title, Textbook of Clinical Trials by David Machin (2007), is available in e-book form for $421. The same title is $216 in Kindle format, BUT it is the 2004 edition. You have to be very careful when purchasing to get the right edition. Consider buying a used textbook. Book distributors, like Amazon, have a dedicated section for buying. You can search by ISBN, title or author and receive discounts off used books. There is a drawback to this method, however. My daughter is taking a summer class at a local community college to fulfill a liberal arts requirement. Four days before the class she mentioned that she didn’t know which textbook she needed and was “starting to panic, Mom!!” Her father checked the college’s website and – would you believe?? – the course number was listed on the website, along with a description and a list of required and recommended textbooks. Although I found the book for $1.99 on Amazon, I didn’t want to pay $17.99 for expedited shipping (did I mention it was July 4th weekend, too?), so we ordered the book through the college’s bookstore. We had the option of purchasing used or new. We chose used. Within three hours, I received an email from the bookstore saying that the used edition was ready to be picked up. Easy, easy! Yes, this should have been done a week or two before, but, as much as we all want our children to be responsible and independent, they are still first and foremost procrastinators. What happens when the semester ends? Most colleges allow students to sell back their textbooks for a percentage off what they paid – like automobile depreciation. The student dispenses with the book for cold, hard cash. This is handy in that your child doesn’t have to lug his books home along with the stereo, television and mounds of clothes at the end of the school year. Or, you can sell it through a distributor. My favorite is Alibris, but Amazon features a Textbook Buyback option as does Barnes & Noble. Be aware, though, of yet another problem with textbooks: they are updated so quickly (especially in the sciences) that the $190 biochemistry text that you bought in August may be replaced by another edition. Your book is now worth a mere fraction of what you paid for it. Some editorialists believe that these upgrades are not done to improve the quality of the text, but to keep prices up and revenue streaming into the publishing houses. How can you help your college-age student? Do your homework. Search out deals for buying and selling and the school year will be a bit cheaper for you.

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