Physical vs. digital: a textbook debate

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They’re big and bulky, heavy and awkward, and overly priced, but textbooks are essential for most college courses.


Why do students spend hundreds of dollars a semester buying books, though? There has to be some alternative to carrying around several books in a backpack day after day.



At the Missouri State bookstore, a textbook for MTH 135, a general college algebra class, is priced at $101.50 for a used copy.


When buying traditional textbooks — either online or at a bookstore — the price is going to be high.

Not only are you paying for the book itself, but according to figures from the National Association of College Stores, textbook prices also include payments for the bookstore, shipping and handling, the publisher or publishing company, marketing for the textbook, the author, paper and printing, and then the publisher’s employees.

“I spent over $700 last semester buying my books through the bookstore,” said Alexandra Reed, a senior psychology student at Missouri State.

So when students purchase textbooks from bookstores, they need to realize that they aren’t just buying a book; they are paying these high prices to pay for every aspect that went into creating that book, which can be problematic for some college students.

“Even with used books, the pricing is crazy. It makes paying for college on my own that much more difficult,” said Reed.

A newer alternative to traditional textbooks is the use of digital textbooks or e-books. Students can easily download and access these books using tablets, Kindles and laptops and pay much less for the same exact book found in the bookstore.

Digital textbooks can be found online at dozens of sites., as well as, has thousands of e-books at reasonable prices.

Michael Borich, a media professor at MSU, believes that digital textbooks are going to be the future for college students.

“Textbooks are still part of a last century oligarchy that enrich publishers at the expense of students — it’s a huge rip off that’s about to change,” said Borich.

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Tips for buying used college textbooks

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With over a dozen textbook rental sites and another 20+ sites selling used textbook my recommendation is to use a price comparison tool to show the cheapest used, rental, ebook and international version price. When in college I hated the time needed to search all the sites so I built a quick search tool which became the website  Makes it much easier to compare all the sources and make a decision. We now also offer a site just for textbook rentals at

So what are my tips on buying used textbooks?

* Use a price comparison tool and find the cheapest used price. Next use a tool like our buyback quote tool to see what you will likely get when you sell it back. This is the net used price.

* Compare the net used price to rental prices, ebook prices  and international version pricing. There is no sell back for rental and ebooks so this is the cost to compare to the net used price. You can not sell international version back to bookstores (they can not sell them) so you will have to guess at their resale value.

Make sure shipping costs are included in your calculations. Shipping can range from free to the ridicules. I saw a textbook on eBay for $.99 but they were charging $30 shipping!

If you do rent here are some extra considerations:
1) Most important – don’t lose your book. If you loose your book you will find yourself paying both the rental and the replacement cost.
2) Don’t return rented textbooks late – if they can not re-rent it the rental company losses big time and there late fees can get very expensive. They also usually have a cutoff date where the book becomes yours and you must pay the purchase price.
3) Keep the original shipping boxes. Most rental companies what them returned in the same boxes.
4) Compare prices – with over a dozen big name sites offering rentals be sure to compare the prices and shipping. A price comparison tool like makes this job easier.
5) Read the terms and conditions – don’t just check the box that says you read it, actually read IT! This is a 4 month contract that covers what you can and CAN NOT do with the book. Remember, if you rent a textbook it is their book, not yours.

Tips for buying used college textbooks