Navigating the textbook market

It’s like a game of hot potato. You don’t want to be stuck with a book that is rendered worthless and obsolete.

How do you not get screwed by the cost of textbooks? They’re so expensive, yet when you sell them back, you get nothing close to what you bought them for. After being in college for six years I’ve learned a few tricks to not end up with a lot of textbook debt.

The cheapest way to get books is through a mixed-market. I buy some books online, some on-campus, some off-campus and occasionally from friends. I’ve found that buying books from just one source (i.e. the University Bookstore or can cost a great deal more than if I take the time to shop around and get the best deal.

Used bookstores have textbooks at great prices, but do not always have the book you need. Used bookstores depend on local buyback markets. If your course uses a new textbook that was published very recently, you might not find it there because there are no used copies in the market.

The great thing about off-campus used bookstores is that they’re generally cheaper than the University Bookstore, and allow you to get a book immediately instead of having to wait a week with buying from Amazon.

If you decide to buy your books online, determine whether shipping time and cost is worth the bargain. If you buy used textbooks online and select “standard shipping,” they might not come to you for two weeks if they’re shipped USPS media mail.

Most courses hit the ground running, with quizzes and assignments due within the first two weeks. Not having a textbook for those critical weeks leaves you further behind than your peers, and can affect your grade.

If you decide to have your book shipped via media mail, opt for a bookseller in a state that’s closest to yours. So, instead of going for the cheapest used book listing from a seller based in California, choose the slightly more expensive book from the seller based in Illinois. It’ll reach you in 3-4 days instead of 8-14 days.

If you intend to sell your book back, keep a record of how much your textbook cost. I just pencil in the book cost on the inside cover, and refer to it when I’m pricing a book to sell.

About selling textbooks: Avoid bookstore buybacks like the plague. I’ve never found selling textbooks back to a bookstore to be worth the cost or effort. I never recoup anything close to what I got the book for and have left many buybacks in disgust and disappointment. Instead, I sell my books online via Amazon Marketplace or Facebook Marketplace. Selling direct to other students allows me to set a price comparable to other booksellers, cutting out the middleman.

When listing books for sale on Amazon, don’t try to beat the lowest price that’s out there. Price your book based on what you bought it for. Other online sellers will try to get rid of their books quickly and will go into a pricing war to be the listing at the top. Those prices seldom change the market value of the book -they’re sold very quickly, and eventually all that remains are books that are priced higher. It might take a few weeks after listing a book at a higher price, but it’s worth the wait.

Buying and selling textbooks is like a game of hot potato: You don’t want to be stuck with a book that is rendered worthless and obsolete. Publishers release editions of books very quickly these days, and the value of a textbook can drop dramatically from one semester to the next. I finished my first degree with some nine-odd books I couldn’t sell. They were originally worth $80 – $100 apiece, but now are worth $0.01 on Amazon. Ouch! Don’t let that happen to you.

Quynh Nguyen welcomes comments at [email protected]