Never pay for textbooks again, in six steps.

June 10, 2009 | By | 6 Replies More

A college education (and even more, the “college experience”) costs a lot of money. One of the most bemoaned college-related expenses is textbooks. Every quarter or semester, students trudge through their local bookstores and shell out hundreds of dollars for the heavy, price-inflated compendiums of glossy photos, useless asides, and (maybe) small slivers of information.

The pattern of behavior is always the same: the students scan the bookstore shelves for cheaper, used editions (perhaps $70 a pop instead of $100). Some classes require multiple books; some classes require ten. The students carry the stack of texts to the counter and pony up hundreds. In class, the books may never be used- it’s impossible to tell when they will actually be relevant.

Later, these students gather the books up and try to return them to the store for a pittance (maybe $20-30). Often a book is not returnable because it is an “old edition”- a new version has just come out, with minor updates such as a new cover photo and a table with a new layout. Next quarter, everyone will be buying the full-priced new editions.

The textbook industry is a racket. The books are made unnecessarily expensive, for they are puffed-up with frilly nonsense. My school drove up the price of Psych 100 textbooks by requesting a special “Buckeye Edition”; the only difference was a black-and-white photocopy inserted into the first page, which acknowledge the student reader as a member of Ohio State. It’s a hose.

Last year, however, I realized that I never really need to pay for textbooks. For the past four quarters of school, I have not laid a cent on a bookstore’s counter. As I see it, there is no reason for any student to ever pay for textbooks, ever again. Here are my simple steps to attain free textbook access:

  1. Use the school’s library. This may sound obvious, but many students appear to neglect their school’s massive collection of books, scholarly articles, videos and other class supplies. About two-thirds of the time, my textbook search stops at this step. The school has the books I need. Most universities similarly maintain large archives of books.
  2. Use the school’s within-state interlibrary loan. I can borrow texts from any university library in the State of Ohio, with as much ease as I can borrow a local book. Right now, I have books from Oberlin College, The University of Akron, Muskingum College and Marietta College sitting on my desk. Most schools allow their students to search the entire catalogue of all the state’s college libraries with ease, and book are shipped promptly and picked up at nearest on-campus library. It’s actually easier to request these books online than it is to walk to the nearest bookstore.
  3. Use the national interlibrary loan. Every now and then, I can’t find a book in either the university or state-wide library search. When these two methods have failed, I can usually find the book via my university’s membership to a national interlibrary loan. I imagine that most universities belong to this program, which is called Illiad. There are more restrictions to this borrowing program- for example, I cannot renew indefinitely- but the program has stilled helped me access hard-to-find books.
  4. Can’t find the hard copy? Use Google Books or Google Scholar. Google Books lists detailed information about nearly any book you have every encountered in your life. Of these listings, a sizeable percentage features the option to read through excerpts of the book on your computer. Sometimes, you can read the entire book online, for free! I’ve used Google Books to track down difficult-to-find political science texts and other research books. Google Scholar provides access to scholarly articles from journals and books, and is also helpful when trying to track down a specific study or author.
  5. Never pay for literature. Project Gutenburg provides access to just about every short story, novella, poem or play of literary merit. If a writen work is decades and decades old, or if its author is dead,you should not be paying to read it.  I took an English course this quarter, and the department was asking around $50 for a thrown-together book of poems and stories from the 1800’s. I simply googled the title of each poem and found it with ease. I downloaded short stories via Project Gutenburg onto my Ipod Touch and read them like ebooks.
  6. If the above don’t work, use the local library. I have never had to resort to this step. I’ve always found the books I needed either online or through my university. However, if my previous options had failed, I would have searched the Columbus Public Library system. The library is not just a place for the homeless to access the internet, no matter what cultural prejudices have told you. Don’t take the amazing service that libraries provide for granted.

These steps have saved me between $200 and $300 a quarter, or nearly $1000 over the course of a year. I only wish that I had noticed the potential of all these tools earlier into my college career. There is no reason to pad the wallets of the textbook industry; it is a broken system that savvy consumers should avoid.


Tags: , , , , ,

Category: Consumerism, Intellectual property, Internet, Reading - Books and Magazines, Recommended Reading/Films/Sites, Web Site

About the Author ()

Erika is a PhD student in Social Psychology living in Chicago. Here on DI she most often writes about current events, psychology, skepticism, media and internet culture.

Comments (6)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Mindy Carney says:

    Great ideas, Erika. You can use sites like ERIC and EBSCO through the unversity systems for research (I'm sure you're familiar with those), and you can also pay month-to-month memberships to sites like ($20/mo and you can unsubscribe at any time) and find nearly anything you need. Not free, but certainly cheaper then buying at the astronomical prices!

  2. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Back in my college days (78-82), while yard sale shopping, I spotted a numerical methods textbook in a pile of books priced at 10 cents. Realizing it was the current issue, I bought it, then sold it back to the bookstore for $50 (Their price was $120 new, $90 used).

    So I got some satisfaction for the fact they had bought my calculus textbook from whoever stole it, and inspite of the fact I wrote my name on the spine of all my books .. In Russian so I could prove it was mine, they said it was my problem.

    As for E-books, I love 'em. I actuall have one of the Sony ebook readers, which can work with non-DRM'd books in open file formats.

  3. Dan Klarmann says:

    Eventually the professors will delve into the eBook realm. Instead of paying $100 for a text that kicks $10 back to the author, students may just pay $11, and know that the author who put the material together gets the lion's share. They will personally know who they are cheating by duping copies.

    eBooks can be updated piecemeal. This process is ever so much less stressful than putting out an annual revised edition. Just fix or update whatever comes up as it occurs.

    But I am biased. Many of my engineering courses required texts that were obsolete by the time they flowed through the printing industry pipes. The professors still managed to use them as a platform from which to teach. This was back before IBM joined Apple in the small computer marketplace.

  4. grumpypilgrim says:

    Classmates of mine in b-school used to buy textbooks from websites that sold the international version of texts. The international versions were softcover and were priced quite a bit less than the hardcover versions sold in the U.S. As I recall, the discounts were anywhere from 20-80%.

  5. Erika Price says:

    Dan: Ebooks are truly the wave of the future. Online texts have been available for a while, but have not flourished because many students refuse to read from an LED screen for a long period. Amazon is trying to change the system by donating Kindles to students in a several universities such as Case Western Reserve in Cleveland. This is part of a pilot program to make ebook textbooks more feasible and popular.

    I would love for the authors of educational books to actually get a kickback for their work. Not only does this seem more "just", I imagine it would promote the creation of better quality products. Right now the publishers are in control, and they push for books that are attractive and not functional.

  6. Tony Coyle says:

    I loved some textbooks – but they were way overpriced and mostly useless. the only books I wished I HAD retained were my copies of Knuth's "Art of Programming" – the lessons remain timeless, and the volumes are still classics (the CS equivalent of Plato!).

    I am mostly at my computer whenever I need to learn – so download pdfs to my laptop for reference (especially on planes and while working). I have used most of Erika's online sources (not being a student, I don't have her ready access to scholarly material!)

    I must admit, though, that I love the feel and heft of a good textbook. Viscerally I feel I get more value from 10lbs of book than a few hundred Kb of PDFs. I get just as much knowledge from each, however, and much more accessibility with PDFs (I have hundreds of reference books on my laptop).

    The writing is on the (video) wall.

Leave a Reply