As students return to college campuses, one of the biggest price shocks they face will be at the bookstore. Dozens of science, engineering, and business textbooks now list for more than $300 apiece. Students, professors, college officials, and entrepreneurs are fighting back against these rising textbook prices and are developing new ways to distribute textbooks free of charge without requiring students to violate copyright laws or download big files illegally from BitTorrent sites.
Even students whose professors continue to assign the big, expensive, traditional textbooks can still cut out several hundred dollars from the typical $700-to-$1,000-a-year bookstore bill by using new textbook rental services, reading books online, or just following tried-and-true techniques such as borrowing textbooks from libraries.
Experienced penny-pinching students and consumer advocates say that new technology is making it easier to reduce—or even eliminate—textbook bills, but they warn that there are also some downsides to the lower-cost options.
Library: Nearly every college keeps copies of the most popular textbooks in the library. The downsides: Most libraries don't have enough copies to meet the demand for free textbooks. They usually won't let students check out the books; if they do, there can be a waiting list for the most popular texts.
Professors' copies: Some professors keep an extra textbook in their offices. It doesn't hurt to ask professors if they've got an extra they can lend. The downside: No one likes being hounded by dozens of students looking for free books, so be polite to your prof.
Online: Any student assigned a book that is no longer copyrighted—typically classic literature, history, etc.—should be able to find the text free online at one of the many growing Web libraries such as Project Gutenberg, Bartleby, or Googlebooks. Many of these Web sites let readers download the texts to a laptop, iPhone, or similar device.
Several open educational resources groups such as Connexions and the Open Educational Resources Consortium, which are made up of college officials and professors, are starting to post free textbooks and lessons online. Flatworld Knowledge, a start-up, has posted 11 business-oriented textbooks, which are being used in more than 300 colleges, free on its Web page in the hopes of persuading students to pay $29.95 for paper versions or $39.95 for audio versions.
The downsides: Although many high-quality, free E-textbooks are in the pipeline, only a handful of the free E-books currently available are top-notch. In addition, many E-books can be read online only, so you can't download them to your laptop. Many E-books don't allow students to make notations in the text. Also, some surveys show many students find paper books easier to study than the current generation of E-textbooks. And students who buy Kindles or other expensive E-book readers often end up spending more than those who buy paper books. The top Kindle currently retails for $489, which could easily eat up at least a year's savings from shifting to E-books. "We don't think that a textbook E-reader will solve any problems unless we can ensure that content can be delivered to students in a fair and affordable manner," says Nicole Allen, textbook advocate for the Student Public Interest Research Groups.
Freecycling and Web-swapping: Several Web sites have sprung up to help students find free textbooks. Textbook Revolt, a Web site started by two former University of Cincinnati students, has thousands of students offering to swap textbooks free. Bookins.com is a popular book-swapping site. Swaptree allows people to swap books, CDs, or movies for textbooks. The downsides: Most of these sites are still comparatively small, so few in-demand textbooks are on offer. And all Internet transactions are fraught with the potential of misrepresentation or fraud.