Hard copy: A growing number of Web sites and campus bookstores are offering to rent textbooks for, typically, no more than 50 percent of the list price per semester. Chegg, Bookrenter, and other book rental sites also allow students to rent for shorter periods for bigger discounts. While the companies don't recommend it, they've noticed that some students just rent their textbooks for the month before final exams, saving 60 to 75 percent off the list price. College bookstores are also jumping into the rental market. The bookstores for the three San Mateo, Calif., community colleges, for example, rent most textbooks for as little as $25 apiece. At Cañada Community College in Redwood City, Calif., more than 20 percent of students are saving money by renting their books, says Tom Bauer, who runs the bookstores. Since launching in 2005, the cheap book rental program has saved students more than $1 million, he figures. The downsides: The savings evaporate if renters decide they want to hold on to the books or do too much damage to the books and end up having to buy them.
Digital copy: A consortium of publishers has also launched Coursesmart, which offers 180-day online or downloadable electronic subscriptions to standard textbooks for 40 to 50 percent off the list price. Coursesmart E-books allow electronic note-taking and highlighting and let subscribers print as many as 10 pages at a time.
The downsides: Downloadable books are nonrefundable, so students who drop a course are stuck with a book and a bill. The licenses lapse after 180 days.
DISCOUNTS OF 50 PERCENT AND UP
E-books: Noel Capon, a marketing professor at Columbia Business School, has launched AxcessCapon, an online pay-what-you-want textbook store. Students can read an international business textbook, for example, free on the site for the first three weeks after registering. After that, Capon asks students to pay whatever they feel the E-book is worth (at least $1). Those who want to download the book can pay $34.50 for a PDF. Or they can buy a paper version for $55. Comparable traditional textbooks sell for about $150, Capon notes. Flatworld Knowledge sells downloadable textbooks for about $20. The downsides: While the number of professors who have assigned any of the cheap new textbooks is rising quickly, the books still make up a tiny percentage of the textbooks assigned annually. And many downloadables are nonreturnable.
International: Many online booksellers offer new international versions of popular expensive textbooks at discounts of 60 to 80 percent. One of the most popular biology textbooks, which sells new at campus bookstores for more than $180, is being offered by Indian and Singaporean bookstores online at Abebooks.com for about $60!
The downsides: Not all international editions are equivalent to U.S. editions. Students should check to make sure the edition they buy has the same chapters, examples, and exercises that their professors have assigned from the American editions.
Used: Buying and selling back used textbooks is the traditional, and still most common, way to cut book bills. New Web sites, and events like the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus book swap, make finding good deals easier. Meghan Puente, a junior at Wentworth Institute of Technology in Massachusetts, used Craigslist to find a chemistry textbook with a list price of $215 for $70 in the fall of 2009. And she managed to sell an algebra textbook that cost $150 for $100, cutting her net cost for the book by two thirds. Students who buy all of their books used and then sell them at the start of the next semester could, theoretically at least, break even or perhaps turn a small profit on their books.