How to Find Cheap College Textbooks

Try international editions or a rental service to save some cash on textbooks.

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Anyone who would rather not simply pay list price in the campus bookstore has some homework to do before college classes begin. No single option – buying new and reselling, buying used, renting or buying digital – is always cheapest. And the research is certainly an exercise worth doing.

The College Board currently estimates that students will spend $1,200 a year on books and supplies. A 2011 survey by a federation of Student Public Interest Research Groups revealed that 7 in 10 students did not buy a textbook at least once because the hit was just too painful.

[See ways to save on college costs.]

As a first step, consider checking with your professors to see if they intend to assign the text again next year. If not, a plan to buy it new and resell through the bookstore probably isn't a good one.

You can also sell on Craigslist for cash or Amazon.com for credit, of course, but you won't have much luck there either if the reason for the book's retirement is a new edition's arrival.

Next, pop titles you need into a price comparison engine such as campusbooks.com, which will give the best available quotes for renting and buying new, used, digital and international editions.

There are dozens of engines, notes Nicole Allen, the affordable-textbooks advocate at the Student PIRGs federation. Rental prices generally are a third to half of a book's list price, which may be hugely appealing unless the book is one you want to keep for reference.

[Learn how to live frugally in college.]

Digital versions of textbooks are usually more expensive than rental print books and sometimes run more than buying used print titles. They are also tough to resell; many now come with a one-time-use passcode. What's more, publishers limit the amount you can print.

Another option: Look on half.com or textbookrush.com for international editions, which can run a quarter of the U.S. price.

Though there have been questions about the legality of commerce in international texts, no less an authority than the U.S. Supreme Court said in March that Thai graduate student Supap Kirtsaeng had the right to resell textbooks on eBay that relatives had bought abroad. Publisher John Wiley & Sons had sued him for copyright infringement.

Publishers are attempting to close down this supply route by changing the ISBN number on international editions, making it tough to figure out which book is a match for the one on your syllabus. They're also changing page numbers and sometimes pictures, but the information is the same.

Finally, there's the option of not buying at all. Consider asking your professor if there's an open-source textbook available that he or she could assign.

[Try these ways to get textbooks for free.]

These are not the Wikipedia version of textbooks; the texts are written by experts and are peer reviewed, and professors can customize them for their classes. Open-source books are free, can be read on any device and can be printed out and bound, usually for less than $40.

The biggest source so far is Rice University's openstaxcollege.org, whose books – so far, mostly a science and math selection – are in use at more than 150 colleges and high schools. The organization, which is partly funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and which plans to double its textbook offerings by 2015, projects that it could save students $750 million over the next five years.

This story is excerpted from the U.S. News "Best Colleges 2014" guidebook, which features in-depth articles, rankings and data.