Sure, there's buy-back, when the semester's done. But most schools limit the number of books that its bookstores can take in. And usually, they give you just a fraction of the cash you gave them. Old editions are constantly being phased out, leaving one to wonder just how many times history can rewrite itself.
The National Retail Federation estimates college students spent $4.7 billion on new textbooks in 2006, almost half of what they spent on electronic gadgets like iPods, TVs and laptop computers. But buying textbooks doesn't have to drain a month's worth of beer money, if you know where to look.
Amazon carries most textbooks brand-new, and in its listing is an area for independent sellers offering the same book at lower prices. Some are new, even in original packaging. Used copies may have markings or visible wear, but are usually priced much lower. The price is decided by the seller and can vary from day to day, depending on supply and demand. To buy or sell, all you need is a book's International Standard Book Number, or ISBN.
Many schools, including Colorado State University-Pueblo, Pikes Peak Community College and the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, have the books required for each class listed online, complete with author, title, ISBN and edition. Enter the title or ISBN on amazon.com; underneath amazon.com's listing of the book should be a link for people selling used copies.
One book I needed this semester, Language and Gender by Jennifer Coates, costs $58 at the school bookstore but only $11 on amazon.com, from an independent seller. Sometimes the price differences aren't striking another book by the same author costs $93 at the school bookstore, and $88 on Amazon but I wound up saving a total of about $100 (shipping included) this semester. Past semesters are comparable.
When you're ready to resell a textbook, simply click on the "sell yours here" link after entering the ISBN. The price set will vary depending on the time of year. The best time to sell is a few weeks before classes start; the cheapest time to buy books is during summer break.
Stacey Douglas, bookstore manager at CSU-Pueblo, says online retailers have changed the dynamic of the college bookstore.
"We've definitely noticed a change in our sales because of this," he says. "The entire college bookstore market has."
In addition to having almost unlimited stock, online retailers are able to sell books without charging sales tax to a vast majority of their clients, an advantage that puts brick-and-mortar stores scrambling for ways to keep clients.
This semester, CSU-Pueblo's bookstore offered incentives for its online shoppers. If you bought books early enough, you would save 5 percent.
"We saw an increase in our online sales by almost a third," Douglas says.
As a member of the National Association of College Stores, CSU-Pueblo is constantly trying to help students and their families save money, while still keeping the bookstore profitable, Douglas says.
"We try to buy as many used copies of a textbook as possible so we can pass the savings on to the student." But, he says, "There are always those people who want new copies, without any highlighting."
With any luck, Douglas says, those students will bring repeat business.