A quick comparison of one university's textbook prices

I've read a lot about the various ways to buy textbooks -- new, rented, online, digitally -- and how much you can save, but I've never seen any book-by-book comparisons.

So I spoke with the Bob Crabb, director of the University of Minnesota system's bookstores (all campuses but Duluth's), chose four books, checked out the store's prices and some online prices (both at Amazon.com and CampusBookRental.com), and found this:

(AM-N = Amazon.com, new book; AM-U = Amazon.com, used book; CampBkRnt = CampusBookRental.com. Prices may change semester to semester. This was fall's list, though I wouldn't expect much difference this spring.)

A few things to keep in mind:

  • Not all books have rental or eBook versions. Only a third this fall had eBooks, Crabb said. About a quarter of all titles were available for rent.

  • Courses in business and the sciences tended to have the greatest number of formats.

  • Deciding on used vs.rental depends on your appetite for risk. Renting a book ends up costing you more than buying a used book and selling it back at maximum price. But buy-back prices fluctuate, and if a professor discontinues the book, Crabb said, you'll get only 10-15 percent of the list price back instead of the usual 50 percent  -- making rentals the way to go. "A lot of students don’t want to take that risk," he said.

  • You're allowed to write and highlight "to a reasonable extent" in bookstore rentals, Crabb said, and they're usually due the week after finals. If you don't return them, you don't get fined; after a certain point the store charges your student account for a new book.

  • The online rental period for CampusBookRentals.com is 130 days, and it charges a few dollars less for summer rentals. On its Web site it asks students to "keep highlighting and writing to what is necessary." The site also said that if you don't return the book in time, it does charge "rental extension fees" or will require you to buy the book. It said it was pretty lenient, however.

  • Recently the U's bookstores began using BookRenter.com to supply rentals it doesn't have in stock. Shipping takes 3-4 days, and prices are about the same as those at the bookstore, Crabb said.

  • So what are students choosing at the bookstore? If you take a psychology course (which tends to offer all the various purchase/rent options) as an example, Crabb said, 30 percent of students in the course rent books, 40 percent buy used, 26-27 percent buy new, and 3-4 percent buy eBooks. Rentals, however, are rapidly growing -- eating into the e-book business, which is down about 20 percent this fall, he said. New and used sales still make up the bulk of revenues for the bookstore, though. For fall term, Crabb said 45 percent of his revenues are from new books, 45 percent from used, about 7 percent from rental and about 3 percent from eBooks. (Crabb said the store is ramping up the rental program, however, so he expects rentals to increase to at least 15 percent this spring.) To get a glimpse of Minnesota State University student textbook habits, read my post on a student-organization's report on the matter. Here's a Washington Post piece from today on how to find cheap textbooks online.

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