In his first year at George Washington University, Sam Connelly, did what most freshmen do after getting a list of required course materials: head to the campus bookstore.
That trip ended with an $800 bill. The next semester was no better, with Connelly spending $900 on textbooks. By his sophomore year, the finance major had enough. With a little research, he found a wealth of online sources for deep discounts on books and brought his bill down to around $300 a semester.
“Some books you can get lucky and get for $20 or less,” said Connelly, now 21 and a rising senior. “But some of my finance books are brand new and only come in hard copies, so I might still have to bite the bullet and buy a $200 textbook.”
The high cost of tuition gets a lot of attention, but any college student can attest that buying textbooks is no small expense. Print textbook prices have soared 82 percent in the last decade alone, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Yet students like Connelly are saving money through online marketplaces for used, new, rental or electronic textbooks. This past school year, students spent an average of $563 on course materials, 20 percent less than they did in the 2007-2008 academic year, according to the National Association of College Stores.
Online, for instance, there’s the University Network, a Web site that looks for the lowest price on textbooks for college students. The textbook search engine works like travel site Kayak, perusing the Internet for the best price on books.
Testing out the service, I clicked on one of the most popular textbooks on the website, the 10th edition of Campbell Biology, which turned up nearly 60 results. Prices ranged from $22.40 for a rental to $106.87 for the electronic version of the $244.59 textbook.
“Textbook prices are constantly changing,” said Peter Corrigan, chief executive of the University Network. “There are cheaper times of the year to buy textbooks, in August just before school starts. Then, a week or two into the school year there is a limited amount of inventory that becomes available from students who drop classes and prices drop a lot.”
Much like the University Network, the site Slugbooks provides a list of options from booksellers, including Amazon, AbeBooks, ValoreBooks and Chegg. Students can also sell their books through the company. Founder David Miller said the days of students worrying about not receiving textbooks from online sellers in time for class are over.
“You can get books pretty quickly, especially if you’re renting books. All of the rental sites have every incentive to get you your book quickly,” he said. “If you are buying from a marketplace site like Amazon or Ebay, the trick is to find sellers in states close to you, which drastically reduces the shipping time.”
There are still benefits to brick-and-mortar college bookstores. Most are in the business of renting out books these days. Some also print and bind textbooks on demand for much less than the cost of a traditional textbook.
While bookstores are feeling the pressure to compete with online retailers, publishers are also being forced to shake up their business model. The handful of publishers that control the textbook market, such as McGraw Hill, Pearson and Cengage, are seeing less demand for new hardcover textbooks. Textbook publisher took in $4.9 billion in revenue in 2014, down from $5.1 billion in 2012, according to the Association of American Publishers.
Now publishers are producing less expensive digital versions of their textbooks that can be run on a laptop, smartphone or e-reader, said David Anderson, executive director of higher education at the Association of American Publishers.
“Companies are pretty much of the view that the traditional hardbound textbook will in the next few years go the way of the do-do bird,” he said. “They see this new technology is where the market is going.”
Take McGraw Hill, which has expanded its catalog of digital textbooks. One of the company’s biology titles that sells for $190 at a college bookstore is now available for $85 as an e-book, explained David Levin, chief executive of McGraw-Hill Education.
“It’s not only cheaper but, more importantly, way more effective,” Levin said. “It’s a personalized experience that is tailored to the student’s learning style, focusing attention on the concepts the student needs to learn most.”
Alongside the emerging digital market, there is growing interest in open-source textbooks. These books are created under an open license to let students download or print them for free or for a few dollars.
A study by the Student Public Interest Research Groups concluded that students could save an average $128 a course if school swapped dead-tree texts for an open-source books. The advocacy group studied open-source pilot programs at five universities, including the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and Kansas State University, and found it cost students far less than buying traditional textbooks.
OpenStax College, a nonprofit tied to Rice University in Houston, is one of the largest providers of open-source books. The company relies on funding from philanthropist, such as the Gates Foundation, to produce peer-reviewed digital textbooks for free, and print versions for up to $55. According to OpenStax, the 260,000 students using its textbooks this school year will save an estimated $25 million. There are 1,288 schools that have used the books since the company was founded in 2012.