It’s that time of year where college students are trying to navigate the difficult maze of end-of-semester book selling and beginning-of-semester book buying.
While I have been out of the industry for several years, I spent more than a dozen years in the retail college textbook industry so I do have some insights that may be of help to SAVE YOU MONEY AND FRUSTRATION!
First off, the internet is your friend. Second off, don’t be afraid to reach out to your professors. And finally, evaluate your options.
FIRST: The internet is your friend
If you are looking to purchase books for next semester, find your college bookstore online. Almost all states require colleges to post booklists several weeks before classes begin. If your school uses a lease operator, they will have the list on their website.
From there, select your course and section to see your book information. Always be sure to have your proposed section number. Different professors may use different books. The information provided online should include the ISBN and current price for new and used options. The ISBN is important in order to make sure you are purchasing the correct book. Put all your items in an online shopping cart or write down the relevant information. Print or save your shopping cart. You will need this information as we proceed.
A word about ISBNs. College textbook publishers and their sales representatives (the root cause of textbook price inflation) are shifty. They often package a bunch of unneeded garbage with your main textbook. Do you really need that study guide, those working papers, that “bonus” material, or online access passcode? Keep reading for my suggestions to get around this foolishness.
A word about required vs. optional. As a student understand optional means you are probably never going to open the book and will kick yourself for shelling out good money on it. If you get into the semester and really need the book, you can buy it later. My recommendation is TO AVOID optional books.
Next, head to Amazon, or another reputable online textbook seller. I have personally used and can recommend eCampus.com. I have bought and sold books through them and have been satisfied with their prices and service. eBay is a landmine where you may or may not get a great deal. Proceed with caution.
Once on these sites, type in the ISBN of your required books. Again, I recommend only buying from a reputable seller with a RETURN policy. If you buy on eBay from Jimmy, the student at Texas Northern Undergraduate School for High School Dropouts, he is not going to give you your money back if you drop a class, decide to go without the book, or find a copy cheaper. Stick to books sold by eCampus.com, Amazon directly, or someplace similar. Even if eBay requires Jimmy to accept your return (a dicey proposition to be honest), it may take weeks to get your money back.
When your book populates in whatever search engine, be sure to read the item description. Watch for terms such as highlighting, underlining, water damage, etc. Ask the seller questions if you’re in doubt. Again, even authorized returns can be a pain in the neck and will leave you without your money for potentially several weeks.
I can also recommend BOOKFINDER. This service gathers seller options from multiple locations allowing you to compare pricing more efficiently. They do not sell books but rather act as an information clearinghouse. It can be a real time saver.
SECOND: Reach out to your professor
Find out who your professor is going to be. Don’t be afraid to drop by their office during posted office hours. Ask them if they really use the book. Often, required may really mean optional. Accreditation boards don’t like to see courses without required materials. At times, departments make book decisions for all instructors. Your instructor may hate the book selected and goes without. Won’t you feel silly having bought a $125 book that never gets cracked open.
Ask for a copy of the syllabus. For one thing, you will learn is this a class your really want to take. Is there going to be 1,000 pages of reading and three major papers or is it more laid back. In the syllabus, you will also find out about textbook usage. Professors often include quite a bit of guidance in these documents. Look it over.
Can’t find your professor in person? Email them of course and respectfully ask their advice. Is the current edition required or can you get by with an earlier edition. TRUE STORY: One time when I had a lot of time in my store, I went through a new edition and old edition math book. I checked probably 100 pages and several hundred exercises. I found ZERO differences in the book, not even page number changes. That’s right, not a single difference. The book had a new cover, but I couldn’t see the difference. That’s not to say there weren’t changes, but you get what I am saying.
Still not getting an answer from your professor, ask the department administrative assistant or friends who have taken the class. Heck, you may be able to borrow a book from them. On that subject, a trend when I was working in textbooks was for departments to have loaner copies for students in financial need. It didn’t happen often but every now and then they were able to assist.
THIRD: Evaluate your options
By now you have an idea of whether your professor is going to use the book. Can you get away with an old edition. Is the book not going to be used until late in the semester.
Review online pricing and compare to your campus store. Don’t wait too long to purchase at either location whatever route you choose to go. The best books at the best prices sell quickly.
If buying on campus and they have used, be sure to examine the book, looking for excessive wear, stains, missing pages, etc. You don’t want to stand in that VERY LONG refund line the first week of class.
If buying online, don’t wait until too late to order. Used books will sell out and you have to factor in processing and shipping time. If you wait until classes start, you may not get your book until the second or third week of class and can easily find yourself behind. Remember, classes are starting for hundreds of schools at the same time. Thousands of students are doing the same thing you are.
Another option I have not yet discussed is your school library. Professors will often put copies of required and optional texts on reserve for the semester. This will allow you free access, on a first come first serve basis, to your materials. If they haven’t done this, ask one of the school librarians if this is possible. They are there to assist you and will usually be glad to assist.
Finally comes the option of renting your books. This can be a real cost saver if you shop around AND will be cautious with your books. Rentals can work exceedingly well for new edition books. You get a price break from new prices, the rental company knows they are going to get their book back and can sell or rent it again. A SERIOUS WORD OF CAUTION is to read and understand your rental agreement. It is a contract and can be a costly one if you fail to uphold your end of the deal. Make sure you know when your book has to be returned and don’t be late. Also, don’t spill your beer all over that brand new $200 book. They aren’t going to accept it back without penalty. A final word, don’t think of skipping out on the agreement. Those computer systems are nasty and will never forget you. Try to sell back a book? Try to rent again? Maybe even try to buy again? Forget it. Also, remember, they have your credit card information AND your signed permission to charge you whatever amount is shown in the agreement. You will be paying for the book, I can promise you. College bookstores, especially lease operators, don’t play around.
SELLING YOUR TEXTBOOKS
Almost without exception, you will never open an old textbook again. There may be a couple of exceptions I will discuss below.
First off, time can be your enemy. Second off, the internet is your friend. Thirdly, talk to your major professors ahead of time. Finally, evaluate your options and move quickly.
FIRST: Time can be your enemy
So, what do I mean by time can be your enemy. Nothing stinks worse than an old edition textbook. It is big, heavy to move, and serves as a constant reminder of how many six packs could have been bought with that money. When a publisher announces a new edition, the national wholesale market usually dies a very quick and painful death. By this I mean, the big online sellers, almost immediately stop buying them. You will find eCampus.com prices drop to zero even for frontline texts.
The reason for new editions is often, even if the publisher has 1,000 copies in the warehouse, they will force out the new edition to kill the used book market. Publishers and authors see ZERO money from used books. It is in the publisher interest to provide updated books to keep revenues flowing.
In some instances, this is justified. If you are nursing student, or studying in a rapidly evolving field, you need the latest. I know it can be painful, but you deserve it, employers deserve it, and those you serve once you graduate deserve it.
However, what used to kill me was when a math or English book would be revised every couple of years. The truth is there is no need for such other than profit. That profit was geared toward the publisher. I know the bookstore takes a lot of grief, and sometimes deserved, but they are more than likely on your side here. Used books are better for the store. I’ll cover the basic math or college textbooks in another post some time.
Time is your enemy in another manner. Brick and mortar bookstores determine very early on how many copies of a book they need for the upcoming semester. They have extensive sales history on each course, section, professor, title, etc. I am sure this detail has only gotten more in depth since I left the industry. Many times, no human decision making is involved in this process. The computer spits out a number and that’s it.
If a bookstore knows that historically they only sell 50% of estimated enrollment, they are going to stock maybe 45-60% or estimated enrollment. Meaning, if the biology department (home of expensive texts) tells the bookstore they expect 100 students to take BIO 200 the store is only going to allocate for maybe 55. (See how they have empty shelves sometimes. It’s all a guessing game.)
Sales history also tells them they traditionally purchase 20 copies from students after the fall semester. The textbook manager may then allocate 18 of the 55 to purchase from students. She then sources for the other 37 copies.
For popular texts she may find those 37 used books leaving only 18 to be purchased at the highest price (up to 50% of the original retail price) from students. You better get there quickly to get that price!
After she buys 18 student copies the price drops. What does it drop to? Good question. That lower price is based upon a national wholesale price depending upon what company the bookstore is selling books to. Prices are generally less than 25% of retail. Often times, considerably less.
Why the perceived low value? There is a lot of financial risk in used books. Again, a new edition can be announced at any time and a wholesaler does not want left with hundreds of copies of a dead book.
The wholesaler must pay the bookstore a commission for handling the transaction. If a bookstore pays $20 wholesale, they will also be paid a percentage commission, maybe upwards of 20%, or $4, on top of recouping their $20.
Books are expensive to ship and time consuming to sort at warehouses. All this plays into the investment a wholesaler has committed to these books.
Based upon all these costs, wholesalers just can’t pay a large percentage of retail. Popular and newer releases of course have higher buyback percentages. You learned about supply and demand in your economics class, you know, the book you are now trying to sell.
SECOND: The internet is your friend
Many used book companies will purchase your books through online transactions. The company I have recommended, eCampus.com, is just such a company.
Log on to their site, enter your ISBNs and receive a possible price you will receive for your books. Many online buyers will provide you with a postpaid label saving you time and money. Securely pack up your books with whatever packing list the buyer provides (they often need this to scan your books and make sure YOU get paid), mail them by the appropriate method and in a couple of weeks, voila, cash!
eCampus.com offers payment in several methods: PayPal, check, in-store credit. Choose what works best for you.
A word of advice is don’t lie to these companies. Don’t include books on your selling list you don’t send, be honest about the condition of your books, and ship promptly.
Look, mistakes happen. Maybe you meant to delete a book off your packing list and didn’t. They aren’t going to make a mistake and pay you for it. Promise. If you send books that have excessive wear, stains, highlighting, whatever, you can expect to receive a message with an adjusted offer, or no offer at all. You may then be out the sale price AND the book unless you want to pay to have it returned to you. Buying offers have time limits. Don’t wait three weeks to ship your books. The period of highest demand will most likely be over and you may receive that dreaded email with an adjusted offer.
Other internet options are selling the books yourself. If you care to take the time to become an Amazon seller and want to deal with their fees, knock yourself out. Yes, Amazon will also sell your books on your behalf but be prepared to pay even more to them. I promise, it’s not cheap.
eBay is another selling option but be prepared for difficult transactions. Not only can buyers be difficult at times, but eBay also itself is no charm, especially for sellers in any type of dispute. Plus, you then have the high final value fees eating at your revenues in addition to having to package and ship your books individually. It can be a cutthroat industry.
Facebook Marketplace is an option as are any social media groups associated with your college. Perhaps your school runs a book exchange day or something similar for students. You can often post fliers on school bulletin boards. If you are in a Greek organization, perhaps you can swap books with members.
THIRD: Talk to your professors
You may want to check with your professors (see above) before selling certain books. Your instructors have no vested financial interest and should be a source of solid advice.
Are you taking a continuation course? ENC 100 to ENC 200 or something similar. Is the second course using the same book? How silly will you feel having to buy a book for full retail that you just sold two weeks prior for 20% of retail.
You may also wish to check with your faculty advisor or a trusted faculty member in your major before selling back books in your field. Yes, I said above you will probably never open an old textbook again, but that might not be true for books in your major. This may be particularly true for fields such as English and history.
Do you plan to attend graduate school? If so, are any of your texts core basic works that you may need in the future?
FINALLY: Evaluate your options
It’s up to you as to how you wish to proceed. Since most students never return to read a college textbook, my recommendation is to get rid of them as quickly as possible.
You may receive the highest price from your campus bookstore if they are purchasing it to put on their shelves for sale. You will usually have to wait in a long line to find out your prices, however. They won’t quote you a price over the phone or email.
Selling to an online seller is the quickest way to be rid of books, especially if you are headed home for the holidays and don’t want to cart them around. You won’t get the absolute highest price but for ease and convenience this might be an option for you to consider.
Selling to classmates at the start of classes is an option but students aren’t going to want to pay a lot and may not have cash handy. Online payments come with the possibility of a chargeback. You are then out your book and the money.
Yes, every semester the textbook dance can be difficult and frustrating. Don’t let it dampen your college experience. It is only a small part of attending college and it can teach valuable financial decision-making skills. Once you have been through it a time or two, you will navigate the bookstore like a pro.
This post may contain affiliate links. If you click these links and make a purchase, I may receive a small commission. This commission does not affect any price that you pay. All views and opinions provided are my own and are never influenced by affiliate programs or sponsors providing products.