By Kelli B. Grant
Buying a year’s worth of college textbooks adds an average $1,050 to the swiftly rising tab for tuition. Take advantage of growing options to rent rather than buy, however, and you can easily cut that book bill in half.
Amazon announced Monday that it would begin renting textbooks for its Kindle e-reader at up to 80% off the retail price, joining a host of sites including Barnes & Noble, Chegg and CourseSmart that have similar digital rental programs. The National Association of College Stores also said it expects nearly all of its 3,000 college bookstores to offer rentals this year, up from 1,500 last fall.
Whether students opt for a paper text or an e-book, the agreement is the same: they pay up front for access to the title for a set period of time. “It’s a great alternative to the buy-back blues, when you go to sell a $200 textbook at the end of the semester and get $5,” says Nicole Allen, the textbooks program director at the Public Interest Research Groups, a consumer advocate. At Amazon, for example, “Intermediate Accounting” costs $196 for a hardcover edition, $109 for a Kindle version to keep, and $61 to rent for four months. You’d save 69%.
But renting isn’t always an option, let alone the best option. Rental programs tend to focus on frequently used titles to allow companies to recoup the cost of the book over multiple semesters. And if it’s such a popular choice, there are likely to be plenty of cheap used copies in the bookstore and on sites like Half.com. Renting is also the more expensive choice for books you’ll use for more than one semester.
Still think renting is the right choice? Compare prices across several sites and programs, and look at both paper and e-book formats. A 2010 PIRG pricing review found that paper rentals were often cheaper than digital ones, Allen says. Review site policies on deadlines and damages. Fines for extending your rental or returning a title with too many notes in the margin can be steep enough to wipe out any savings from renting instead of buying.