Trouble-Free Textbook Buying for Less

Think buying textbooks online sounds straightforward? Think again.

Buying textbooks for school is no picnic under the best of circumstances. They are expensive, they are heavy, and it's not always easy to know which books you need. When money isn't an issue, the campus bookstore is the easiest way to be sure to get the right books, right now.

But if you need to watch your spending (and who doesn't), and you have the time to undertake it, buying online can save you a significant amount of money.

Buying textbooks online is an entirely different experience from buying books in person. Especially now, when schools are requiring custom editions of textbooks specifically for each school, buying online is a skill unto itself.

There are new books, there are used books, there are rental books, there are international books, and there are electronic books. There are older edition books that are still valid, and there are general-edition books you can use in place of a campus-specific book. In short, for popular general interest textbooks, there are sometimes dozens of options with dozens of wildly different prices.

So that's a general overview of the kinds of problems you'll run into when buying textbooks online. But what are the solutions? We've covered the obvious one: buying from the campus bookstore; here, we are talking about a situation where you need to save every dollar you can.

The number one tool that will help you save money on college textbooks is time. You need to start very early. Mailed orders take time to be delivered, and when they are wrong (and some will be) you will need even more time for a second delivery. Procrastination is not an option. So gather your syllabi as early as possible and make a list of the books (and their ISBNs) you will need.

The other thing you will need is some sort of automated price search. There are any number of book price comparison websites. Book Buys is one of them, and of course we hope you will try it out. But most of them work the same way. Ours just happens to be faster and more accurate. And has a nicer personality.

You will generally see an extreme range of prices for your higher-priced text books. A $200 book may have offers to sell it as low as $20. But you need to know what you are looking at in order to make sure you buy a usable copy.

Most of the very inexpensive copies are going to be found on book marketplaces like Amazon, AbeBooks, Alibris, and Biblio. Before you buy, you need to read the seller notes. This is where you will learn why the seller is selling a $200 book for $20. In extreme instances, it could be just a CD with a PDF of the book. In many cases it will be an international newsprint version, or maybe just a rental of the textbook. If you're okay with that, anything will do the job. But if you want the real textbook, and you want to be able to sell it (potentially for more money) after your term, you'll need to search a little harder. As an example of the various options available, see Campbell Biology below:

Once you have disqualified any obviously incorrect listings, the store you believed had the lowest prices may not any longer. So take a look back at the comparison of store prices before you continue.

When you find a potential book offer with a good price that appears to be the correct book, double check the seller's notes. Note the ISBN displayed on the store website, and compare it to the ISBN that you need for your class before you complete the purchase. These notes will be invaluable in case the order is incorrect.

If you are using normal USPS Media Mail shipping you should allow about two weeks to receive your book. Which is why it's so important to give yourself plenty of time for this process. And once the books begin to arrive, you still have more work to do.

When your books arrive, you need to open them immediately and verify their condition and their ISBN. Generally you can find the book's actual ISBN a few pages into the book. Many book stores will apply their own barcode sticker over the publisher's ISBN barcode on the back cover. If the ISBN inside the book matches the ISBN specified in your syllabus, your work is (likely) complete. But if the book isn't what you expected, or has the wrong ISBN, your job is just beginning.

The first thing to do is to contact the seller on the marketplace where you bought the book, and inform them that the book you received is not the ISBN that you ordered. In general, it is a better idea to let the seller propose a solution than to propose one yourself. For example, they may propose that you just keep the book, and send you a full refund. If the book is a book that you can use, maybe an international paperback edition, then just keep it. It's a free book, and you don't have to worry about trying to sell it after the term, although you may be able to online. They may also propose a partial refund or a replacement.

When considering the seller's proposal, keep in mind whether you will save enough money that you won't have to sell the book back, and if the book you received is actually usable, if not ideal. Most times, you will get a result that is even better than the correct book. The sellers need to protect their feedback on these marketplaces, and will generally work something out in your favor.

If you do have to physically return the book, you ought to order a replacement immediately instead of waiting for your refund first. You generally only have a few weeks to arrange all your books, and waiting will take too much time. So in case of needing to reorder, start again from surveying the prices onlinr of the book, and go through the process the same way.

If you follow these steps, you are fastidious about your note-taking and communication with the sellers, you can save a significant amount of money on your textbooks for your upcoming term.

And if you do it right, you will will have the proper books to sell for more at the end of the term, or maybe books that you got so cheaply that you have no need to sell them back at all. In fact, when you get good enough, there are times you can actually end up making money on your textbooks each term. And everyone can enjoy that.

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