Places to Get Free or Cheap Textbooks

Textbooks can add hundreds or thousands of dollars to the cost of college, so it pays to know where you can find some for free and the rest for less.


Let’s start our study of beating the high cost of textbooks with these facts from a 2005 study by the General Accounting Office:

  • Since December 1986, textbook and supply prices have nearly tripled, increasing by 186 percent. During the same period, overall inflation has increased by only 72 percent.
  • The average estimated cost of books and supplies per first-time, full-time student for academic year 2003-2004 was $898 at 4-year public institutions, or about 26 percent of the cost of tuition and fees. At 2-year public institutions, the average estimated cost of books and supplies per first-time, full-time student was $886 in academic year 2003-2004, representing almost three-quarters of the cost of tuition and fees.

Why is the cost of books and supplies increasing at such a rapid clip? Read all about it in articles like this one from Wikipedia: but as far as this course is concerned, the “why” is academic. This mini-course isn’t about finding fault: it’s about finding a better deal.

The simplest way to get a free textbook is from the school library or your professor: since supplies will be extremely limited in either case, best you hit these two options the instant you know your schedule. If neither of these ideas work, head for the web. Here are links to the sites I mentioned in this story in order they were mentioned:

Sites where you can download out-of-copyright (old) books:

Sites where you’ll find a limited number of free textbooks for online reading or downloading:

Site that offers free, advertiser-supported textbooks in .pdf format: (there’s a half-page add every 3 pages)

Sites where you can swap textbooks with other students:

Sites where you can find all manner of free stuff, including textbooks:

These are the sites you might find free textbooks: whether you actually succeed is a function of how hard you look and how common the title you’re looking for. And if you’re thinking of a swapping site, beware of the pitfalls of any online transaction: fraud.

If you can’t find what you’re looking for on a free site or a swap site, what then? Time to try a rental.

Textbook Rental

There are several sources for textbook rental. The first place to try is your college bookstore: the cost to rent a book should be no more than half the price of buying the book; hopefully less. You might find a better deal online: two popular rental sites are Chegg and BookRenter.com. The downside of book renting is the same as with renting anything: you don’t own anything when it’s over and you’ve got to keep it in great condition. One way to avoid the wear-and-tear issue is to rent a digital copy: you can find these at CourseSmart.com: they claim to have more than 8,000 textbooks available for digital download at savings of up to 50%. You can print out up to 10 pages at a time and the license to use the book expires after six months.

Buying Textbooks for Less

Buying Overseas: You may be aware that drug companies sell drugs cheaper overseas than they do domestically: for years that’s resulted in Americans taking their prescriptions across international borders in search of better deals. Well, as it turns out, the same thing applies to textbooks: publishers sell international editions in other countries at prices much less than in the US, which means you might find a bargain. One site that features international editions is AbeBooks.com.

Two potential problems with international editions of textbooks: first, you’ve got to be sure that the international edition is the same as the domestic one (your professor might know.) Also, be aware that some people aren’t happy about the reimportation of international edition textbooks, since pretty much everybody from the author to the campus bookstore makes less money as a result. That’s why when you see international editions, you might see warning words like these from these from AbeBooks.com:

* The publishers of international editions generally do not authorize the sale and distribution of international editions in the United States and Canada and such sale or distribution may violate the copyrights and trademarks of the publishers of such works.

If you want to read more about the controversy, see the Wikipedia page I mentioned earlier.

Buying Used

Used textbooks can often be found at the campus bookstore, not to mention campus newspaper classifieds and bulletin boards. But you should also check sites like Craig’s List, eBay and Amazon. Just be sure you’re buying the edition you need: textbooks are revised often.

Shopping for Savings

Do your grocery shopping at the local 7-11 and you should expect to pay more: that’s the cost of convenience. Same thing can apply to your local campus bookstore. It’s convenient, and they’ll have the textbook you’re looking for. But that convenience often means higher prices. Shop for savings on books the same way you (hopefully) do for every other expensive purchase you make: do a quick online search at sites like Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com, Half.com, ecampus.com or others (do a search for textbooks and you’ll find tons.) Or use a textbook shopping bot: a couple I found in researching this story were GetTextBooks.com and DirectTextBook.com, and there are others.

Comparison shopping is a fairly simple way to save 20% or more on new book purchases and a way to perhaps find a used version for even greater savings.

Bottom line? The cost of both tuition and textbooks has been outpacing inflation for many years. It’s not fair, but don’t get mad, get smarter. View the challenge as an opportunity to learn a life lesson: confront costs by combining creativity and legwork, and you can have the things you want for less.

Stacy Johnson

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