Want to be a true student-cheapskate? You can use resources right across the quad to curb your professor’s textbook addiction.
The Ultimate Free Textbook Reserve
Every school has a vast resource that furnishes students with free books: the library. Depending on how irresponsible you are, you might never otherwise enter the library… but this should be your first stop when you’re assigned a new book.
The weakest “link”
Every library has some sort of book-sharing network. These services utilize other local libraries to expand your reach to just about any book you can dig up at Borders, Amazon.com or even your school’s bookstore.
With that network at your fingertips, you should never buy another novel as long as you’re in college—they’re all available in your library’s network. Soren Kierkegaard? Choose from eight different translations. But not just novels or philosophical transcripts—many, many textbooks are also available. Libraries frequently get textbook donations, and they’re not going to burn them just so the bookstore can rip-off more students.
Those books are due at some point but cheating the system only takes a little coordination: rotate different copies of the same book. When the copy you have is coming up for its last renewal, order another one through the same book network (or, a different edition, depending on your school’s policies). As long as two or more libraries have a copy of the same book, you can continue alternating between the two until the semester’s through.
Selecting from the selection of selections
Next time you see A Communist Anthology of Native American Poetry or The Children’s Compendium of Short Stories about Pregnancy on your required texts for a class, don’t buy them. Selections, collections and compilations are filled with re-packaged old content—one of the major tactics of evil publishers. Be fastidious: (expensive) books like Freakonomics and The World is Flat are mostly made up of previously published material. You can find such material online. Your school probably has a subscription to EBESCOhost, ProQuest, LEXIS-NEXIS and plenty of other databases but it might be as simple as a Google search.
Or, you can try less-expansive compilations and go through the semester in a piecemeal fashion. If your Short Fiction class has a two-week stretch on Edgar Allen Poe, check out one of the 257 Poe digests in your library and you’ll be covered.
If all else fails, hit up the research/reference desk where your school probably employs a lackey whose sole responsibility is to find material for you.
Your new book strategy might end up costing money if you’re not careful. Inter-collegiate book sharing networks usually charge hefty fines for overdue books. Loosing a borrowed book can also cost you a fortune.
Also, look out for old editions of the same book. Publishers make miniscule changes in a book so that they can release a new edition and make more money. Your library probably doesn’t have the most recent edition of your Conjuring 101 textbook.
That’s okay, though. You can get through 8th edition classes with a 2nd edition text (earning an A). The changes are often subtle: page numbers are shifted by a longer introduction; chapters are switched around for a more fluid curriculum, etc. The best way to wade through an old edition is by looking through the table of contents and finding the old version of the new topic.
Here’s the bottom line with textbook gambling: You will vastly reduce your all-around textbook-spending if you only buy what you need. You don’t need all the textbooks listed on your school’s computer system, or even all the books in the syllabus.
You shouldn’t buy books until at least two weeks into a class—not just because you might drop the class—but because the teacher might drop a book. At crunch time towards a semester’s end, some teachers dump the last novel (or, the last few). Often, the university syllabus requires a certain book for College English, but your teacher doesn’t use it. In other classes, the lectures cover all of the reading material and the textbook is just redundant. There are only a few ways to know for sure: ask the professor, ask a friend who took the class or just wait it out.
This can be nerve-wracking: at any time, the teacher might deploy a surprise reading assignment, since “everyone” already owns the book. Until you can obtain a permanent copy, ask the instructor to make copies of the first few assignments. Or, try one of the many tactics outlined here.
Other Tools of the Textbook Penny-Pincher
Aiding the textbook cause are a few organizations that provide textbooks in their entirety online for free. Though they only stock less than a few hundred books apiece, it’s worth it to browse their catalog just in case. The two parties on the block are Freeload Press and Textbook Revolution.
Don’t ever buy a book from the book store. No class assignment is worth getting that ripped-off. But you can still exploit these awful conglomerates while you’re waiting for a book to ship. Try reading assignments right in the store. Some stores might be plush enough to get through the whole semester in that fashion.
Early in the semester, bookstores have a longer return policy. Buy a book for as long as they’ll let you, then return it when you obtain your permanent copy.
Most bookstores have wised up to our cleverness. Some books come shrink-wrapped like a Playboy magazine. I’ve even been threatened by bookstore kingpins: “We don’t accept returns if there are any signs of having been read.” Dealing with the bookstore should be a last resort.
You can spend a lot of time trying to find the cheapest used book online. Keep it to a minimum. In the end, there’s no real way of knowing exactly what condition the book will be in and that $5 to $10 difference in price is negligible when you consider how much it’ll resell for. If you have to buy a book, use half.com. It’s a big market that drives prices down. Most of the sellers are students just like you, and sometimes, it’s a kid right down the hall.
Perhaps a friend who’s already taken the class will sell you the book directly.
Sharing a book with someone else in the class is a huge saver. Plus, “Can I borrow your textbook?” will at least lead to getting someone’s digits.
Do you have a good way of getting free textbooks? Let us know!