Book Rentals: the Answer to High Textbook Prices?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, college and university textbook prices increased 88% between 2006 and 2016. That rate of price increase even exceeded tuition cost increases during the same period. The reasons for high textbook costs are varied, including the costs involved for the research behind the books, and the small demand for books in many subjects and disciplines. Textbook fees can be particularly difficult for students, however, as the costs for textbooks from semester to semester can vary wildly and loans or other financial aid may not cover the full cost.

This is not a new problem. College and university students have long complained about textbook prices. Even though you know you can probably sell your book back, there’s always a chunk of that original purchase price you can’t recoup if you stick with the campus bookstore. Online user sites now let you buy and sell used textbooks on your own, but that is considerably more hassle and also a bit of a gamble. Add to the mix the rise of eTextbooks and interactive textbooks and it is no wonder many students now consider simply renting their textbooks rather than play the buy/resell game.

Some textbook publishers have recognized the emerging textbook rental market and offer limited time access to their texts and supplementary materials for a fee. These programs are often not referred to as textbook rentals but work roughly the same way, although costs often still remain high—perhaps even equal to the purchase price for a textbook.

Retailers like Amazon offer textbook rentals as well. With Amazon offering used physical copies of textbooks for rent which must then be returned within a set period of time, and still in good condition, of course. Amazon also offers eTextbook rentals with downloads for the Kindle e-reader application expiring after the set rental period ends. Other sites like CampusBooks offers students the options to buy, rent, or sell books.

So when is renting the better option? Well, it’s a decision that often comes down to a simple case of addition and subtraction. How much is a new or used textbook? How much will it resell for? And how much is the rental cost? If the cost of rental looks lower than the difference between what you can buy and sell a book for, it’s the best option.

Another thing to consider, though, is how rough you are on physical copies of textbooks. If you’re the type of person who regularly spills coffee or dramatically dogears pages, you might be better off buying the cheapest used copy you can find as a dramatically altered rental return can incur extra fees.

Whatever your choice, be sure to price shop and compare—and always try to find someone who took the class last semester—they’ll probably know what your cheapest or best textbook options will be.