The Savvy Student’s Guide to Buying (and Selling) Textbooks

by Laura K. Garrison

The upperwest side Mecca of textbooks

There are many wonderful things to look forward to at the beginning of a new semester: seeing old friends, returning to New York and sitting in brand new classes with brand new professors (OK, maybe we don’t look forward so much to that one). But, the worst part, besides having to be out of bed before noon, is the purchasing of all the textbooks and book-books you’ll need to read/skim/pretend to read/leave on the shelf. Before you make a trip to Book Culture or enter your credit card information on Amazon, make sure you’re getting the best deal without going broke.

When Buying Textbooks

If you can, always buy used. Though it may seem like one of your most prized possessions today, chances are you won’t crack open that book after May 16. Like with cars, the first owner of a textbook depreciates the value. Buy it secondhand at a lower price to save cash. Keep in mind though, that you might miss out on online supplements, so make sure you know if they’re required for the class so you can try to buy them separately.

Avoid buying the semester’s worth of books in the first week. This is a mistake I made as a first-year, when I was convinced that I was actually going to read everything on the syllabus. Buy the main textbooks and any smaller reading assignments that are coming up in the next few weeks. Once you have a taste for what assignments you are more likely to read than others, you can cross certain books off your lists or take advantage of reserved copies in the library.

Don’t buy anything until you’re sure you’re taking the class. The worst thing in the world is spending hundreds on a textbook and then realizing you hate the class. As a wise Barnard adviser once told me, order your books after you’ve gone to the first class. It’ll save you money, and the professors know the first two weeks of the semester are sort of a wash anyway.

Shop around before making a final decision. Yes, it can be convenient to make one trip to the bookstore, but you could be wasting a considerable amount of money in the process.

Technology could be your savior. Would an eBook be enough for this class? Also, don’t forget to try googling your textbook. You’ll end up kicking yourself if you find a pdf of your textbook later on in the semester.

Insult to injury.

Where to Buy

Columbia University Bookstore (2922 Broadway, New York, NY 10027) and
Book Culture (536 W 112th St, New York, NY 10025)
Though I decry buying books online and prefer to support independent bookstores, desperate times call for desperate measures. I will be pretentious in my future life, when I am not living on a student budget. Bookstores, although convenient, are often much more expensive than online options. I would only recommend buying at the Columbia University Bookstore or Book Culture if you require a bundle of textbooks that can be purchased together at a discounted rate, or if you can buy cheaper used copies that can be inspected before they are bought.

Amazon and Barnes & Noble
When buying textbooks at either site, you can opt to buy a new copy from their stocks, or new or used copies from independent sellers. Buying new from either Amazon or Barnes & Noble can sometimes snag you a good deal as these books are often discounted off their in-store price. If your purchase comes to $25 or more (which it probably will) you’ll get free shipping. Bonus: if your order qualifies and is placed before 11am, Barnes & Noble guarantees same day shipping in Manhattan.

If you choose to buy from an independent seller through Amazon or Barnes & Noble, you’ll get deeply discounted books (I’ve seen texts listed as low as $0.01). It may seem too good to be true, and sometimes it is. Independent sellers often won’t offer free shipping, and because your book is being shipped from across the country it may take several days. Though I’ve purchased books this way, I’m wary about buying used books that I can’t flip through and inspect for damage.

Facebook, PostYourBook and Dormlist
By checking the many Facebook groups you inevitably belong to, you may be able to find a fellow Barnard/Columbia student looking to get rid of last semester’s textbooks. Because we’re all trying to get books cheap, the prices are usually negotiable and the books can be picked up during a brief meet-up on campus. Also, keep your eyes peeled for flyers hanging around in elevators or hallways because someone just might be offering the books you need.
In case you missed the recent email, Columbia is now participating in PostYourBook, a free website that allows students to easily post, sell, and buy textbooks. I’ve already sold several books via the site, which is user-friendly and expanding daily. You never know what you’ll find for a good price. In the same vein, Dormslist is a website launched by Columbia students for textbook selling and buying. You have to use your uni to create an account, so the network is safe, and nothing can beat the shipping time.

When Renting Textbooks

The way of the future!!!!1!!

Chegg, Half.ebay, and Amazon
Especially for more expensive textbooks or general requirement courses that you know you’ll never want to look at again, renting is often your cheapest option (especially if you google “Chegg promo codes”… you can thank me later). You can also rent at the Columbia Bookstore, but (as always) Amazon is generally cheaper. Additionally, the quality of the books are usually better than buying books used, and you won’t have to worry about selling your book back afterwards!

When renting, be conscious that you’ll have to send it back. Since the textbook-renting industry is tailored for students, you probably won’t have to worry about this until late May or early June, but this is definitely something to be wary of if you’re forgetful or likely to inflict bodily harm on your textbook, because you’ll have to pay for damages. Fortunately, return shipping is prepaid (usually you can print out a return label).

When Selling Textbooks

Be realistic. Don’t expect to get all your money back, so set a competitive price that both you and the buyer can be happy with.

Check your edition to make sure a new one hasn’t been printed since you took the class. If there is a new edition, adjust your price accordingly and ask your buyers or try to figure out if the older edition still has value in the course.

Don’t go crazy with the highlighter unless it’s absolutely necessary. The best way to preserve the value of your book is to keep it in the best condition possible. Don’t write in your book just for the sake of it. If you think you may want to resell in the future, use sticky notes and bookmarks to easily find important passages.

Spread the word. Flyer everywhere–near dorms, elevators, dining halls, classrooms, stairways–and flyer smart (is your class Barnard-only? for a specific major?). Include your phone number if you’re trying to get rid of your books quickly, but not if you’ll get annoyed by calls and texts after you might’ve already found a buyer. Also consider finding friend who might be taking the course (you could end up really helping them out). You could try Dormlist, although since the site isn’t so widely used it might take sometime, especially for more specific or less popular courses.

Happy buying/selling/renting!

Laura K. Garrison is a sophomore at Barnard and Managing Editor for The Nine Ways of Knowing.

Images courtesy of Dumbo Books of BrooklynColumbia University Bookstore and Dormslist.

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