Students Get Savvier About Textbook Buying

Photo illustrations by Holly Gressley for The Chronicle

January 27, 2013

Hriday Thakkar, 19

International economics, Foothill College

“The price of textbooks has influenced my decision to take classes. When the same class is offered by three different instructors, I check which book is the cheapest, and even though the professor might not be good, I’m forced to take that class because the textbook is the cheapest.”

Jessica Raby (Lagios), 25

Computer science/engineering, Foothill College

“I’m in a chemistry class right now, and I did opt to get the publisher’s e- book. And I have never used it. In the future, most likely if a book comes with the access software, I’ll buy the software, I won’t buy the book.”

Johnny Lazzarini, 21

Biology, Foothill College

“When I look at a syllabus and it says, ‘required text,’ I think in my head, ‘Oh, that’s adorable.’ One of the resources that I use before I sign up for class is Rate My Professors. If they say you rarely if ever need the textbook, why am I going to drop a hundred bucks on a textbook? I’m not gonna do it.”

Jacob Brown, 19

Undeclared, U. of California at Berkeley

“I love my textbooks. Most of the textbooks for the classes I like are great. I wish I had more time to read them. And actually, over winter break I plan on reading all my textbooks. For real.”

Justin Abraham, 21

Economics, U. of California at Berkeley

“I’ve never bought a textbook from the bookstore, like in my entire college. I’m buying textbooks, but the international version. It’s like way cheaper. For my ‘Intro to Stats’ class, the usual cost of the textbook is like $120. But then I got a copy from India for like $29. And it’s the exact same copy.”

Beth Stolyarchuk, 25

Radiology, Foothill College

“I receive benefits from the GI Bill, and that is our sole income right now. I have to go and spend $400 for a couple of books—it’s absolutely outrageous. It’s unacceptable that I can’t buy groceries for two weeks because I had to pay for books.”

Marcel S. Samudra, 19

Finance/economics/business, Foothill College

“I have a friend who actually didn’t spend any money last year for books because he went to the library at the beginning of the quarter, borrowed books, scanned everything, and had the PDF file.”

Marie Efira, 63

Anthropology, Foothill College

“I had to take very few classes, because each time the price of the book more than doubles the tuition fee. It took me much longer to get my degree.”

Sarah Schueler, 23

International relations/communication, Foothill College

“I actually started this quarter renting books through Amazon, which works out really well. If I would have bought them new this quarter, I would have probably spent around $400. But I only spent $80 for all my books. I rented one book, and I bought two other books used.”

Yanitsa Mihaylova, 18

Business administration, Foothill College

“Without the textbook, I wouldn’t be successful in the class. I feel like it would be a huge risk not to buy a textbook for a class. Some of the exams, the questions are so specific, they come right out of the book. So I don’t know how you would know the information and do well on exams.”

Eduardo C. Albano, 18

Mathematics/economics, Foothill College

“I really like having the physical copy. I had an online class once, and we had an online textbook. I had to spend twice the amount [of time] reading through it. For some reason my brain could not get the information as clearly reading the electronic screen as it could marking up the pages and reading it firsthand.”

Emma Anderson, 21

Political science, U. of California at Berkeley

“Usually when I don’t buy it, it’s because I’ve found that you actually don’t need it for the class. There was one time that I was going to be tested on some of the material, but I was able to find snippets of the book on Google Books. And so I just read whatever I could from Google Books.”

Anonymous Textbook Pirate, 19

Economics, U. of California at Berkeley

“I am fully aware that what I am doing is illegal. Torrenting/downloads is simply how things get done now. It’s easy and it’s hard to catch. But I’m still pretty ambivalent. On one hand, textbook prices are ridiculous. On the other, buying them won’t bankrupt me. But I feel like if prices were low enough, I would purchase textbooks.”

Sargunjot Kaur, 20

Computer science, U. of California at Berkeley

“In the beginning of the semester we’ll be trying to buy books, and you can put it on Facebook, be like, Oh, I’m taking this class. A lot of people will just be like, Oh, I actually have the PDF, let me send it to you. Or I was in lab one day and the guy sitting next to me had the PDF version of the book opened on his computer. And I was like, Oh, can I have a copy? And he sent it over to me.”

Rune Lauridsen, 28

Economics, Foothill College

“I had been out of school for seven years, having a whole career. I needed to refresh all my math. And I did only Khan Academy. It was awesome.”

Javier Panzar, 21

History, U. of California at Berkeley

“I’ve definitely had classes where you don’t have to pay for anything, because if you have a tech-savvy GSI, they just pull all the PDFs and scan them all. But then other classes, if it’s an older professor, they’re like, go buy the books, I don’t really know how to deal with other things.”

Jennifer Bi, 20

Economics, U. of California at Berkeley

“My most expensive class was clinical psych, because she writes the textbook herself, and it has a new edition every semester or something ridiculous. So it was like almost $200. And the thing is that you can’t use the previous edition, because she changes it herself because she knows the textbooks sell well. It’s like so manipulative.”

Sierra Alef-Defoe, 18

Legal studies/public policy, U. of California at Berkeley

“I’m not very good at pirating things. I don’t know how to do it. All my friends do that, though. I feel like I’m the outcast who doesn’t do it.”

Ask Johnny Lazzarini whether he ever skips buying textbooks, and the Foothill College student laughs.

"When I look at a syllabus and it says, 'required text,' I think in my head, Oh, that's adorable," says Mr. Lazzarini, 21, a biology major at this Silicon Valley community college.

Mr. Lazzarini, who waits tables 35 hours a week, has a hard enough time paying for rent and groceries. Textbooks cost him about $500 each quarter. So before he buys one, he looks up the class on Rate My Professors. If previous students say the professor rarely uses a book, he skips it.

He's hardly alone. Roughly one out of every three seniors—and one in four freshmen—often don't buy required materials because of their price. That recent finding, from the National Survey of Student Engagement, was only the latest in a series of studies to show that students skip textbooks, a phenomenon that some say is growing.

Technology and economics are reshaping the textbook market, and the book-skipping trend is just one part of the story. Because books cost so much, students are highly motivated to find alternatives to new editions. The Web has fundamentally altered how they get those books. No longer must they trudge to the campus store. Instead, they shop a global market—a vast digital bazaar crammed with options for buying, renting, sharing, and stealing books. And for many, online grapevines like Facebook and Rate My Professors are now playing a role in the hunt for bargains, too.

To get a sense of these changes, The Chronicle conducted focus groups with undergraduates at Foothill College and the University of California at Berkeley. More than a dozen students participated at each location, representing a range of majors.

So where do students find books?

At Berkeley, the first response was a candid confession of breaking the law: "get them online for free."

The Berkeley pirate is a 19-year-old economics major, and The Chronicle granted him anonymity to speak about illegally downloading textbooks. He calls the process "simple." Recently, for example, he needed a copy of Principles of Economics. Amazon sells it new for $123. A classmate e-mailed him a PDF of it, free. That friend, in turn, had downloaded the book from a peer-to-peer file-sharing site.

Textbooks can be found through sites like the Pirate Bay, TorLock, and Torrentz, the student says. Downloading, he says, is "simply how things get done now." And it's increasingly common. Around 21 percent of students acknowledged getting textbooks from a pirate Web site in 2012, up from roughly 13 percent in 2011, according to research by the Book Industry Study Group.

"Downloading a book is no different than downloading music, a movie, or a TV show," the student says. "It's easy, and it's hard to catch. But I'm still pretty ambivalent. On one hand, textbook prices are ridiculous. On the other, buying them won't bankrupt me. But I feel like if prices were low enough, I would purchase textbooks."

Comparison Shopping

While technology has made it easier to steal books, it has also created a slew of new legal options for acquiring them online. Amazon and eBay, as you'd expect, are popular sources. But some students are also savvy about tracking down international editions of the textbooks they need.

Justin Abraham took that route. The 21-year-old Berkeley student finds Web sites that ship him print copies of books produced for foreign markets. An Indian edition of one statistics book he needs, for example, costs $29, down from about $120.

"I've never bought a textbook from the bookstore, like in my entire college," Mr. Abraham says.

Then there are rentals, the book equivalent of Net­flix. Students pay upfront, and then send the item back when they're done. For those who know they don't want to keep a book, renting removes a risk of the traditional used system: that they might pay $200 for a new volume and get $5 for it at the end of the term.

Five years ago, only a handful of colleges offered rentals. New Web-based renting options, notably a company called Chegg, have changed that. Their success forced the hand of large college-bookstore chains, says Nicole Allen, an advocate for affordable textbooks with the Student Public Interest Research Groups. Now most college bookstores offer rentals, as do Amazon and competitors like BookRenter and CampusBookRentals.

The result: When students enter the Foothill campus bookstore, they may be confronted by five different prices for a single book. Take Approaching Democracy. The political-science textbook sells for $62 (e-book), $154 (new print book), $115.50 (used print book), $107.80 (new print rental), and $59.30 (used rental).

Still, rentals get mixed reviews.

"It's not really helping," says Hriday Thakkar, 19, a Foothill international-economics major. "I checked the rentals in the bookstore—the price difference is not that much. I usually prefer buying it because I get to keep it."

But another Foothill student, Sarah Schueler, praises Amazon's competing rental program. That service, started in August, advertises savings of up to 70 percent. By starting her shopping early, and sticking to rentals and used books, Ms. Schueler spent only $80 for books last quarter. Had she bought them new, the cost would have been about $400.

That reflects another reality: Nowadays, how much you pay may depend on how much time you invest in poking around. Even traditional bookstores are adapting to that mentality. The Foothill store's site lets students comparison-shop a textbook against many competitors, like finding a flight on Kayak. Other sites, such as CampusBooks and BigWords, offer similar services.

Even so, some students prefer to start their searches on Facebook. At Berkeley, Facebook groups like "Class of 2015" get spammed with requests at the start of a semester.

"I usually go on Facebook, and I'm just like, does anyone have this book?" says Javier Panzar, 21, who studies history at the university. "And odds are that I know any number of people who have taken the class already. I can buy it from them or borrow it from them."

On Facebook, he might find a book for $15. "Because if you spill coffee on a textbook, you usually can't sell that back" to the bookstore, Mr. Panzar says. On Facebook, "it's like, yeah, I'll sell it to you for dirt cheap."

Facebook is one link in a larger network of student-to-student textbook exchanges, informal transactions that are now easier because of technology. Some students find books on Craigslist. Others use copycat sites like Outhand, a Craigslist-like exchange for students.

But do secondhand books save money?

Not according to Steve Paxhia, a consultant who studies the textbook market. Yes, he says, the Internet has made the used-book market far more efficient. But as publishers sell fewer new textbooks, the price of those new volumes goes up. And so does the price of used books. That's because used-book prices are typically tied to new ones.

"It is a fallacy from an economic standpoint that used books save students money," Mr. Paxhia says. "In real terms, they don't. The only thing that used books are cheaper than is new books."

The Dream of Digital

New or used, when you talk with students about textbook costs, you hear palpable frustration. Students gripe that professors require them to buy the newest editions of books, when little seems to have changed from the previous edition. Also maddening: plunking down more than $100 for a book that is barely referred to by the professor.

"I had to take very few classes, because each time the price of the book more than doubles the tuition fee," says Marie Efira, 63, who studies anthropology at Foothill.

Another Foothill student, Beth Stolyarchuk, laid out so much money on textbooks that she was forced to ask her in-laws for cash to buy groceries. Ms. Stolyarchuk is a Marine Corps veteran who supports her household with benefits. Asking for money felt "horrible" and "embarrassing," she says.

"Four hundred dollars for a couple of books—it's absolutely outrageous," says the 25-year-old radiology student. "It's unacceptable that I can't buy groceries for two weeks because I had to pay for books."

Mr. Thakkar, for his part, says the price of textbooks influences his choice of classes. When a class has multiple sections taught by different professors, he compares the prices of their required books. He also uses Rate My Professors to research the quality of their teaching.

"When the same class is offered by three different instructors, I check which book is the cheapest," Mr. Thakkar says. "And even though the professor might not be good, I'm forced to take that class because the textbook is the cheapest."

To many, one potential remedy for high textbook costs seems clear: digital books.

When students are asked about digital textbooks, they generally express positive sentiments, says Ms. Allen. But their own preferences conflict with those views. If forced to choose between print and digital, Ms. Allen says, 75 percent of students prefer print. (Mr. Paxhia, pointing to new data from the Book Industry Study Group, notes that the percentage of students who prefer print textbooks declined from 75 percent last fall to 59 percent this fall, a major drop.)

In The Chronicle's focus groups, students praised e-books for their instant availability, searchability, and portability. They also described taking advantage of freely available online lectures and materials.

Rune Lauridsen, for example, needed to refresh his math skills when he returned to the classroom after seven years pursuing a gymnastics and dance career. By studying free videos from Khan Academy, the 28-year-old placed into calculus at Foothill, saving money on lower-division math courses.

But others struggle with electronic learning materials. They report getting more easily distracted, or feeling frustrated at not being able to underline the text. Using an online book for one class, Eduardo C. Albano, 18, found he had to spend twice as much time to read it.

"For some reason, my brain could not get the information as clearly reading the electronic screen as it could marking up the pages and reading it firsthand," he says.

Mr. Lazzarini, the Foothill student who sometimes skips textbooks, explains that his generation was weaned on physical books. In college, faced with the proliferation of digital materials, "it's a natural reaction for us to want to resist that."

"But in coming generations," he says, "as paperless education comes to integrate itself earlier and earlier into education, it's going to become way more accepted."