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Free and cheap textbooks

Beating the high cost of textbooks is a lesson worth learning.

By Stacy Johnson Jan 4, 2010 11:22AM

Getting a better deal on textbooks is definitely a subject worthy of study: They can add from 25% to 75% to tuition.


Consider these facts from a 2005 study by the General Accounting Office:  

  • Since December 1986, textbook and supply prices nearly tripled, increasing by 186%. During the same period, overall inflation increased by only 72%. 
  • The average estimated cost of books and supplies per first-time, full-time student for academic year 2003-2004 was $898 at four-year public institutions, or about 26% of the cost of tuition and fees. At two-year public institutions, the average estimated cost of books and supplies per first-time, full-time student was $886 that year, 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 we're concerned, the “why” is academic. This mini-course isn’t about finding fault; it’s about finding a better deal. See where to get free textbooks by checking out the following TV news story, then join me on the other side for links and more details.




So the simplest way to get a free textbook is from the school library or your professor. Because 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 the 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 ad every three pages):

Sites where you can swap textbooks with other students: 

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

These are sites where you might find free textbooks. Whether you actually succeed is a function of how hard you look and how common the title is that you’re looking for.  And beware 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 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 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 much lower prices, which means you might find a re-imported bargain. One site that features international editions is


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 re-importation 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


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 Craigslist, 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-Eleven 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,,, 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 and, 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.  


Related reading:

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