5 Ways To Get Your College Textbooks For Free

By   |  January 20, 2011

The first week of my freshman year at college was a financial slap in the face. Well, it should have been anyway. On top of an $11,000 student loan from Sallie Mae I had taken out (and yes, I chose that loan amount completely randomly and put it in my dad’s name… hehe, whoops, sorry dad), I started throwing out money like it grew on trees. When a bunch of kids from my dorm invited me along to the campus bookstore to buy their textbooks for class, I stupidly went along and smacked down hundreds upon hundreds of dollars for my first semester of books, which I stupidly believed to be normal. Luckily, I learn very quickly, and that was the first and ONLY time I would do something like that. Read on below to discover the best ways to get your college text books for free, as in beer:

1. Library Reserve “Copy-And-Return”: Sometimes by law and sometimes by university policy, most colleges keep at least a few copies of every single textbook from every single curriculum “on reserve” at their campus library each semester. There is no reason to go into details, but they just do. Anyway, I learned this trick after careful observation of the Filipino and Chinese students at my college (the most cheap-ass and savvy of all college students). It is a pretty simple concept: you simply check out the reserve copy of your textbook, find the nearest photocopy store and spend a solid hour copying every single page, staple all the pages together, and bam, you have a complete college textbook for a few dollars of Kinko’s fees (note: never use Kinko’s btw). The only time this becomes difficult is when your library doesn’t allow reserve copies to be taken outside (or when other students are competing for the same reserve copy). In this case, you can try to use an in-house copy machine at your campus library, or just sneak the book out when nobody is watching and bring it back before your time slot is finished.

Note regarding copyright: This may be illegal with some books and in some jurisdictions. But then again, so is singing the Happy Birthday song without permission. Your life, you choose. Just be… smart.

Note regarding “book sharing networks”: Some college campuses or county governments have things called “book sharing networks” and things like this, according to some students. I have never witnessed one, but some people say they work decent and are often partnered with local libraries and what not. I don’t really know how they work, so feel free to comment if YOU do.

2. Avoid Reading Books Altogether: Before you dismiss this as an invalid option, let me clarify. There are some students in some majors (i.e. social science, humanities, etc) who truly do NOT need half of the books that appear on their syllabuses each semester. This is for a variety of reasons. Many times, professors are just suggesting books that have no relation to your exams or course work. Other times, it is because the professor already summarizes the main points of a certain book in his lectures (which you should remember, as those are the points he will probably quiz you on later). In the case that you feel you need further understanding of a certain book, say hello to Amazon.com user reviews. Contrary to sites like Wikipedia and CNN.com, the people who leave comments on Amazon are quite often prestigious professors, academics, politicans, and beyond. Pay keen attention to reviewers from the “TOP 500 Reviewer” club and things like that, as they usually are pretty damn smart and whose points make GREAT feed for your in-class essays.

3. Find Selections On Free Databases: Many times when a professor lists a book on his syllabus, he only has a few key points he wants you to pick up, as mentioned above. Other times, however, it is because that book is a “collection, digest, journal, etc” and simply has a bunch of “articles, selections, or stories” bound together. In such a case, professors usually specify which author or selection they want you to read, at which point you can either make use of Google, Amazon.com, or FREE DATABASES that contain millions of literary selections such as LEXIS-NEXIS, EBESCOhost, or ProQuest,. Most college campuses have annual subscriptions to these databases meaning that you can access all of this material for free by logging in from a computer on your campus (esp in the library).

4. Read In The Bookstore Or Return Your Purchased Books: This advice is not applicable in many situations. However, if your professor usually only assigns short readings etc. then it is the perfect time to simply walk into your bookstore, find a comfortable chair (or cold, hard, tiled-floor) and skim through your assigned reading. That, or purchase your needed text book and return it a few days or weeks later, depending on your bookstore’s policies. Unfortunately, many campus bookstores have wised up to these tricks and now shrink-wrap certain books so they can detect that you have used them and refuse to accept your return. So unless you know a guy with a shrink-wrap machine, proceed carefully (or search out your town’s alternative bookstores instead of using your on-campus bookstore).

5. Almost Free Alternatives: Look kids, the reason why college textbooks are so goddamn expensive is because there is a massive conspiracy between the textbook publishers (who purposefully release new editions every year to cash in on confused students), the professors (who often are publishing their own books or receiving some type of kickback), and CAMPUS BOOKSTORES, the most evil player of all. Instead of listening to their threats and warnings, hop on Craigslist or Half.com or even once again Amazon.com and find dirt-cheap older editions of your textbook. In 90% of cases they will have nearly identical content, but the order has just been switched around over the years. In fact, find the “very used” copies that are FULL OF WRITING AND HIGHLIGHTING because then you don’t have take any notes as it has already been done by the last 5 owners before you.

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30 Comments on “5 Ways To Get Your College Textbooks For Free”  (RSS)

  1. @Joe Bookstore Manager

    YOU’RE the thief!

  2. I like the helpful info you supply in your articles. I will bookmark your weblog and test again here regularly. I’m somewhat sure I’ll be told a lot of new stuff right here! Good luck for the following!

  3. I am glad that the author of this article is promoting students to become thieves. Is it OK to steal gas when it becomes higher priced? Is it OK to steal food when the price goes up? Of course not… Then why do you think it is ok to steal copyrighted information. Promoting the practice of students taking books and copying the information instead of purchasing it is discusting. College bookstores are self funded. The only way they can pay their employees is because they have to mark up their textbooks. What you don’t understand is that a book that sells for $100 cost the bookstore $75. After all bills are paid a College Bookstore keeps roughly $1.00 for every $100.00 in sales….

    • U a noob, poor college book stores ?
      Boy with yo joe the book store manger ass,
      U on some lame ass shit

  4. Collegetimes, with this article you have done a SERVICE to college students all over the country. Thank you.

  5. @natasha. valid points but the real issue with textbooks is when your campus stops using them and they refuse to buy them back. you could sell it on ebay or amazon, which i have done in the past, but you never really know how much a textbook is worth until you know the demand. i’ve been using flustard’s bookbase. it’s pretty nifty. basically students add textbooks and the campus and semester information. basically now you can find out which schools are using the same textbook and when.

  6. I say just buy the books, and sell them back. No copyright issues doing that.

    • What about when u buy it for $300
      And they wanna give yo ass $15 at buy back

      U on lame shit my man

  7. To the comments before about bookstores being evil… they’re selling books at full price. If you walked into Barnes and Noble and bought really any set of books at full price, you would loose lots of money. That’s why stores like Half Price Books and Amazon do so well. It’s not that bookstore is evil or bad at all; it’s just that you’re paying for a new book, so you pay new price. Hopefully this comment will ease the ever-clear tension within the comments. :)

    Also, you don’t have to go to these extremes to not pay bookstore price. AMAZON is your friend. Especially with Student Prime right now. Sure, you won’t get anything for free, but you’ll get some ratty old library version of the exact text you need for a fraction of the cost. Also, Amazon’s buyback for textbooks is one of the most competitive I’ve seen yet. There are lots of textbook buying sites online, too (but most of them seem like a ripoff to me?). Also, check around your school. Our school has a Craigslist-type listing site that allows students to directly sell to one another.

    One last thing. One way to make BACK a lot of your money is to sell directly to other students. If you sell to Amazon, of course they’re the middle man, so they give you less than they’ll charge. However, if you just put in a little extra effort and put up like 30 fliers in freshman dorms or something, you can sell that Calculus Textbook to a naive freshman for almost bookstore used price. Just knock 20 off that 140, and they’ll think they’re scoring the deal of a lifetime.

  8. Am I really self-loathing? Or are you just exercising your maleness onto me and can’t come up with anything better to say?

    This was a poorly written and unnecessary article anyway. Obviously, I’m not the only person who thinks so.

  9. @Pinay, you’re a self-loathing liberal pussy. Grow up.

  10. “Anyway, I learned this trick after careful observation of the Filipino and Chinese students at my college (the most cheap-ass and savvy of all college students)”

    You better check yourself on your racist & stereotypical mentalities. I don’t feel complimented when I’m described as a “cheap-ass”. Instead, I feel targeted, marginalized, and stigmatized.

    Thanks for that.

  11. @College Retail Professionals,

    THANK YOU for providing a direct testimony from the college bookstore “industry.” You have given our readers overt confirmation that this is an INDUSTRY, a profit-seeking INDUSTRY, straight from the insiders. Why in God’s name is buying your college textbooks related to Business 101? Why is there any profit being made on college textbooks AT ALL? What part of this are you not understanding? Since when did college and education become a consumer-oriented, mass-produced INDUSTRY? You guys can’t see the forest for the trees! It’s truly amazing. Why is a tax-funded public university paying or demanding “license” fees for ANYTHING AT ALL?

    Again, thank you so much for the eye-witness sense of distorted ego.

  12. Anonymous is right, this whole thread is a complete joke. I’ve met thousands of retail professionals in over 16 years of working in the industry, and I’ve never met one who doesn’t care deeply about the students they serve. “College Times” has probably never had any credibility beyond “mac sucks” blogs and discussions on how to survive a hangover. CT, please do yourself a service and quit disemboweling your ignorance for the rest of us to see. I’d hate it if even one college student read this column and believed it. In summary you are completely off base: College stores make an honest profit to continue running their operations, they do NOT control book prices beyond a relatively tiny 20-25% margin, clothing is typically at a higher margin but also involves paying licensing fees. Here’s my advice: go to your local college and take a class called Business 101. No store would be in business if they practiced the things you describe above. Now apologize to all the bookstore managers that you ignorantly insulted and go buy a book- you need some education. You have no clue what you are talking about.

  13. @Anonymous, you sure have a lot of condescension coming from an anonymous post. You actually believe that corporate-run campus bookstores are better and/or less guilty of the accusations above? lol well if I’m a hippie than you are Dick Cheney my friend. And by the way, I hate Macs and people from NorCal: https://collegetimes.co/top-10-reasons-why-mac-sucks/

    Regarding your claim, 75% is a very large number, I won’t disagree with you because I haven’t researched this fact and it doesn’t change any of the facts or opinions that appear on this page… if anything, it reinforces them. But I would still be curious to see statistics of how many of the countries top 100 biggest universities are outsourcing bookstore sales and management. I have a feeling it’s not many.

  14. Why do I feel like I’m about to fight the drunk guy at a party..

    Collegetimes, you are a tool. A sniveling, little bike messenger in Berkeley that thinks his 5th generation Apple computer has unlocked the great mysteries of the universe. You have all this information at your fingertips and you think it makes you omniscient. It doesn’t.

    Your ways to save money: Copy and Return books from the library. Don’t read the book. Really?

    It’s a shame that people like you waste their talents and energy banging your heads against brick walls. The crap you have convinced yourself of belongs in a poem for you to recite to your 4 friends at your local coffeshop’s next poetry slam.

    KO, by now you’ve realized that Nate has tried to answer your questions reasonably and objectively. Meanwhile CT does his zine a disservice by spewing garbage about a boogeyman that doesn’t exist. CT sits around all day hoping the next G8 Summit is in a sunny place so he can wish he had the courage to go..and get some color on his pasty, free-range skin. He won’t go, though, because his mother won’t let him.

    75% of college bookstores are not run by their institutions. They are run by private contractors (Barnes and Noble and Follett are the biggest). If CT were right, schools would run their own bookstores and thereby make zillions of dollars. But he’s not right and they don’t. The college textbook industry is a diffuicult one. Other than grocery stores, there’s not an industry that runs on smaller margins..the same margins they’ve run on for 50 years (20-25%). Just because any jackass can tap into the “Wild West Web” doesn’t make it any less so.

    And apologies to CT if he lives in SoCal and not NorCal. The point is you belong in Portlandia.

    • Bro u have never been broke huh, u never had a teacher demand u to get a book that useless and unhelpful?

      Bruh u buy it for $300 and the buy back for $13

      This article woke af

  15. Thanks for the continued discussion, yes, we do make generalizations here and there are always exceptions to the rule. But without generalizations we can’t really make the arguments we want to nor offer the advice we NEED to. ;)

    @Nate, you are right that campus bookstores are mostly a pawn of the other players, but a very powerful one at that. I’m sorry but you are completely wrong about price setting, that is completely in the hands of many campus bookstore managers (who are controlled, in part yes, by campus administrators). But they often are semi-independent and can choose when to have sales, or when to order new merchandise from their suppliers.

    I’m sorry but defending a $100 UC jacket is impossible in my book, and no, the high price is not due to manufacturing cost. How can WalMart sell NFL branded jackets for $15? (One reason is that it is NOT an exclusive sales license.) These campus bookstores have a completely exclusive license in most cases. Sure, schools like UCLA may have a few licenses (I’m not sure actually) but most schools have one exclusive merch license with… their campus bookstore. And in turn, the bookstore has an exclusive manufacturing license with their supplier. This means more profits for every party involved, and that is why they keep it that way. There is no “licensing fee” being paid by anyone, I’m not sure what you mean by that.

    For example, UC Irvine admin controls their brand, and only allows the UC Irvine campus bookstore to sell UC Irvine branded merchandise. In turn, the bookstore has an exclusive partnership with ONE jacket supplier. There is no license being paid here. There is only an exclusive supplier, as far as I know, who makes tons of money off the relationship in the process.

    You are right that many campus-branded publishers are managed by private publishing houses, but it is not really relevant to our points. If you think the universities in these relationships do not have absolute control over their supplier, you are mistaken. If anything, such relationships are more evil than (rare) in-house campus publishing, because the corporate world teaches them how to be more evil with regular edition updates, etc. In such relationships these evil decisions are not from one party, but rather an ongoing, strategic conspiracy between the college administration, the college faculty, the college publishing team and their corporate publishing partners.

    @Nate, You are Ko just happen to be nice people who care about students, which can’t be said about the majority of bookstore managers or campus administrators, unfortunately.

  16. @Ko: Hey, that’s why I felt the need to comment too- glad I’m not the only one.

    @collegetimes: One thing that I think you’re doing in all of this is conflating the bookstore and the other forces they deal with. For example, bookstores don’t typically determine what book is being used- that is all determined by professors, departments, and/or administrators. The bookstore is just an outlet, not a decision making body. Likewise, when you say that a UC branded jacket costs $80-100, what you don’t see is the manufacturing cost (which is likely high in and of itself) and, more importantly, the licensing fee that is being paid. At a larger school with a national brand (e.g. a UCLA or a Berkeley), that is a considerable cost. Neither of these are determined by the bookstore, they’re simply passing on the high cost that they are paying. Finally, you place the decisions about new editions on the back of bookstores, when that is purely driven by the publisher. Even the university’s proprietary press is often not run by the university itself- the University Press of Kentucky is run by Hopkins Fulfillment in Maryland, while California and Princeton have a joint venture that is not based at either school. All of which means that even with University-published books, the bookstore is a step removed from the publisher’s pricing and edition decisions.

    I appreciate the chance to have a conversation about this and I understand that you need to make statements like that to drive traffic (after all, it got me here, didn’t it?), but as Ko said, as someone trying to do right by students, it stings a little to be tagged even incidentally with the evil label.

  17. @collegetimes: Thanks for explaining. I guess the main difference is the exclusivity of course-material. As we do get the occasional exclusive custom-publication, made solely for this university by Pearson or McGraw-Hill, 99% of compulsory and recommended literature can be bought at any retailer. (Including many from Harvard, Princeton etc. presses) Thus letting the free market do it’s work like it’s supposed to.

    Please excuse me for going on about this but it kinda stings when people talk this way about the campus bookstore. With a small team we work hard to make sure all coursebooks are in stock, at the right time and in sufficient numbers. (Getting them from the US, UK and Germany) Where possible we try to negotiate a lower price at the publishers. Besides coursematerials we try and keep up a relevant assortement of the latest works in the subjects teached. We co-organize guest-lectures, sponsor student’s associations and generaly try and play an active part in campus-life. We do need to make money that’s true but in no way are we pulling in major bucks on the back of students. That’s why i felt the need to react.

    Once again; thanks for explaining.

  18. @Ko, you are exactly right, the students are “forced” to purchase books from these shops (and I will explain). Schools in Europe and small liberal arts schools like the one Nate works at are humane institutions that focus on one thing: knowledge. However, most large public and private universities are focused on one completely different thing: money! Most of these large universities either have their own publishing house now (i.e. Harvard Press, Stanford Press, etc.) or they have an exclusive partnership with private publishing houses. So when Professor Smith writes a new book called “Politics 101 edition #5” and he publishes it at Harvard Press, well guess what – the only store that sells his book is Harvard University campus bookstore, and by the way, this book is a mandatory purchase for all his freshmen students. You are right about one thing – the campus bookstores are terrified of losing control due to the internet, which is why they are coming out with “new editions” faster than ever before, and/or maintaining exclusive sales rights to the books published by various professors. Factor in students who change classes at the last minute and can’t wait for a book to arrive in the mail, and these bookstores are doing just fine with profits.

  19. @Collegtimes: I don’t understand.
    Nate talks about a mark up of about 20%, that’s roughly what we manage as well. (mostly a little less)
    When we would increase our mark up for even 10% or 20% we would be out of business in a year. Textbooks can be bought from a thousand different places. No student would buy his or her books at our shop.
    I don’t understand how this would be different in the US. As long as you’re not forced to buy your books at one specific shop, how can these ‘evil’ shops still be in business?
    I can imagine that in the olden days, pre-internet, things were different, but nowadays, how would you get away with it? Amazon has been around since ’95, those campus shops should be long gone.
    As i experience it, the textbook business, the retail-side of it, is just the same as any other (retail)business.
    Prices tend to be a little higher compared to online retailers, as the overhead costs are higher. But that goes for any other product.

  20. @Nate, thanks for the information and feedback. I think you represent a small minority of campus bookstores that aim to actually help students, which is definitely not the norm. At the University of California campus bookstores, for example, the average school-branded jacket costs upwards of $80-100 each. Mandatory “new edition” science textbooks are upwards of $250-300 each, required every new semester for science students. This is beyond high prices, it is flat out criminal price-fixing and conspiracy against the students, even at these so-called “public” universities. Not to mention that the UC professors are the authors of half the books they “require” students to purchase every semester. It is a legalized crime syndicate, really. Professors, bookstores, and publishers, all screwing over thousands of students each year. Th professors do a shitty job teaching as they are focused on writing books and “doing research” while the publishers (even the on-campus publishers) eagerly schedule the next editions. And for the record, the UC system actually requires its professors to write books and “do research” to spur on this cash cow and more specifically, qualify for more government “research” grants in the $ billions. That brings us to the US Congress’ role (err, lobbyists) in the circle, which isn’t even worth getting into at this point. Textbooks are just the most surface-level and easily broken-down element of the equation!

  21. I think you’re painting bookstores with a VERY broad brush here. I run the campus bookstore for a small liberal arts college that serves primarily low-income, first generation college students and we do everything in our power to not be evil. We mark up our textbooks 20% or less, which covers our administrative costs and not much else; we are implementing a policy of no clothing over $25.00; and we shop around to find the best deal possible on our supplies and merchandise, often matching or beating WalMart. Yes, our textbook prices are still high, but that is a function of publisher prices- if a professor wants to use a new edition of a science book, we’re forced to go directly to the publisher, who will charge us upwards of $100-150, which means even with our minimal mark up, students still have to pay $120-180 and up.

    I can’t speak to the large universities and leased bookstore run by corporations like Barnes & Noble, but I think you’ll find that at most smaller schools and insitutionally owned stores, the bookstore’s not such an evil place.

  22. @collegetimes Okay, i guess it’s different over here. Our campus bookstores are only connected to the colleges in that we pay rent. We do sell a lot of books at the start of semester but a great part of the year we don’t. In those quiet months we still provide the campus with a nice little academic bookstore.

    Profits are small as we’re forced to lower prices to keep up with internet-retailers, and the way i can see the market going it’s going to be hard to keep these shops going in the comming years.
    You can’t stop progression, and with the digitaliztion of coursematerials comming i think it’s inevitable bookshops will disappear one day. I do think a bookshop is a welcome addition to campus-life though and i’d hate to see these go. I say that as a shopkeeper but also as a former student. ;)

  23. @Ko, yes most of them are a HUGE source of profit for their college’s administration and budget. We are talking $$ millions each year. In the US they sell thousands of text books along with computers, mandatory tools for classes such as “iClickers” and “exam notebooks”, and merchandise like jackets and car decorations.

  24. Are these Campus Bookstore really evil or are they just trying to make an earnest living?

    I’m not fully aware of the American situation but in my experience (somewhere in Europe) it’s hard enough to keep a campus bookstore running.

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