Wednesday 15 September 2010

The Tight Fist Guide to Buying Textbooks

This article was supposed to appear in the September 27th edition of The London Student. But thanks to some ridiculous phony 'outrage' to my last post by certain powerful members of student government it has been censored and replaced by a stupid editorial apology. Yawn. Maybe we'll be back next issue.

I need a Kindle!

One of the coldest shocks that most first-year students experience when coming to universities is the outrageous price of textbooks. "I've bought books before, this won't be too bad" you say, before keeling over in horror at the outrageous prices at the campus bookstore. But fear not, young student, because with a bit of wisdom you can beat the system and actually have money left over for late night kebabs.

The first question to ask is: do you really need the book? Tons of professors list a textbook as 'required' for their classes, but then go on to not really use it. As a former class teacher, I can't tell you how many times clueless students would come to me in office hours and complain that they "read the entire book but can't do the assignments". Well moron, if you had gone to any lectures you would have realized that the professor wasn't following the book at all. For lots of classes you can skip the book, share one copy with friends, or just pick it up from the library when you need it. But sometimes you'll decide that you really need the book.

There are some things that you want to buy new. These are things that you plan to have a long time and will only wear out if you buy them used. Think trainers, a fancy TV, or brake pads. But something tells me that 10 years down the line you aren't going to be cherishing that nice copy of 'Intermediate Statistics'. No, most likely you're going to try to sell it the second the course is over, provided you can resist the urge to erase it from your memory through ritual burning.

With this in mind, the last thing you should ever do is take a stroll to your university bookstore. These bastards will generally peddle shiny new textbooks at off-the charts prices, making you think that there is no other alternative available. But there is! Let me introduce you to an amazing technology called The Internet. And there there is more to it than status updates and blurry porn. It sells books too!

Unquestionably, the best place to get your textbooks is Ebay or Amazon (through its second hand marketplace). But just heading over to these sites is not enough. To get the real textbook deals you have to think like a textbook maker and subvert their shady con of unnecessary editions.

How much do you think the world of basic calculus has changed over the last hundred years? I'll give you a hint: not at all. So why have there been 10 new editions of your favorite calculus text in the last 20 years? Putting out new editions is the way that textbook publishers try to quell the used book market so as to screw over students to their utmost.

Professors will always put the latest edition of their favorite textbook as the 'required' text for their class. At the same time, bookstores will stop selling (and buying back) all previous editions, as they assume there will be no demand. Sellers turn to the internet, offering ridiculously low prices. But the key is that in most cases, there is hardly any difference between the editions! Maybe they've reorganized the chapters and added a couple of color graphs, but don't be fooled: calculus (or pretty much any other subject) hasn't changed.

The key is to go on Amazon or Ebay and look for previous editions of your required textbooks. For instance, anyone taking introductory economics in London is likely to get stuck reading 'Economics' by Lipsey and Chrystal. You can waste your money on the 11th edition going at £39 at Ebay, or you can instead pay £10 for the 10th edition.

Then you'll have plenty of time to sit back and smugly laugh at all those suckers who spent all their beer money just to get that 'new book' smell.
Questions about frugality? The Tight Fist can help:


  1. Why are students still having to bother with books? What year are we living in? Are they also riding to their classes on horseback and getting into duels? Here's a bonus tip for students: If one of the books on the required reading list was written by your professor, save your money, because you're going to hear ALL about it in lecture.

  2. Great post, new editions sometimes even use the same page numbers...

  3. There's also some good websites where you can rent textbooks for a fraction of the buying cost. Sites like has had every book I've needed for school; they send it to you, you can print out a return label at the end of the term and they plant a tree in your honor. Aw.

  4. An even tighter fist28 September 2010 at 15:19

    Or: the students could learn about BitTorrent, eMule and their ilk.

  5. Thanks lisa- I've heard about these textbook rental services, and they seem like a great idea. My understanding was that the general business model was to rent at around 50% of the new-book price, which doesn't seem like such a great deal to me. But maybe some are better than that- definitely something to consider.

  6. You can also try I once got a book from them at less than half the cost of my school's price.