Lenny Domnitser’s
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This is a static archive of the domnit.org blog,
which Lenny Domnitser wrote between 2006 and 2009.

HOWTO Buy Cheap College Textbooks

I just started my 6th semester of college, and have built up some experience buying books. My advice to save money can be boiled down to 2 important points:

Even if you buy your books new, online retailers are usually discounted, while the campus book store probably sells at MSRP. An example from this semester: my campus store had Head First Design Patterns for $45—Amazon had it for $30. The only books I buy at the campus store are (overpriced) course packets published by the university. If you spend more than $25 on new books at Amazon, they will ship for free, so keep that in mind when choosing new vs. used.

Also, buying online gives you more used book options. Some sites sell international edition books, which have almost or exactly the same content, a soft cover, and a much lower price. Watch out, though: shipping from India or China can cost over $15. I also try to buy books from nearby because they will arrive sooner, and it puts fewer pollutants and greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Even within the United States, I’d pay an extra $1 or 2 to order from NY or PA instead of CA.

The single best thing you can do when shopping for books online is to install Book Burro. It is a Firefox extension (you’re using Firefox, right?) that checks prices at almost a dozen online booksellers. It will even tell you the nearest library that has that book.

When you buy online, it might take a while for your books to arrive. You can usually get by the first week, but it sucks when it’s longer. I’ve had books lost in the mail. If you can find out which books you will need, order them ahead of time.

This brings me to the point about schmoozing—if you talk to people who have taken the class, you will know which books you need, and can order just those. Google and Wikipedia can often be as good as suggested reference books. Also, just be smart: for my programming languages class, I bought the required textbook and bought the suggested books on Haskell and Ruby, but skipped the Python and C books because I know that I am familiar enough with the latter two languages.

Better yet, you may be able to use a book for free. One semester my suitemate had the books for 2 of my classes—1 for a class we were both in, 1 book he had for reference. (Thanks for the ~$100, man!) The next semester I lent him my math text.

These tips have worked pretty well for my technical classes. I’ve taken a few literature and writing classes that require a bunch of small books. Paying shipping for these can outweigh the savings of used books, but if you get free shipping at Amazon, it’s probably cheaper than at the campus store. I’ve also taken a lit class that I dropped the first day, which would have cost quite a bit if bought all the books online right away. For this kind of class you can wait to see the syllabus, then buy the first book marked up and the rest online.

(Woo, I’m done! This is not one of those blowhard advice blog—please slap me if I start to write in this style consistently. The advice is legit, but I also wanted to confirm that I would hate myself if I became a pro blogger. [I mean the kind you see on Digg all the time, not like Kottke.] Actually, this is original content, better than most of those sites. If it felt right, which I’m even more sure now is not the case, I’d have tastefully sprinkled bookseller affiliate links throughout the post.)