The science of purchasing textbooks

New students unexposed to the cost of class-required textbooks may be in for an unpleasant surprise-or not, depending on their classes. Engineering, math, science, and business textbooks often cost more than $100 each, while humanities books rarely exceed $50.

The reasons for this are discussed later, but first, the basics of how to buy required books.

University

Bookstore

The University Bookstore, located conveniently on campus northwest of the Marriott Library, is the most obvious source for required textbooks.

The bookstore stocks books required for all undergraduate classes at the U. The bookstore operates extended hours during the beginning-of-semester rush; doors stay open until 8 p.m. during the first three days of class, and until 6 p.m. for other opening weekdays. The bookstore normally has hours from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on weekdays, except on Tuesdays, when it’s open until 7 p.m. The store is open Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Before classes begin, required textbooks are listed at www.bookstore.utah.edu. Click on “Textbook Inquiry.” After entering in your classes, available textbook requirements can be displayed by clicking the “Select Books” button. The bookstore pointedly does not list ISBNs, presumably to prevent easy comparisons with other sources. Ambiguous editions make some price comparisons almost impossible. For example, which translation and edition of Aristophane’s Clouds should you buy for CL CV 1560?

Critics say intentionally poor descriptions coerce students to buy from the bookstore.

Nonetheless, and contrary to popular belief, the U bookstore has reasonable prices for new books. Performing an experiment to confirm this, I selected 20 classes from different departments in a semi-random fashion.

Bookstore prices for 33 required books were compared with online merchant amazon.com. The bookstore actually beat Amazon 10 times, or 30 percent of the time. On four other books, or 12 percent, the bookstore and amazon.com charged the same price.

On average, Amazon was only 90 cents cheaper for new books, or slightly less than 2 percent off the average price. (For math/science nerds, the standard deviation was $5.70, with only three books being more than $10 different either way).

Offsetting the slightly higher but competitive prices is the fact that bookstore purchases have no shipping delay and are the correct edition.

In the event the bookstore stocks the wrong book or none at all (which happens), you can take comfort knowing that most of your classmates will also have the wrong book.

While many new books are cheaper purchased online (about 20 percent of online purchases would save $5 or more), the bookstore arguably offers better peace of mind.

Furthermore, the bookstore has excellent terms of sale. Both new and used books can be returned for full refund until the class drop date (Sept. 3) for the upcoming semester. This is the last day class enrollment may be dropped without paying tuition for it. Therefore, should you decide that a class or instructor is too difficult/boring/unintelligible, you may drop the class and return your books without penalty.

A receipt and student ID are required for refunds, and returned books must have any bookstore bar codes intact. Expect to wait in line for refunds as the drop date approaches.

The bookstore also offers a 90 percent partial refund for at least two weeks after the drop date.

After the drop date, most textbooks have a fixed two-week return policy.

The refund terms of the bookstore make it an excellent source of stopgap textbooks, which undoubtedly frustrates bookstore management.

Charged with the unenviable task of buying textbooks for all U classes, book “borrowing” disrupts their estimates. In practice, many students buy used textbooks online but can’t afford to wait until they arrive through the mail. These students buy books from the U bookstore, only to return them on the drop date or whenever their online purchases arrive.

It should be noted that the bookstore forbids backpacks in the store to combat theft. You can stow backpacks away in cubbyholes in the front, but this opens you up to theft. When the store is crowded, which it will be in the first few weeks of class, no one will even notice if a thief casually takes your backpack.

Fortunately, the bookstore has free coin-operated lockers like those found in gyms. Use them. You get your quarter back, and no one can get to your backpack. Backpacks are stolen from the bookstore every year, so free lockers aren’t as dorky as you might believe. No matter how much your textbooks may cost, it pales in comparison to the expense of buying them twice.

The U bookstore might be the best choice for new books, but most students opt for used textbooks, which are often in good condition and substantially cheaper than new. Not only does the bookstore have inferior prices for used books, they often don’t stock enough, ensuring that used copies of some books sell out within days. Therefore, if you wish to buy used from the bookstore, do it as early as possible.

Used copies of newly published textbooks may be unobtainable, but cost-conscious students usually have many options even if the bookstore sells out of used books.

Alternatives to the bookstore

One alternative to the bookstore is the Associated Students of the University of Utah’s BookXchange at ulife.asuu.utah.edu/bookxchange. Student government (ASUU) has promoted the BookXchange since it began in 2001. The BookXchange is basically a free message board where buyers and sellers of used books on campus can find each other. Such transactions are conducted without a middle-man and without the fees charged by commercial online marketplaces.

Virtually all books listed on the BookXchange for purchase will be cheaper than the bookstore because asking prices are set with particular awareness of what the bookstore charges.

The BookXchange also has philosophical advantages. By buying commission-free books locally, you line only the pockets of fellow students on campus.

However, spotty coverage of books on the BookXchange might force you to a larger marketplace: the Internet. Three kinds of Web sites exist for buying textbooks: comparative searches, online booksellers, and online marketplaces.

Comparative sites like campusbooks.com and bestbookbuys.com search the prices listed by various online sources and rank them. These sites don’t sell books directly, but rely on advertisers to be profitable.

One should have no illusions about the bias of these sites, however: Among the advertisers are booksellers plugged as supposedly having the best value.

Typically, search results include quotes from booksellers and marketplaces, both new and used. These quotes give a good estimate on the going rate of textbooks.

Online booksellers are relatively large dealers that buy and sell used books. Such Web sites include barnesandnoble.com, powells.com, bookbyte.com, textbookx.com and ecampus.com. Terms vary, but when buying directly from these sites, each allows returns and guarantees that used books exceed certain quality standards. Returns are typically allowed for at least two weeks, and often up to a month. Refunds range from 90 to 100 percent, excluding shipping.

Quality standards ensure that used books exceed the quality of many books sold at the U bookstore. Therefore, it’s usually possible to find used textbooks of superior quality and price from online dealers.

However, carefully distinguish between buying directly from the site and buying from a so-called “marketplace” or “exchange” section.

Most of these booksellers also have marketplaces, which have much less favorable terms for buyers.

Marketplaces are sites where sellers can hawk directly to buyers and are another class of textbook sites. Of all online book marketplaces, the two largest are amazon.com and half.com (soon to be merged into ebay.com). All used books listed on amazon.com are marketplace sales, and all books on half.com are sold this way. Because marketplace transactions often occur between individuals, buyers must be careful to examine the history and terms of the seller. For these sites, as well as the marketplace sections of other outlets, a history rating represents the number of positive reviews by former customers. After each transaction, buyers may rate their experience with the seller and leave brief comments. Little or poor history may indicate an unreliable or even a fraudulent seller.

Fraud, often in the form of exaggerated or inaccurate descriptions, occasionally occurs when buying through marketplace sites. Remedies for fraud are not convenient for students plowing into a new semester. Although amazon.com offers a money-back guarantee for undelivered goods, this refund is not available for at least 30 days after the sale closes. Half.com offers even less recourse for fraudulent transactions, and instead asserts that buyers are responsible for examining the terms and history of sellers beforehand. Online marketplaces investigate and ban sellers who commit fraud, but this is little comfort if you’ve already been ripped off.

In spite of these risks, marketplaces often have the lowest prices of any commercial sites because sellers transact without overhead, minus fees levied for listing.

When buying used books outside of the bookstore, students often consider previous editions. To an accounting, science, or engineering student looking at $100 for a used copy of the latest edition, previous versions of a textbook look attractive.

Buying old editions invariably makes more work for the student, but often trivially so. Nothing differentiates many new editions from prior ones except a remix of problems and possibly new chapters covering recent developments. Needed sections from new editions can be copied from borrowed textbooks, and some classes don’t even assign problems from the book.

However, previous editions are not a sure thing. Professors will not bend over backward to accommodate different textbooks.

Always go to your first lecture before committing to buy older books.

Instructors will often inform you if older editions are unusually difficult to use in their class.

Selling your books

You can sometimes tell when exams let out during Finals Week by watching foot traffic in the U bookstore. Finals Week, and the Saturday after, is buyback week at the bookstore.

Waves of people come in after their finals to sell books no longer needed. The scene reminds me of a casino pit: Haggard students slide their books across a counter manned by a row of employees.

A price is offered, cash is counted out and haphazardly stacked books are carted away like redeemed gaming chips.

Those who plan on selling to the bookstore should be aware of several things. First, it doesn’t matter where your books came from, the bookstore will buy them if they’re on the list.

Second, any books being used the next semester will be purchased for 50 percent of new price.

Third, No. 2 is a lie; the bookstore often offers significantly less money, depending on the number of copies they have in stock, the wholesale going rate, and their own sadistic whimsy.

Fourth, the Bookstore won’t buy some books, notably ones with new editions.

Think of it as a game of musical chairs. While the music plays, you can merrily resell your book, but when a new edition comes out the music stops and everyone loses.

Fifth, the bookstore will buy almost any book with a cover and apparently all of its pages.

This fact shocks many new students, and I’m still a little thrown by it. I remember my first semester and experience in buyback. During the semester, a professor lauded one of my lovingly covered textbooks in class.

I didn’t realize how unusual my devotion to book maintenance was until I went to sell them back.

Other students cashed in horrifically trashed books all around me.

I remember staring slack-jawed at one text so highlighted that the whole book glowed fluorescent yellow, yet its owner got the same price as anyone else.

As long as you don’t black out pages in Euthypro, get water damage or play football with The Fundamentals of Thermodynamics, you can sell your books to the bookstore.

Sixth, when you sell to the bookstore, you receive so-called “Bucky Bucks.” These promotional coupons may be used for $1 off any single textbook during the next full semester. Usually they give you one Bucky Buck per book sold, but last semester I received a small pad of them.

Seventh, a wholesale dealer sometimes offers to buy books that the bookstore refuses, but neither the dealer nor the bookstore offer good prices. The bookstore’s principle advantage is again convenience.

Alternatives to selling back to the bookstore

Assuming the bookstore won’t buy your book, or you want a better price for it, all online options for buying books are potential routes for selling them.

The ASUU BookXchange is arguably the best alternative if you know the book will be used again. Unlike commercial sites, ASUU levies no fee for listing or selling your books.

One disadvantage of this method as that your book typically won’t be sold until a new semester begins.

If your textbook is from a class only offered once a year, the wait could be prohibitively long.

Online marketplaces do what BookXchange does, except for a fee and/or commission.

However, because potential buyers for your book span the country and the globe, books unused at the U will likely find buyers elsewhere.

In marketplace descriptions, a premium is placed on books in better condition.

Therefore, devout book preservationists stand to gain more from their vigilance. Fraud is not as large a concern on the seller’s end of marketplace transactions because payment is required up front.

However, unsatisfied buyers may leave you negative feedback, crippling your ability to sell in the future, especially if just starting out.

In terms of inconvenience and good selling prices, online booksellers are an intermediate option.

You’ll probably get more money than with the bookstore, but at slightly more hassle.

Online booksellers list their offering price by ISBN, so a student can visit several sites to find the best price and terms.

Typically, the sites offer the same price for any copy as long as it satisfies their minimum condition requirements. Some sites will offer a premium on books that may be classified “new,” but this classification is unlikely in any case.

Free postage is usually provided in the form of a pre-paid address label.

Payment is held until the book’s quality is verified, which may take more than a week. However, patience will usually reward cost-conscious students with a superior price to the bookstore.

Copy Center course packets

Many classes require course packets.

These are available at the U bookstore and/or the University Copy Center (in the Union).

Packets might consist of readings from journals and books, lab notebooks, copies of overheads or detailed lecture outlines.

Typically slim and inexpensive comb-bound booklets, packets can be thicker than textbooks (condolences to next semester’s MET E 3530 class), or royalty-bearing copies of entire books (as is often required for History of Rock and Roll, MUSIC 2100).

Buy them as soon as you know you’re keeping a class. If they run out of copies, the copy center will make you go to the bookstore and ask a clerk if they’re really out before hesitantly agreeing to print you another one.

Cheap compared to textbooks, many students prefer copy center packets.

However, packets cannot be sold back or refunded, even if you drop the class or bought it by mistake (I’ve done this).

Furthermore, they have little resale or retention value. (Who wants a plastic-spine notebook on the bookshelf?) Selling royalty bearing packets is even illegal.

So what do you do with course packets at semester’s end? Be kind to the landfills. Recycle, but rip out the spine first. Depending on the course, this may be therapeutic.

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