Study claims buying and reselling textbooks can save students more money

By Andrew Shull

Behind tuition and room and board, textbooks are the third largest expense for college students….Behind tuition and room and board, textbooks are the third largest expense for college students. But on-campus bookstores aren’t the only option for students seeking required reading.

Outside of the University Book Center, there are book exchanges, online retailers and textbook rental agencies all competing for students’ money in the course-material market. And while renting might seem like the best deal, one textbook comparison website contends that buying and reselling books can be a more cost-effective option than borrowing.

Jeff Sherwood, CEO of textbook-comparison website, did a study of the 1,000 most-searched textbooks on his website. He found that, in general, if a book is bought at the lowest price available and then sold at the highest sell-back price offered, the money-saving results of the buy/sell method beat those of renting 95 percent of the time.

Following that model, Sherwood estimates that students can save, on average, $1,000 annually.

“We’re turning the third-highest cost for students to something that isn’t even that much of a consideration,” he said.

Sherwood said that finding students the best deal is his business model at He receives a commission when a retailer receives a customer from his website, whether the book in question is bought, sold or rented.

“Our job and goal is to show students the cheapest way to get their textbooks,” he said.

And while buying low and selling high seems to be most cost-effective, Sherwood said that renting can definitely be more economical than other methods.

He said that the low overhead associated with online retailers generally makes them a better deal than brick-and-mortar retailers, stores that physically occupy their retail space.

Taking advantage of the library is another way to save money.

Rush Miller, the executive administrator of the University Library System, said that although the library can’t help students circumvent buying textbooks, it has more than 6.5 million books available in its collection.

Miller went on to say that the library makes an effort to be as convenient as possible for students.

“Everything we can do can be found on the website,” he said. “We try to be where you are, where the students are.”

In addition to requesting books that are physically in stock, Miller discussed another way students can get the reference materials they’re looking for.

“There have been a number of large-scale efforts to digitize and make available for free books that are in the public domain,” he said.

Of the virtually millions of books that are free online, Miller pointed to any book whose copyright has expired — which includes books printed before 1923 as well as more recent books whose copyrights simply haven’t been renewed.

The public domain refers to books that are no longer the intellectual property of a person or a corporation. That means everybody has the right to view centuries of primary source materials that no longer belong to their authors.

For classes that require reading old original source documents — such as literature, history and philosophy — public domain documents allow students to read original texts without purchasing countless paperbacks.

Other documents, such as government funded research, can be viewed for free, as well.

Miller said that the Pitt Library System has been involved in this process as well, digitizing thousands of books, journal articles and other documents from Pitt’s collections. Those are then indexed in a way that allows students to both search for and read these books online.

But Debra Fyock, manager of the University Book Center, said that none of these alternatives can adequately replace the on-campus book store.

“We are the only resource for all of the required and recommended coursework for every class,” she said in an email.

She said that The Book Center is conscious of the cost of textbooks and tries to keep costs down. The Book Center is the only store guaranteed to have the right textbook available.

Fyock went on to say that The Book Center has options for students to rent course materials as well as buy and sell them, and offers eBooks in addition to hard copies. She also pointed to the store’s return policy and year-round buy-back offerings as reasons to keep business on campus.

Her tip for saving money was buying and selling at the right times. She said that selling books at the beginning of a semester is the most cost-effective option, because this is when The Book Center has in all of its orders.

“We are very mindful of student budgets and endeavor to have lower prices for new and used textbooks when compared to other brick-and-mortar stores,” she said.