OER (open educational resources) and ZTC (zero textbook cost) courses and programs are big topics of conversation at the community college where I work. Not a single Professional Development Day or New Faculty Seminar goes by on our campus without a presentation from one of our staff librarians, begging faculty in other divisions to please consider helping cash-strapped students by using no-cost texts in their courses. (Of course, those same faculty also hear presentations from staff at the school bookstore, reminding them to do the exact opposite…)
So, when I started taking college courses again myself, textbook costs for my own courses were definitely on my mind. After all, we pay plenty in tuition and loans as it is, and paying for books on top of that can be a real hardship (or, for the financially better-off, at least an annoyance). So, here is a collection of tips and sources to (try to) make the process a little less onerous. Granted, they won’t all work, all of the time, but if you have a moment, they’re worth a shot.
- Read your syllabus carefully. Watch out for words like ‘recommended’ and ‘optional,’ which are very different from ‘required.’ Unless you have a deep and abiding interest in the subject, you will probably be able to skip purchasing these texts.
- Libraries to the rescue! What, like I wasn’t going to mention this one? You can get totally free textbooks here (although you have to give them back). Start with your own school’s library – maybe they already own a print or an e-copy of your text, either in the stacks or in Instructor/Course Reserves. If not, check WorldCat and plug in the ISBN of your assigned text – maybe one of your local public libraries has a copy you can borrow for a few weeks. If that still doesn’t work, try placing an ILL request.
- Phone-a-friend. Do you have a friend who just finished the course you’re taking next semester, or does your school have a Textbook Exchange discussion group? Mine has a Canvas group, open only to MLIS students, where we can list textbooks once we’re done with them and wait for someone to claim them (that person usually covers the cost of shipping). The tradeoff is, of course, when you’re done with the book, if you don’t need to keep it for future reference, consider passing it on to someone else after you!
- Buy it used: for those times when you do want to keep the book after the class is over. I am risking incurring the wrath of my school bookstore by saying this but… you probably don’t have to purchase your book directly from them. I’ve had good luck with getting used texts from both Thriftbooks and Ebay in the past.
- Rent it instead. Sometimes the book you need is so new, there aren’t any used copies available yet. Amazon, Chegg, and (probably) your school bookstore all offer semester-long textbook rentals. Just be careful to return it on time or you risk paying as much as you would have to buy it new. Or, if you’re comfortable reading on a screen rather than paper, e-copies are often less expensive than their print counterparts (although harder to sell back once the class is over).
- Sell it back. I use BookScouter, which aggregates multiple book-buyback websites and lists how much each company is offering. I’ve never made money this way, but getting even a little bit back at the end of the semester doesn’t hurt. If you purchased from your school bookstore, check there too – they may offer you more than you can find online. (If you think you might go this route, as you take the class, swap out your highlighters for sticky notes and [physical] bookmarks. The better condition your book is in, the more you can get for it.)
- Talk to your professor. This is a tip I give to the students I work with a lot: contact your professor (even before class starts; you can find their email address in the school directory) and ask if an older edition of the book would be acceptable, or if they have a publisher’s copy you could borrow for the semester. It never hurts to ask, and the worst they can say is no.
Aside from that, though, my only advice is, be a champion for OER at your university, and, if you end up in academic librarianship as a career after graduation, please consider using OER or other open-source texts yourself, and encouraging colleagues at your institution to implement it as well. The offerings are getting better all the time, and for students, not having to pay hundreds of dollars per semester for textbooks can make a huge difference in how quickly and even if they can finish their degrees.
If you have any tips or recommendations I missed, please share in the comments section! This stuff changes all the time, and I’m always open to cool new resources.