Textbook rental: one of best ways for students to save money

Textbook rental services are on the rise as college students look for ways to save money when buying textbooks.

Damian Dovarganes/AP
The textbook rental market is taking off with more retailers adopting rental services in response to book rental websites. In this photo taken July 26, Brittany Wolfe, a University of California Los Angeles graduate, checks old text books at the UCLA Powell Library Building. Renting is a growingly popular choice for students looking to save money on textbooks.

Textbook rental is becoming an increasingly popular choice for college students, who’ve seen book prices surge in recent years.

Students can cut their upfront costs in half by renting, rather than buying a textbook, according to the National Association of College Stores, a a trade group for textbook vendors.

And retailers across the country are responding, with local college bookstores opening their own rental services to compete with online book rental sites, like bookrenter.com, which offers free shipping and access to some 3 million titles through a partnership with Amazon.

The National Association of College Stores says about half of its 3,000 member stores will offer book rentals this year. That's some 1,500 independent college bookstores, up from only 200 to 300 last fall.

Barnes & Noble announced on Monday that it, too, would expand its pilot textbook rental program, started in January, to include all of its 637 college bookstores. Students can also rent textbooks from the company’s website.

But aren't paper textbooks (whose cost has increase at twice the rate of inflation over the last two decades, according to the Government Accountability Office) a bit, well, last semester?

For students looking for digitized alternatives, their options are growing as well. Last week, Barnes & Noble announced its new NOOKstudy software package, which students can download for free to access the bookseller’s digital textbooks.

The service allows students to tag, highlight, search, and take notes on their e-textbooks, and offers the option to rent a digital book for the semester at a reduced price.

Contrary to what its name suggests, NOOKstudy is not accessible from Barnes & Noble’s e-reader, the nook, or another mobile device – it can only be downloaded onto a PC or a Mac. Smaller devices are not suitable for viewing textbooks’ graphic-heavy pages, says the booksellers’ website.

The makers of Amazon’s Kindle e-reader thought they’d solved that problem with the Kindle DX, a wider version of the original e-reader designed to make reading academic texts easier.

Last year, the company gave students at seven universities access to the devices with their class materials preloaded onto them.

But as the Village Voice reported last month, the experiment didn’t go very well – several students given Kindles bought the physical textbooks for their classes instead, citing difficulty in taking notes, navigating the books, and reading the color graphics that were shown in black and white.

Of course, there is also the cost of e-readers themselves, which, at around $150 to $200 are a steep investment for any student on a budget.

Another option could be open-source textbooks, as are available on curriki.org, a nonprofit that seeks to provide "universal access to free curricula and instructional materials for grades K-12," according to its website. For college professors, though, who are generally very specific about which textbook their students work from, it could be a long time before open-source curricula are adopted widely.

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