The facts, the figures, and the truth about purchasing textbooks on the Internet

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There is no larger issue for America’s students than textbook prices. The sky-high pricing of college textbooks continues to be a thorn in the side for almost all students at the nation’s 4,000+ higher education institutions.

However, for at least four years, the growing number of textbook sellers on the Internet has provided cheaper textbooks and more and more cash-strapped students are turning to the Web with each back-to-school season.

Each August and September record numbers of students use the Internet to purchase college textbooks – but hundreds of thousands of students still buy their course textbooks from bricks and mortar retailers and pay the full list price for new textbooks. Used copies are always the first to sell so many students rarely even see them for sale in bookstores.

This document explains how students can benefit by using the Internet.

Who is is a major online marketplace for books with millions of new and used books listed for sale from thousands of independent booksellers. AbeBooks has millions of customers who purchase thousands of books a day from its websites. That means AbeBooks never sees, owns or handles a book, but facilitates the sales on behalf of its booksellers and then takes commission.

Textbooks have become an increasingly important part of the AbeBooks’ business over the past four years. At peak times during the textbook-buying seasons of the last week in August and the first week in January, experiences high volumes of book searches per second.

More than 150 specialist textbook sellers use to sell to students. Millions of new and used textbooks are listed for sale on – prices start at $1 plus shipping for used copies. AbeBooks’ sales of textbooks increase by 25-30% with each back-to-school season.

How much are students paying for textbooks in bricks and mortar stores?

There have been several major reports into college textbook pricing – all of them have simply confirmed what students have known for years. Textbooks are overpriced.

February 2005 - The State Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs) issued a report that revealed the average student spends nearly $900 each year purchasing textbooks.

August 2005 - The Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report revealing textbook prices have increased at twice the rate of inflation over the past two decades and the average student spends almost $900 on textbooks and supplies. The report also accused publishers of inflating prices by bundling unnecessary and unwanted ‘bells and whistles’ such as CDs and supplements with textbooks.

May 2007 - The US Department of Education’s Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance reported once again that college textbooks were too expensive and that something should be done to make them more affordable. It concluded the high prices were symptoms of “a structural imperfection in the market” – in other words, the college textbook market was broken and prices were being kept artificially high. Despite huge demand from buyers, the market is controlled by suppliers.

Why are textbook list prices so high?

Publishers set the prices for new textbooks. Bookstores have little control over pricing except on the used copies they acquire through buyback campaigns and then re-sell.

  • New editions are frequently issued – often at a higher price – so students are fearful of buying used copies in case the contents have dated;
  • Textbooks are often sold in bundled packages, including CDs and supplements – most students deem these extras as unnecessary;
  • Students are captive buyers with time restraints and feel there is no alternative to bricks and mortar retailers – eg. their purchases are a necessity rather than a nice-to-have like a novel and they have a deadline;
  • Publishers are simply reluctant to reduce prices for one of the most profitable sectors in publishing.

Bookstores know exactly how many potential customers they could serve each back-to-school season so they never overstock on textbooks – by buying limited numbers of textbooks they don’t receive deep discounts.

Why has the Internet become an attractive source for buying textbooks?

It’s cheap, fast and easy – plus there is a much greater selection.

It’s cheaper. Prices are simply much lower on the Internet for both new and used textbooks. Online sellers have to keep prices lower because competition between Web-based sellers is fierce and buyers can compare prices in seconds. The online market is transparent while bricks and mortar retailing allows no product comparisons for shoppers. Sellers purchase new books in large numbers and obtain deep discounts from distributors – so they can afford to offer new books at cheaper prices. Overheads are also lower for Web retailers.

And there’s a greater selection. The Internet is not restrained by walls so students have a huge choice of textbooks at a wide variety of prices – brand new, used copies a few months old, used copies a few years old and so on. AbeBooks alone offers millions of textbooks for sale.

And it’s also easier. Purchasing online can be done 24 hours a day and there are no lines.

How many students are already buying their college books online?

In recent years, various experts estimate online textbook purchases in the US account for between 15 and 30 per cent of all textbook sales.

  • NACS (National Association of College Stores) reported in 2005 that around 23 per cent of all textbooks are bought online
  • In January 2006, the State Council on Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) revealed that 15% of students in Virginia purchased their textbooks online.

AbeBooks believes 35% of all textbooks are bought online. Cash-strapped business and science students are the leading online buyers of textbooks at

Used textbooks

Secondhand textbooks are a valuable commodity for bricks and mortar retailers. They make more money off used books than new copies – they buy them back cheaply from students and mark up the prices. Plus, they can buy-back and resell a book several times.

However, there are not enough used textbooks to meet demand. Many students simply don’t bother to sell them back.

In September 2005, the Book Industry Study Group (BISG) reported that educational books accounted for the largest part of America’s used book market. It revealed used book sales accounted for $2.2 billion in sales in 2004 with $1.6 billion coming from educational books. Around $38.6 million of educational books were sold on the Internet in 2004 – an increase of 38% on 12 months earlier.

If the Internet is so good, why do most students still pay list prices in bricks and mortar retailers?

First-year students simply know no better and usually buy from bricks and mortar retailers when they start college. A new generation of inexperienced buyers, without any debts, enters the market each fall and they pay the price for not knowing that online alternatives exist.

Some courses do not issue reading lists early enough to give students the opportunity of shopping around and using the Internet. The easiest method of finding a textbook on the Internet is to search by the book’s ISBN (international standard book number), but some courses do not issue ISBNs with reading lists. Without an ISBN, students have to visit their local campus bookstore.

Isn’t the Internet a slow method to buy textbooks?

The majority of customers buying textbooks from receive their textbook in five days. Specialist textbook sellers appreciate that students need their textbooks quickly. Buyers can choose between two speeds – almost all students request the quickest option.

Student textbook buying habits polled 10,041 students about textbooks issues between December 2005 and January 2006. The research highlights included:

  • The prospect of e-textbooks is unpopular - 45% were not prepared to use digital textbooks at all with 23% undecided on the subject.
  • 73.8% buy mostly used textbooks but only 28.3% will definitely sell their textbooks – that means the shortage of used textbooks will continue.
  • 43% strongly agree that updated textbooks should clearly list the changes from the previous edition.
  • Only 30% would ever share their textbooks.
  • Just 4.3% wanted solely new books, 26.9% wanted textbooks up to a year old and 31.5% wanted books up to two years old but 12.3% were willing to buy a textbook that was 5 years old or older.
  • 63% agreed textbook price-capping legislation should be introduced.

Textbook legislation ineffective

A large number of states have attempted to tackle the issue of textbook prices – but many bills have failed to be passed into law while others are making no difference to the overall price of textbooks. A wide variety of strategies have been attempted, including waiving sales tax, rental programs, and textbook library programs.

The most effective legislation would be to force professors to post reading lists, complete with ISBNs, as early as possible so students have time to shop around for their textbooks rather than being forced into last-minute purchases from bricks and mortar retailers. Virginia and Arkansas have enacted such legislation.

The Future

Internet textbook sales will continue to rise but online textbook prices are falling – mainly because of fierce competition between booksellers. Prices in bricks and mortar retailers will continue to rise as it still remains a hugely profitable business.

E-textbooks are not yet a factor but college textbooks remain the ideal market for them. Help - How to Buy Cheap Textbooks