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How to Buy E-Textbooks 101


How to Buy E-Textbooks 101

Lighten your load and save your wallet by buying or renting digital textbooks this school year.

Pop quiz: do college students prefer digital textbooks or the good old-fashioned paper versions? It depends on who you ask.

Way back in September 2012, we published an infographic from that claimed 57.8 percent of US students would take an e-textbook over paper due to its greater portability and lower price. Paper textbooks predictably scored higher on ease of reading and the ability to scribble notes in them. Other research indicates that half of students with an iPad would still prefer a paper textbook. And a further study by the University of Washington showed a quarter of students who got free e-textbooks still bought the paper versions (because reselling them later doesn't hurt). None of which exactly says e-textbooks are going anywhere. In fact, the market continues to grow.

There's another issue with textbooks today—they cost way too much. College textbook costs have risen 812 percent since 1978; 82 percent in just the last decade, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The College Board suggests students budget as much as $1,300 a year for books. In a report from US PIRG, "65 percent of students said that they had decided against buying a textbook because it was too expensive" and 82 percent believe they'd do better if the text book was free online. Switching to open-source books can save as much as $128 per course, according to Bloomberg Business.

Some community colleges are developing curricula specifically to avoid the cost, by using open education resources, maybe even bundling the cost of texts with the tuition. The difference between open and regular e-texts is that while e-text from big publishers may be cheaper, they still have lots of rules and limitations; open texts are much more affordable and accessible… albeit not necessarily vetted by the admins and educators. One report says that going to more open textbooks could save students in the US as much as a billion dollars a year. There are services that specialize in open texts (and courses), such as Lumen Learning, OpenStax, Saylor Academy, and MERLOT II.

Saylor Academy

Just about every student has a tablet or ebook reader or laptop along with their smartphones, yet all feel the pinch of higher tuition. It's clearly the e-textbook's time. But where does a thrifty student go to get the ebooks he or she needs at prices that won't deplete all the funds for beer cultural events on campus? The key is to shop around. Not every online book store has every single obscure textbook you might want, especially in an electronic edition, so you may need to embrace multiple platforms and apps to save money.

That's because there are several major vendors vying to be your digital college bookstore of choice. Here's where to go to get the digital-based tomes that will teach.

The Big Stores

There are a number of ways to save on a wide selection of e-textbooks with Amazon's Kindle platform. First, join Prime Student, an analog of Amazon Prime that's free for the first six months and then $49 per year—that's half the price of Prime. This membership provides free two-day shipping, access to streaming movies and TV and music (after your six-month trial), and, of course, discounts on many textbooks: up to 40 percent off some new print books, up to 90 percent off some used books, up to 80 percent off some e-textbooks, and up to 70 percent off some textbook rentals. If you go with Kindle e-textbooks, it's 80 percent off the list price on rentals for 30 days, which you can extend any time; and there's seven-day trials on purchases. Students can also trade in their print textbooks back to Amazon, even if they were purchased elsewhere, for up to 80 percent of the purchase price.

Amazon Textbooks

Amazon's e-textbooks for the Kindle platform can be read on iPads, iPhones, Android devices, Mac and Windows PCs, and any Kindle device (preferably the color Kindle Fires, as the e-ink screen of standard Kindles may not be as easy to read if it's a full-color book). There's also an "Xray for Kindle" feature on some books, a "smart glossary" that provides links to extra content, and a flashcards feature to quiz yourself. You get seven days to return a Kindle e-textbook and of course, the list of publishers includes, well, everyone.

Amazon isn't just waiting for students to come to its site, however. The mega-retailer has also taken to helping the stores at several colleges with websites that provide limited same-day delivery of more than just books. They've also set up "pickup center" lockers at some campuses, and a few even have full physical stores: Purdue University was home of Amazon's first staffed college store location, but certainly not the last.

Apple iBooks
Apple works with major textbook publishers Houghton Mifflin, McGraw-Hill, and Pearson to offer textbooks on the iPad, sold via their iBooks app or using iTunes Store. Because it is Apple, e-textbooks made with the iBooks Author publishing tool get extras like image galleries and fully rendered 3D images, but those are the exception. All e-textbooks on iPad get the ability to take notes and highlight passages and share with your fellow students.

Apple iBooks-iTunes Textbooks

Apple also provides iTunes U, another little iPad-centric educational resource that allows teachers to create and manage courses—and students—from the tablet. Everything needed for class is put in the hands of an iPad-wielding student (the app also works on iPhone).

Google Play
Google sells books to Android users via Google Play, so it makes sense it would get into the e-textbook sales game as well. Google has titles from the five biggest publishers (Cengage, Wiley, Pearson, McGraw-Hill, and Macmillan).

Google Play Textbooks

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Users are promised savings up to 80 percent off print prices (usually when renting), and can access the titles on any Android device, via the computer on Google Play: Books (there's a Chrome extension for that purpose) or even on iOS devices with the Google Play Books app.

Barnes & Noble/Yuzu
Barnes & Noble is still here, and still sells textbooks—up to 90 percent off if you rent or get them used. Of course B&N will buy them back and provide free shipping if you buy a print text over $25 (and just try to find a textbook that costs less).

B&N was going to spin off its Nook ereader as a separate business, then changed its mind. Instead, the plan switched to selling off Barnes & Noble Education Inc.—the division behind the B&N stores right on campuses that act as the college bookstore. BNED apparently, was the one bright spot in B&N's portfolio—it was responsible for one-third of the company sales, and showed growth. BNED also runs Barnes & Noble College, the division that runs 751 physical campus bookstores.

Yuzu, once deemed B&N's next-gen digital education platform, went with the new B&NE. It's a digital textbook service with apps for iOS, Android, a Web ereader, and coming soon to Mac and Windows desktops, to let students read and annotate e-textbooks.

E-textbook Sellers

"Cloud-powered education" is how Boundless now tags itself, but the idea remains the same. You don't get a textbook from Boundless, but for $20 you get a reasonable facsimile, created by essentially mapping open-source content that matches a textbook a student might be assigned. Sure, it's not the same info exactly, but close enough in most cases. (So much so that Boundless got sued by many big-name textbook publishers upon its launch in 2012; it's since settled.) The company was acquired by Valore, itself an online textbook marketplace runner with promises of 90 percent off some books, in 2015.


Chegg's raison d'être is to sell and rent textbooks—both e-textbooks and physical textbooks, with prices as good as 90 percent off. If you're not satisfied you can return paper textbooks within 21 days and e-textbooks within 14 days free of charge. Shipping of print books is free if you order $85 or more at a time. You can also sell previously purchased textbooks to Chegg (the name is a contraction of chicken + egg) as needed. The company's stated goal is to get away from print texts and go entirely digital, a la Netflix pivoting away from DVDs to streaming.


Chegg's e-textbooks are readable on the Web for desktop or via Chegg's apps for for iOS and Android. It will even give you seven days of reading the e-textbook version of a physical book you've purchased, while you wait for delivery. Chegg carries books from McGraw-Hill, Cengage, Pearson, Elsevier, and Wiley, to name a few. It also hosts regular scholarship giveaways/contests for eligible students and provides tutors via text, audio, and video, to help with "homework" and assist in find internships.

VitalSource (formerly CourseSmart) has a great selection of mobile apps and desktop options, a big selection that encompasses 90 percent of the core books used in higher ed, and prices up to 70 percent lower than the print versions when renting. The apps allow you to read offline, and most e-textbooks look identical to the print versions. CourseSmart was originally co-founded by major textbooks makers Cengage, McGraw-Hill, Pearson, MacMillan, and John Wiley & Sons then integrated with the learning management systems at over 100 institutions. It was actually bought by Vital Source Technologies (thus the name change), which is itself owned by Ingram Content Group, which is working with Chegg.


Intel Education Study
Intel Education was founded to push technology into classrooms; it's no wonder it bought Kno in 2013 to help push a digital content library of 200,000 titles, all priced 30 to 50 percent lower than print. Now fully renamed Intel Education Study, it started out trying to make tablets for schools, but now concentrates on software with apps for iOS, Android, Windows, and the Web. Texts have full interactivity and social features, plus learning aids like quizzes and flashcards available. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is a publishing partner.

Intel Education Study
With the best URL ever for selling textbooks, both print and digital, is clear when it says "we do one thing and one thing only—textbooks." It offers free shipping on orders of $25 and over, claims a warehouse of 20 million new and used tomes, 30-day return policy, book buy-backs a plenty, and something called "50 percent cash back books" where some texts you buy will always get you at least half the amount at buy-back when the semester is over. That goes for print and e-textbooks. They also promise you'll be able to read it on any device, be it phone, tablet, laptop, or desktop, using readers created by or others.

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