How can I save money on textbooks?

Joey Coleman takes his textbook list on a hunt for the cheapest prices

You can tell it’s almost September because of the back-to-school sale signs that are beginning to pop-up. And while the sales may mean cheap pencils to some people, for university students, they mean getting gouged with high textbook prices.

Textbooks can easily add a thousand dollars or more each year to the price of getting an education. But now with the internet, students have all sorts of ways to hunt down cheaper prices than are offered by the university bookstore. And so, I went online with my textbook list to see if I could find myself a bargain.

The first step is finding the ISBN numbers for each book. This can be done easily by putting the title into Google and going to the first major bookstore page that shows up in the results. Usually, the ISBN is listed in the details section. Once you had the ISBN, you can search for your books. The best place to look for used textbooks is the book search engine that searches over 130 different sites.

After searching for a few books, I quickly realized that there were five main sites that were worth looking at. was my favourite choice for used books because it lists both used books and international editions. The site offered the best deal for used in the case of five of my textbooks, before shipping and handling. Shipping costs vary using this site as many of the books listed are not held by but are listings similar to eBay. And also like eBay, buy beware: some sellers increase their returns by charging a handling cost.

Next, I checked Chapters, mostly because of its reputation. For one of my books, Chapters offered a lower price for a new version than what I could find for a used one. However, Chapters’ prices were also at the other extreme: a book that my university sells new for $90.95 was sold by Chapters for $118.95. In the case of another book, Chapters offered a used price of $77.40 compared to the lowest price I could find online of $63.15. Considering that I would have to put my faith in the US-based seller to get the book to me in a timely fashion, I decided that I would rather pay a little extra to Chapters and put my mind at ease.

Next up,, the Canadian website of one of the world’s largest online booksellers. Although did not offer competitive prices on used books, they did offer the lowest price by far for new versions of six of my textbooks. The best deal was a book that my university sells for $63.95 that Amazon charged $39.03 with free shipping. Two textbooks that my university sells for $56.95 were offered by Amazon for $35.88 with free shipping.

Barnes and Noble, a giant American bookstore, offered used textbooks at an alright price. In the case of my history textbooks, they offered the lowest new prices, and in one case, the cost of membership was less than the savings that membership would offer. Their used listing was pretty good as well. Of course, I have learned using eBay to be weary of ordering over the border and the savings in these cases were not enough to entice me.

Alibris offered good prices on the used textbooks they offered; the problem was that their selection was limited. Now, I am taking a lot of advanced courses this year so you may have more luck with this site. All quotes on the site are in Canadian dollars.

The university bookstore was the easiest to find my books since they listed that all for me, and of course, have them in stock. In only one case did the university offer the lowest price on a new textbook. Even then, it was only $7 less than the next lowest competitor. They consistently were the highest or near the highest for costs of used textbooks. In short, they did not provide the value they claim to provide. Considering that they are ordering in bulk, one would think they would be able to offer a better price. They were unable to tell me if they had used books in stock, so my only option for online ordering was to cross my fingers and hope for a break.

Overall, I decided to pay a little extra and ordered about half of my textbooks new from Amazon and Chapters, taking advantage of free shipping due to the size of my orders. I picked up a few used textbooks and overall saved myself about $750 dollars. It remains to be seen how happy I am with the shipping time involved or the quality of the used textbooks I ordered. I have ordered early enough that I should have all my books in time for the start of classes. Of course, I did not factor in the cost of getting something for the mailman since he is going to have to lug all my textbooks to my door.

I could have saved even more money if I went completely with used textbooks, but the price difference in many cases was not enough to convince me to do so. I like to have my own books, with my own notes and writing (okay, and my own doodling) instead of someone else’s. Considering that Amazon and Chapters offered free shipping, in many cases this meant they were offering a lower overall price that a used book dealer. My advice, spend the time to make a chart so you can clearly see the price difference and then make your own decision based on your personal preferences. Keep an open mind, I started my shopping by planning to go with all used textbooks, I was surprised to find some many deals at Amazon and ended up buying most of my textbooks early. Most importantly, order now! There are only five weeks left till classes start again and you do not want it to be October before your books arrive in the mail.