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updated 8/5/2011 11:19:12 AM ET 2011-08-05T15:19:12

Textbooks can take a big bite out of a college student's budget. In fact, students at four-year public colleges in the U.S. spent an average of $1,137 on textbooks last year, according to the College Board.

 

Although the campus bookstore may be the most convenient place to buy books, it's usually not the cheapest.

Here’s a look at how to find the best deals on books and discover alternative textbook options such as specialized iPad versions that include integrated bonus material, study aids and collaboration. In this case, we chose the 12th edition of the popular undergraduate textbook "The Economy Today" (McGraw Hill 2009) by Bradley R. Schiller, priced at $218, to show how easy it is to save big.

Sell first

Before buying this semester's books, sell your old textbooks. Do some research to find out where you'll get the most money.

Your school bookstore may have a buyback program, but it's usually not the place that offers the most cash for used books.

Amazon has a Textbook Trade-In program. For example, by turning in Schiller’s economics book, you will receive an Amazon gift certificate for $89.

'Real' books

Amazon is a safe place to start. Right away, you can save 26 percent off the list price of “The Economy Today.” A new hard copy of the book was available for $180, including free shipping for students, compared with a Barnes & Noble copy for $184. We used Amazon's price as the base price for comparison.

If the book isn’t one that will earn a permanent place on your bookshelf, check for less expensive softcover editions. In this case, an Amazon loose-leaf version was available for $131, a savings of around $50.

There are many other textbook sites such as Alibris that list titles from sources across the country.  A new hardcover copy of "The Economy Today" is listed at $58.65 on Alibris.com. Although shipping will cost you $10, the total comes to $69 ― a healthy savings.

Ebay's half.com also offers textbooks from many booksellers. Schiller's book was listed at $91 before shipping. If you use a book aggregator ( Alibris or half.com), choose a seller that ships from as close to your location as possible to minimize shipping fees.

To find more sources, type the ISBN (International Standard Book Number) number into Bing's Shopping search engine. You may refer to the Amazon listing for the number. Click on the starting price to see a list of offers. At press time, Alibris had the lowest price. Surprisingly, mega-discounter Wal-Mart stocked the book for a whopping $208 before shipping.

Renting a textbook is also a smart option that can save money. For example, online textbook rental company Chegg offers "The Economy Today" for $78 per semester, less than half the price of a new book from Amazon.

It may sound like a long shot, but give Craigslist a try, too, especially if you live near in a college town. Textbook publishers update titles frequently, so check the edition before making a purchase. Textbooks typically sell for $50 or less on Craigslist.

e-Books

Students can save up to 40 percent by buying digital textbooks compared with physical books, but often the savings is much smaller. CourseSmart offers digital versions of 90 percent of the core textbooks used across the country, including "The Economy Today" for $120, a savings of 33 percent compared with the Amazon hard cover.  Digital textbooks can be read on any Internet-connected device, although iPads, iPhones and Android devices will require downloading a free app.

However, CourseSmart e-textbooks expire after 360 days and other services may expire even sooner. For instance, Amazon launched its textbook rental service in July and offers e-rentals by the month or for as long as one year.

Kindle textbooks work on Kindle e-readers as well as through Kindle apps for PC, Mac, smartphones and tablets. Unfortunately, Schiller's book was not available in this format.

iPad books

If you have access to an iPad, check out Inkling, a San Francisco-based company that transforms textbooks into iPad-only interactive apps through its partnerships with major publishers.

Inkling offers the top 100 undergrad textbooks across the country, including "The Economy Today" for $149 with integrated definitions, interactive charts, video and quizzes that are not available in other editions.

And for the cost of a double scoop at Ben & Jerry's, you can buy one chapter at a time for $5 from Inkling.

Free books

Sure, you could mooch off a classmate, "borrow" a textbook from a friend who took the class last semester or risk it and go without, but you can also go online to trade textbooks.

Some schools such as Portland State University offer year-round swapping programs online while others such as the University of Wisconsin hold an annual event at the beginning of the school year.

The largest independent textbook exchange program is hosted by eBay on half.com.

How you choose to save on college textbooks is up to you. But one thing is sure ― the days of lugging a pile of books to the library are over.

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