In her first semester of college, Kathleen Ronayne said she spent around $500 on textbooks. This past semester, the rising Syracuse senior said she only spent around $150, trying to buy as many as possible on Amazon.com.
Now the world's largest Internet retailer is offering an option that may prove even cheaper. The company announced the launch of Kindle Textbook Rental on Monday, saying the service could save students up to 80 percent off textbook list prices.
But it remains to be seen whether the service will be a success. Despite the rising popularity of e-books on Kindle, iPad and other platforms, 75 percent of students say they prefer print textbooks, according to an April 2011 study by NACS OnCampus Research.
The rental prices begin with a minimum 30-day rental and go up from there.
For example, the full price listing of Psychology in Action published by John Wiley & Sons is about $154. A used hardcover copy on Amazon starts at $62, or the Kindle edition can be rented for about $29 for 30 days. If you want to rent the book for 60 days, it would be about $36; for 90 days, about $43; and for 120 days, the length of a typical semester, about $46.
Assuming a student does purchase the course materials for the duration of the class, he or she would save about $16 plus potential shipping costs over the price of the cheapest available used version. Is the savings worth it?
Ryan Judy, a rising sophomore at Ohio University, seems to think so. He said he has used digital textbooks in the past because they are cheaper and usually allow highlighting and have other tools for studying. He notes one downside though: Sometimes it's hard to concentrate on digital textbooks and his eyes can hurt. But overall, it's worth the savings, he said.
"I would, and probably will, use Kindle's service because I have an iPad and you can just download the Kindle textbooks on there, which makes it really convenient," he said. "It's also cheaper. I normally try find the cheapest way to get my books."
Ronayne agreed, saying although she would prefer to read a print book, she would go digital if it meant it was significantly less expensive.
Although most students prefer print textbooks, interest in digital books is rising quickly. The April survey of 600 students found that 18 percent said they had purchased electronic books in the past three months, up 6 percentage points from a study conducted just a few months earlier.
Amazon's idea to offer textbook rental services is not new, although the company is the highest-profile retailer to enter the market. Competitors include Chegg, where you can rent print and e-textbooks, and Kno, which sells and rents textbooks for the iPad. There's also Inkling, which allows users to download a textbook to an iPad and use interactive diagrams and quizzes.
This shift from print to digital has had some impact on college stores, which are traditionally responsible for supplying student textbooks. As of fall 2009, 300 college stores that were members of the National Association of College Stores offered a rental program of some kind, said the organization's director of public relations Charles Schmidt. This fall, almost all the association's 3,100 member stores will offer book rental options.
"Our stores wanted to remain competitive," Schmidt said. And they have to. According to NACS's 2010 financial report, total course material sales made up about 57 percent of total sales at member stores.
"We feel that college stores always provide students with the best value," Schmidt said. "You're also buying locally, and the money is paying salaries in the local economy and local tax base." Another benefit of buying through a college store is not having to deal with shipping or complicated returns and exchanges, he added.
Many students sell back their textbooks after buying them used or new, but most of the time the money they make back is the same as just renting the book would cost.
"I sell my books back, but you really have to shop around to see who pays the most," Judy wrote in an e-mail. "A lot of the time book buybacks give you like $10-15 dollars for a book you paid $60 for."