It’s that time of year when a lot of my chumblrs are going back to school or starting their first semester at college, and it’s right around now when I see tons of (understandable) grousing about textbook prices. I worked at a college bookstore for more than three years. I’ve been through rushes that were hellish and not-so-hellish. I know just about everything there is to know about textbook buying and selling at college stores. So I’m writing this up to help anyone who feels frustrated/impotent/broke and try to dispel some common myths as well as provide tips and tricks for getting the most out of your money and having the best possible textbook experience.
Let’s start with some common myths:
- Myth: Textbooks aren’t actually that expensive, the bookstore just jacks up the price to take advantage of desperate college kids.
- Fact: Bookstores (both large ones like Barnes & Noble or private college stores) have no control over textbook pricing. Prices are set exclusively by publishers and cannot be changed by the store itself. You wouldn’t believe the kind of conspiracy theories I’d hear when checking people out - ours was a Barnes & Noble College Bookstore, we generally actually lost money from carrying textbooks because of how strict the quotas are from corporate.
- Myth: Stores prefer new copies of textbooks because they’re more expensive, and therefor make the store more money.
- Fact: Bookstores WANT to carry and sell used textbooks, not only because kids complain about it less, but also because they actually make more money as a store from selling used books. We would let out a collective groan of misery when huge shipments of new/updated books came - we knew they would be outrageously expensive and we knew we’d hardly sell any of them.
- Myth: The store chooses the newest possible edition in order to gouge students! It’s a conspiracy!!!111!!1
- Fact: Professors are the ones who choose which edition to use. They’re often pressured by publishers (or encouraged, I guess) to carry new editions because (quote) the old editions are out of date/incomplete/etc. We often had a few really attentive profs who would go out of their way to try and use old/cheap editions, but sometimes they simply couldn’t continue doing that because the used copies disappeared from circulation or were almost impossible to find.
- Myth: Stores are unorganized! Why aren’t all of my books there and in stock the second I arrive on campus?
- Fact: Stores cannot put in their orders for books until the professor for that class submits their order. We as a store had to finally start offering prizes and incentives to get the professors to order their books promptly, because some of them are so lazy/absentminded/disorganized. It was always a fun experience when some language professor forgot to put in their order (despite constant reminders from us) until two weeks before class started, and then blamed us when those books had to be custom printed and shipped from Germany. Who gets the earful from customers in that situation? You bet - the booksellers.
- Myth: When I sell my books back, the price is arbitrarily lowered to screw me over! What the hell?
- Fact: This is a less concrete one - our store had a system: when we look through the book you’re selling back, we take off .50 to 1.00$ for each level of damage (highlighted passages, missing pages, rips, mangled cover, mangled spine, pen in the margins, and so on). Treat your books well and you’ll get the maximum amount back. When buying used books, try to go for the nicest looking copies. (This really sucks, I know, because we would get shipped used copies to sell that looked absolutely destroyed, but we were forced to put them on the shelf.)
Now for some important tips and things you just might not know about the textbook buying and selling process:
- Stocking books for each semester is a complicated process - professors need to submit their textbook orders (which they sometimes change at the last minute or forget to do entirely) and then we have to place those orders individually with publishers. Keeping track of stuff like this can be an organizational nightmare. Some classes have ten or more books, and then think of how many classes are offered by the college, and it quickly becomes very confusing. Professors make mistakes, publishers make mistakes and booksellers make mistakes. It’s a long, complex chain and sometimes there are fuck-ups.
- Used copies always go out on the shelf first. Let me repeat that: Used copies always go out on the shelf first. When we would order books, we would get a number back from the pubs telling us how many used were available and how many new. We always, always, always prioritized used. Sometimes, however, we could only get a certain percentage of used, and the rest of the order had to be filled with new. What this means is that the earlier you can get down to the store in rush, the better your chances of getting used copies. Don’t wait until the last second or you’ll end up with almost all new books (I’m looking at you, assholes who came in literally the day after classes began and shouted at us for not having used books).
- If you’re unhappy with the number of books for a class, that’s something to take up with the Professor. Again, the store has no control over which books are selected for each class, we just do our best to fill the order.
- Shopping online will save you money, but only to a point. Look, we had free time some days, and we would go on Amazon and try to buy books for a class that way. Usually, depending on how many used copies we had for that particular class, the total came out almost exactly the same, or slightly in favor of Amazon, but only if you got free shipping. We encourage students to do the math themselves - many times you won’t save much, and we saw a lot of kids who ordered their stuff online and then realized the editions were wrong and couldn’t be used.
- Keep your receipt safe. KEEP YOUR RECEIPT SAFE. KEEP YOUR RECEIPT SAFE. I don’t know how it worked at other stores, but we literally could not do a return for someone if they didn’t have the receipt. Don’t fucking lose it if you’re thinking of dropping a class or you’ve ordered something online.
- Which brings me to my favorite: If you think you’re going to be slick and order your books online, but buy them in store as well to use for the first week of class before returning them, you are welcome to try but don’t be surprised when your plan runs afoul. I can’t tell you how many times we had kids attempt this, only to shoot themselves in the foot. Textbook return dates are heinous (at least for larger stores, I don’t know what the policy is for campus-owned or private stores) and we are held to them, too. Our last day for a full return was exactly a week after the first day of class. That meant you had exactly seven days to make any returns, unless you had proof you were dropping the class. We made allowances for those kids, as long as they could show us their completed add/drop card. And yes, we got many forged add/drop cards, and no, they were not convincing. We also had kids who bought their books online AND in the store, only to realize they’d let that 7 day deadline go by, or their online order hadn’t quite arrived, so they still needed the books from us in class… but oh damnit, now a week is up and they’re stuck with two copies of the books. Look, it’s just not a very smart idea. If you want to buy online and you have to wait, find a friend to share with or give them a few dollars to photocopy the relevant chapters for that first week.
- Pay attention to all relevant buying/returning/selling dates. We went WAY out of our way to remind students of those dates. We sent out bi-weekly emails, we put ENORMOUS signs at the registers to remind people. But we’d still have kids screaming because they didn’t know the return date. Just jot it down, or make a Google calendar alert, or put an alert on your phone. It’s not hard to do and it will pay off.
- Do your research. Ask some upperclassmen about your professors - do they actually use the books they require you to get? I had a few that would only use a chapter or two from a book, and then skim the rest. Once I had that figured out and took a second class from them, I would wait and bribe a friend from the class with beers or lunch or whatever to photocopy the important chapters. It doesn’t hurt to ask around. Some professors were notorious for slating too many books for one semester and never even getting around to using the last one or two (this was particularly true in literature classes). Look at your syllabus, you might be safe returning the last book on there.
- Packaged books (ones that are in a cellophane wrap together) cannot be returned once you break that seal. Most packages had warning stickers to that effect. Many of them have disks, so the concern is that you burned the disk for the textbook data and worksheets and then tried to return it. If you’re waffling or buying online, do not break that seal.
- Be aware that if you buy novels online for your class, you might very well get a different edition and following the pagination for assignments will be frustrating. Not a deal-breaker for most, but it can get irritating.
- Take good care of your books. DO NOT put them in a book bag with any liquid containers. Water-damaged books cannot be sold back as most publishers will not accept them from the store, either. Don’t use a highlighter, pen or anything else permanent unless you plan on keeping the book.
- Do not just randomly try to sell your books back whenever. Although most stores are required to let you sell back whenever you want, there are very specific times when your books are worth more. The sweet spot is at the end of the FOLLOWING semester. Hear me out: Spring time we get orders from professors for FALL semester, so you want to sell your books you USED during fall semester at the END of spring semester, when the professors are putting in their orders. If it’s a one-off class or a class that’s offered very rarely, you’re going to have trouble getting much money for those books (it sucks, but that’s the truth). It’s a simple matter of supply and demand. Books are not worth the same amount year round. If it was a one off class, you’re probably better off having the bookstore ring up the books, tell you how much you’ll get, and if it’s almost nothing, try to sell those books online instead.
- Do not complain to the person ringing you up about how much textbooks cost. They know, and you are not the first clever bastard to point it out.
- Do not try to pretty up a used book and sell it back to us saying it’s new. We’re trained to spot the difference and we’ve seen it all. Quite literally. I had someone sand off the black line on the bottom of the book indicating it was used. I could feel where the pages dipped in. You’re not cute, and chances are you just got a few dollars shaved off the price you’re getting from me.
- Coordinate with friends. If you know people taking the class, split the cost of one set of books and then get friendly with a scanner or photocopier.
Look, I know buying textbooks sucks. I went to college. I bought the books. I know it sucks, but there are ways to make it a less painful experience. Educate yourself about the system - encourage your professors to avoid glossy new editions, or gently remind them that if they schedule too many books for a semester and don’t use them all, that directly affects you as a student. Buy early, go for used, take good care of your books, and find out the best time to sell back for maximum money back. Booksellers are usually more than happy to tell you what sell-back dates are best, because they want a smooth experience, too. If you’re buying online, be careful - it’s not automatically the cheaper solution.
If you have any questions or you feel I missed something, please don’t hesitate to ask, and happy fall semester, everyone. :)
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