Every Trick in the Book

Notes from the front lines of the textbook buying game.


This is just one article from CAM’s Summer Reading Special! Click the link to read the entire section.

“Go ahead and grab a candy bar on your way out,” the Cornell Store cashier says after scanning my twelve books. In the ever-frustrating world of college textbooks, there’s only one surefire pleasure: the king-sized treats that the store offers as parting gifts during buyback, when you unload your used books at a fraction of their original price.

Textbook buying is just one of the systems that we Cornell students have to learn how to navigate. There’s the tedious online process we go through to enroll in courses, and the websites like blackboard.com that we have to master to turn in homework (and hope it doesn’t vanish). But while those may have their hassles, the stakes are different: erring in the textbook game can cost you real money. The University estimates that in 2015-16, most students will spend about $890 on textbooks and supplies. If some of that goes toward books you don’t actually need, it can add up to a lot over four years. 

Of course, such frustrations are nothing new: according to the Daily Sun, the cost of textbooks was “the top of the list of undergraduate ‘gripes’ ” back in 1934. I’d bet a year’s worth of Big Red Bucks that it ranks similarly today. So every semester, students play a waiting game. The trick is to delay buying books until the last second, then get the best deal you possibly can.

It may sound obvious, but the first rule is to make sure that you’re actually going to take the course; nobody wants to get stuck with a stack of pricey books for a class they’ve dropped. Then, peruse the syllabus carefully to make sure that some glossy monstrosity you’ve been assigned will actually figure into your final grade. Optional readings are all well and good, but we students are overloaded as it is. The bottom line, dear professors, is this: if a book isn’t going to be on the test, we won’t crack it open.

Take the textbook from my Intro to Business Management class. I discovered the $70 tome at the start of finals week, buried under a pile of paper on my desk, its plastic wrap unbroken. It wasn’t that I was lazy; rather, the professor had given out projects instead of prelims, and none of the material from the book factored into our assignments.

I have friends who play the game virtually by illegally downloading their textbooks from the Internet. Ethical issues aside, I find e-books hard to use; for me, there’s something essential about being able to highlight key facts or turn down the corner of a troublesome page. I learned this lesson the hard way last spring, when my statistics class required a book that could only be downloaded free online. It was convenient, but doing equations on a computer screen gave me headaches—literally and figuratively.

Once you decide that you need a particular book, you have to shop around. For large, expensive textbooks—say, a $200 guide to organic chemistry—many students head to Amazon, or to lesser-known sites that offer rentals or even peer-to-peer book swaps. Sometimes you can find a European edition for much less than the U.S. version, with few noticeable differences in content. But if you’ve gambled wrong and left it too late, all the cheaper options—including used copies from the campus store or online sellers—may get snatched up.

In my early college days, I naively purchased all my books from the Cornell Store as soon as each course’s reading list was announced. I can still see my freshman self, lugging her expensive purchases across the Arts Quad the week before classes. She’ll take those books home, leaf through the pages with mild interest, and set them neatly on her desk. And she’ll never open them again—because as it turns out, she has enrolled in all the wrong classes.

Dear Freshman Me: you really don’t have to do everything by the book.