The high cost of tuition gets a lot of attention, but any college student can attest that buying textbooks is no small expense. Print textbook prices have soared 82 percent in the past decade alone, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Yet students are saving money through online marketplaces for used, new, rental or electronic textbooks. This past school year, students spent an average of $563 on course materials, 20 percent less than they did in the 2007-2008 academic year, according to the National Association of College Stores.
Online, for instance, there's the University Network, a website that looks for the lowest price on textbooks for college students. The textbook search engine works like travel site Kayak, perusing the Internet for the best price on books.
In a test of the service, a click on one of the most popular textbooks on the website, the 10th edition of Campbell Biology, turned up nearly 60 results. Prices ranged from $22.40 for a rental to $106.87 for the electronic version of the $244.59 textbook.
Much like the University Network, the site Slugbooks provides a list of options from booksellers, including Amazon, AbeBooks, ValoreBooks and Chegg. Students can also sell their books through the company. Founder David Miller said the days of students worrying about not receiving textbooks from online sellers in time for class are over.
"You can get books pretty quickly, especially if you're renting books. All of the rental sites have every incentive to get you your book quickly," he said. "If you are buying from a marketplace site like Amazon or Ebay, the trick is to find sellers in states close to you."
There are still benefits to college bookstores. Most are in the business of renting out books. Some also print and bind textbooks on demand for much less than the cost of a traditional textbook.
While bookstores are feeling the pressure to compete with online retailers, publishers are also being forced to shake up their business model. The handful of publishers that control the textbook market, such as McGraw Hill, Pearson and Cengage, are seeing less demand for new hardcover textbooks. Textbook publishers took in $4.9 billion in revenue in 2014, down from $5.1 billion in 2012, according to the Association of American Publishers.
Now publishers are producing less expensive digital versions of their textbooks that can be run on a laptop, smartphone or e-reader, said David Anderson, executive director of higher education at the Association of American Publishers.
"Companies are pretty much of the view that the traditional hardbound textbook will in the next few years go the way of the do-do bird," he said.
Take McGraw Hill, which has expanded its catalog of digital textbooks. One of the company's biology titles that sells for $190 at a college bookstore is now available for $85 as an e-book, said David Levin, chief executive of McGraw-Hill Education.
"It's not only cheaper but, more importantly, way more effective," Levin said. "It's a personalized experience that is tailored to the student's learning style, focusing attention on the concepts the student needs to learn most."