5 Best eTextbook Sites | April 2017


As books go the way of the dinosaurs (it's only a matter of time before we're burning them for fuel), the industry is finding exciting new ways to provide students with reliable educational materials. As with so much of the education industry, you might expect these advancements to come with absurdly high price tags, but the market has–at least for now–found a way to provide you with eBook and textbook rentals for a lot less than you'd pay if you had to purchase the darn things. After all, textbooks are a lot like cars; as soon as you drive them off the lot their value just about halves. It's much more sensible to rent, and if an eBook version's available, and you've got a tablet of any kind at your fingertips, you're going to save a whole lot of money, space, and strain on your back. It's bad enough you'll be hunched over your computer writing all those term papers, slowly turning into Quasimodo.


Fast And Frugal (almost) Wins The Race

Unlike a lot of eTextbook sites out there, Texbook Solutions has itself a small number of brick-and-mortar locations. That means that in addition to interacting with them on an Internet level, you can actually go pay them a visit, bring them some donuts and coffee, get to know them a little. Of course, that's if you live and study in either Texas or Florida, which are hot places, so maybe ice cream is a better gift.

For those of you living outside the panhandled states, Textbook solutions has a huge online library for you to peruse. They allow for a certain amount of highlighting and note taking in their physical books, so long as it isn't "excessive." They have a lightning fast expedited shipping turnaround, so if you need your books sooner than later, they're a good option.

Speaking of timeliness, the late fees through Textbook Solutions are a little steep. The first day late they'll charge you 20% of the list price for a week's extension, after that week another 20%, and the remaining 60% if you fail for another week to return the textbook. It's not a heck of a lot more expensive than other sites' late fee systems, but it can double cost of your rental for being a single day late.


Textbook Rental From An Online Giant

If there's a more trustworthy name in online retail, I don't know it. Amazon has built its reputation on looking out for their customers' best interests (though perhaps not their workers'), and their textbook and eBook rental services are no different.

Given their seamless integration with Kindle devices and Kindle app-ready phones and tablets, Amazon is able to get you more titles more easily for a lower cost that most. A lot of eBook rentals also download as a free trial for the first 3-7 days depending on the publisher, so you can make sure the text and the course are right for you before losing any cash.

Again, we see a restriction against "excessive" writing and highlighting, but I suspect it would take a significant amount of scribbling to get you into hot water here, and you could likely argue your way out of most fines as long as the text in the book is still legible.

Amazon measures the return date on textbooks by the postmark, so you don't have to fret over whether or not a lazy or incompetent postal employee is going to cost you a late fee.


Get eRewarded For Your eRentals

eCampus stands out among online eBook and textbook renters for one very attractive reason–and it's not their website; their website is decidedly unattractive–it's their rewards program. Sign-up is free, and eCampus will give you three rewards points for every dollar spent, which you can eventually redeem toward the cost of future rentals, towards gift cards, and more. There's even a coupon page to get you started on your savings before your rewards kick in.

eCampus also does you the favor of defining what they mean when they say, "excessive highlighting." Specifically, highlighting that covers more than 50% of the text in a book is deemed excessive, which seems fair. After all, if you've highlighted more than half of a book, doesn't the other half begin to stand out?

Shipping rates are pretty standard, and you can get free shipping on an order over $59, but anything under and you'll have to pay both ways, which can really add up if you're renting your collection piecemeal.


Less Restrictions, More Options

Books are heavy. More weight means more expensive postage, and if your textbook doesn't come in eBook form yet, the proposition of paying for postage can get pricey. Some sites will offer free postage at least one way once you've spent enough money, but Campus Book Rentals gives you free postage both ways...all the time.

If you're having a hard time finding an electronic copy of a certain book, or you're just plain confused about any part of the process, these guys also offer live customer support. That's right: live. As in another human being with thoughts and fears and hopes and dreams for you to dash if they mess up your order. The rental periods for all their materials are incredibly flexible, and there's a 21-day risk free guarantee on your acquisitions.

My favorite part, though, is that there's no limit on highlighting within a physical text. I could seriously highlight all day long if someone would come along and offer to pay me for it. Other renters restrict "excessive" highlighting, though few define what that actually entails. This way you can worry about cramming for your finals and not about accruing additional fees.

Their website isn't as easy to navigate as the competition, but you can always call one of those poor customer service reps and chew them out for it.


A Full-Service Stop For Students

Chegg is so much more than just a provider of text and eBook rentals. They're a complete provider of services for students looking for an edge over their fellow classmates. Everything from tutoring to college selection and transfer advice to help with job placement is available to you, in addition, of course, to their extensive library of textbooks and eBooks.

Now, none of those additional services come to you for free, but there are packages of services to choose from, as well as a la cart options. Chegg also recently partnered with Imagine Easy Solutions, a company that provides you with citation and bibliography help, as well as protection against possible plagiarism.

If you pick up a textbook through Chegg, and there's an eBook version available, they'll send you a courtesy copy of the eBook immediately, so you can get started on your studies before the textbook even arrives.

Taking advantage of all these additional features isn't cheap, with a $15/mo membership that only gets you 30 minutes of free tutoring before an hourly rate kicks in, but the convenience of Chegg's mobile apps helps ease the financial burden and boost your grades significantly.


eTextbooks: In-Depth

There’s a sense these days of inevitable expenses for college students. It’s a shame that so few student bodies seem eager to rally around the cause of affordability, but if they’re at all like I was when I studied, student loans seemed almost like a far off theoretical problem that would be taken care of by the time I was 35. That’s the line we were sold, anyway.

It wasn’t too long ago that the idea of graduating with an undergraduate degree ensured you a certain viable income that would, indeed, do a bang-up job chipping away at those pesky loans. But avarice follows hot on the heels of fairness, and nowadays you’re guaranteed to overpay for just about all of your college necessities.

You’re going to pay too much for housing until your school allows you to move off campus (where I went to school, this wasn’t allowed until senior year for no other reason than institutional greed). You’re definitely going to be locked into a meal plan that has a 95% chance of being run by either Aramark or Sodexo, two companies whose primary income streams derive from colleges and prisons. No, that’s not a coincidence.

Some silver lining must be around here somewhere, right? Right. In a rare case of the market actually filling a need gap that could have caused consumers to suffer, a slew of companies has cropped up offering cheap textbook rental services, as well as eBook rentals, which, frankly, are the future of the enterprise.

The savings are unprecedented, and they make me think back on my days desperately selling $350 textbooks back to my school’s bookstore for a measly $20 with a mix of foolhardy nostalgia and outright disgust.

How did things go so wrong in the first place?

An Industry Rigged Against The Students

Something ugly happened in the late 1970s. Well, to be fair, a lot of ugly things happened in the late 1970s, but we’re talking specifically about something ugly happening in the education sector. College professors became increasingly amenable to the idea of refreshing textbook editions at a rate faster than had ever been contemplated.

From the earliest days of printed educational materials, a culture of pride existed around the idea of a book’s durability, around the longevity of the information it held. It’s unclear exactly where this paradigm shift began, or if it had directly to do with an increase in the involvement of professors in the writing of textbooks, and their subsequent profiteering from said contributions.

Whatever the catalyst, the numbers are appalling. From 1978 to 2014, students saw an 812% increase in the cost of textbooks. This data comes from the American Enterprise Institute, which provides a graph comparing the rise in textbook costs with other commodities.

Textbooks rose in cost by a percentage more than three times the rate of the consumer price index, more than double the rate of new home costs (even accounting for the absurd bubble of the early aughts), and almost double the rate of medical costs.

Profits Justified By Profiteers

Textbook publishers argue that the increase in costs is in keeping with the demand for ever-newer editions to keep up with an accelerated rate of change in scientific and technological fields, that the costs of labor and research, of making textbooks more interactive and specific to the knowledge of the moment justify their hefty price tags.

Yet, if you look at report by Publishers Lunch tracking publishers’ profit margins in 2012, you’ll see that the big publishers raked in a 10.8% profit margin that year. Now, that’s nearly double the S&P 500’s accounting of profit margins in the Consumer Discretionary category for 2012, which was 6.3%.

Keep in mind that the Consumer Discretionary category includes companies like Amazon, CBS, Comcast, McDonald’s, Starbucks, and a slew of other consumer product giants, and these textbook publishers crushed their profit margins by comparison.

Grift Is Always Recession Proof

If you take a closer look at that Publishers Lunch graph, it shows that 2009 was a tough year, even for publishers. This was, of course, the first full year in the grip of a brutal recession the ripple effects of which are still haunting an enormous amount of people around the world.

You might expect those to be pretty lean years by the dollar count, but according to a report by Publisher’s Weekly, UK-based Pearson Corp. earned a thick $7.75 billion in revenue for 2009, an increase in nearly 150 million over their previous year.

Still, the publishers will tell you that there’s accounting for costs. So, let’s do that. The US News and World Report reported in an article from August 2012, that, for the average publisher, a total of 59.3 cents of every dollar earned in revenue goes toward their costs. That’s 15.4 cents for marketing, 11.7 cents to the authors, and 32.2 cents to printing, paying employees, etc.

That leaves a fat 40.7 cents on every dollar as profit. Now, I was an English major, but I know how to use a calculator, and 40.7 cents on the dollar for $7.75 billion is $3.15 billion (rounded down). They could literally afford to cut the prices of their books in half and still make away with over a billion and a half dollars in profit in a year when their market percentage was at its lowest.

If you want to do the math on the rest of the top publishers in their down years, here’s a ranked list of their 2009 revenue totals in billions of dollars:

  1. Pearson Corp. – 7.756
  2. Reed Elsevier Corp. – 7.367
  3. The Woodbridge Company Ltd. – 5.470
  4. Wolters Kluwer – 4.910
  5. Bertelsmann AG – 4.256
  6. France Lagardére – 3.259
  7. Grupo Planeta – 2.586
  8. The McGraw-Hill Cos. – 2.388

What’s An 18-Year-Old To Do?

More often than not, it is the younger generations who speak truth to power, who dismantle the status quo and build something more to their liking. I’ll leave whether that new world order is better or worse to the historians, but this pattern of inevitable change can be traced throughout the history of history.

It’s a small shift in the grand scheme of mankind, but the transition to textbook rental services, and–even more poignantly–to eBook rental services, is making life a lot easier for students, even if it takes a bite out of publishing companies’ swollen profit margins. As of 2012, these rental services and online products took a 27% bite out of the US textbook pie, according to the Outsell research firm.

Just because a better system is cropping up around you, however, it doesn’t mean that you can take your attention away from watching out for yourself. Even among the providers of textbook and eBook rentals that we’ve ranked here for you there are marked differences.

If you’re the type to miss deadlines, to return your library books a little late, or get even a little bit behind on your bills, you’ll want to seek out the provider with the most forgiving late penalties.

Likewise, if you’re an interactive learner who wants to have the convenience of an eBook along with the tactile learning tool of the physical text, you can gravitate more toward companies with a wide selection of both, especially those who won’t charge you an arm and a leg if they find you’ve highlighted the book into oblivion.

Whoever you end up working with, you’re in a much better position now than the students who came before you. A lot about this college cost bubble is slowly deflating, and these rental services are at the vanguard of keeping your education affordable.


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