Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Book Rentals: Good or Bad?

This isn't a chastisement of a bad bookseller, like many of my articles are.
This is a discussion of a newer phenomenon in bookselling.
In recent months, I've noticed a substantial number of ads for textbook rentals.
This vexed me, as most rental situations in  life are poor ideas:

  • Car leases are a very expensive way to drive a car.
  • Renting an apartment instead of buying a house can be a poor decision unless you're in a place with ludicrous real estate values like NYC
As a book dealer and former college student, I was confused as well. 
My experience has been that you can go one of two ways:

Old-School: The College Store
Buy your new book outright from the school store for 100% of list
Sell the book back to your school for 50% of list
Buy your used book outright from the school store for 75% of list
Sell the book back to your school for 50% of list

New School: Doing It Online
Buy your new book outright from an online bookseller for slightly under list. 5-15% off of list is a big savings on a $250 book, but frequently not worth it on a $30 book after shipping is considered.
Sell the book on Amazon or Ebay at the end of the semester for 60% of list or at beginning of the next for 75% of list 
Buy your used book outright from an online bookseller for 75% of list. 
Sell the book on Amazon or Ebay at the end of the semester for 60% of list or at beginning of the next for 75% of list 
Getting Rid Of Your Book Online If You're Lazy
Go to Bookscouter or Bigwords and find a buyer to buy your book outright. You'll usually get about 50% of list. In most cases, this provides the same payout as selling the book back to a local college store. 

Bottom line, you'll usually pay anywhere from 11.25% to 50% per book by buying and then selling your book.  

Let's take a look at the arguments made by CollegeBookRenter in favor of this practice:
"Why rent textbooks? 
Because college is expensive enough! At, we make textbooks affordable for college students just like you through textbook rental as well as textbook purchase and textbook buyback. Instead of going to the university bookstore or online retailers who only offer full purchases, why not rent textbooks online from us? The book rental process is easy and can save you up to 85% on millions of popular titles. Rent textbooks from the convenience of home, without running the risk of your textbooks becoming worthless by semester's end, and you'll save hundreds of dollars on college textbooks!

The rental process is easy and risk-free. You'll pay less than half price to rent textbooks from us, return the textbook to CollegeBookRenter at the end of the rental period (with your free shipping label), or extend your rental period if you need to keep it longer. The choice is yours! We also sell books for full price for those wanting own their textbook outright. We offer great quotes on a huge selection of college textbook titles. Rest assured that purchasing a textbook from us is as easy as renting!"

Okay. That's their argument for renting books.

Here's an argument against, courtesy of Valorebooks:
"MythBreakers Presents: Is Renting Cheaper Than Buying?

No! You can save more money by buying and selling your textbooks at than by renting your textbooks. In a time where somber news reverberates across U.S. college campuses surrounding budget cuts, tuition hikes and decreasing aid programs, is on a mission to offer affordable education to students. One of the main ways you can save money is by cutting the cost of your college textbooks. We are committed to saving you money by providing cheap textbooks. We also think it’s important to provide you with information that will aid you in your search for affordable textbooks.

Part of this effort is debunking the myth that renting textbooks is cheaper than buying textbooks. After a weeklong comparison of prices from and four major textbook rental companies, the verdict is in. Buying and selling back on a marketplace such as can save you more money than renting.

Price comparisons from and the average rental prices from four major textbook rental companies on January 18th, 2010 show that you can save more money by buying and selling a textbook, than by renting it. The net cost of buying and selling Biology and Mastering Biology, ISBN 0321543254 on is $37.95, while the average cost of renting the same book is $81.29, a savings of $43.34. The same goes for Calculus:Early Transcendentals, ISBN 0495011665 with a savings of $35.23 as well as Consumer Behavior , ISBN 0136015964 with a savings of $35.16. An expanded list can be found below."
More, as well as the chart they reference, can be found on this page at Valorebooks.

Okay, fair enough. That's two sides to an argument.
Let me check my list of textbooks.
Ah, here's one. She's recently published, nice and expensive, having ISBN 1439048444 and being entitled Physics for Scientists and Engineers with Modern, Chapters 1-46.
Rental Price with 3-Day Shipping at Chegg: None Available
Rental Price with 3-Day Shipping at Collegebookrenter: $76.13
Amazon New Price with 3-Day Shipping: $180.94
Essentially no used copies available on the global marketplace.
By the end of the semester, I'm guessing that market value for used will be 75% of the $175 we're seeing right now. That means you'll be able to flip it for $131 if your timing is right.
Natural depreciation and shipping will thus cost you $49.95. If you sell a book online for $131, after typical fees of 15% plus $3, you'll get $108.35
So, buying and then selling that book would cost you $72.59 for 3 months, which is $3.54 cheaper than what you would have paid for a rental.
Okay. In this case, it looks like renting is a wash.

Here's another! A little cheaper. I have a copy up for sale right now, and for purposes of my anonymity, I won't name it. It's a medical title you'd find used in a community college professional program.
Rental Price with 3-Day Shipping at Chegg: 31.81
Rental Price with 3-Day Shipping at Collegebookrenter: 36.09
Amazon Used Price with 3-Day Shipping:  41.48
This title has strong year-round demand and doesn't get obsoleted for several years. The low Used price on Amazon is $34.49. I'm willing to bet that it'll sell for no less than $28 or so at the end of the semester. Depreciation and shipping would cost you $13.48, while after selling fees you would receive $20.80.
In this case, you could have saved $20.68 by buying and flipping rather than by renting.
Interestingly, at least one of the textbook rental outfits advises that they can't guarantee that the supplemental CD-ROM will actually be present.

If I find time, I may do some more case studies.
My concluding advice for now, to the college textbook consumer:

  1. It pays to shop around.
  2. Always buy from sellers you can trust. A good deal only helps you if the book actually gets shipped, and gets there in time for your classes.
  3. When you buy, try to get used copies that include any auxiliary materials like CD-ROMs. Not only can these help you in class, but some books are nearly impossible to sell at a good price without them.
  4. College isn't cheap. There's no sense risking your grades and learning by being overly thrifty when ordering books. Don't use Standard/Media Mail shipping unless you can wait 10-15 calendar days for a book. Sometimes you can't afford to not have a book for a class on time. 
  5. Sometimes it's just as cheap to buy the book in the college store as it is to buy online. I sells tons of college books per year, but last year I found that the most economical way to pick up a textbook for a certain class a family member was taking was to walk into the local college store and pick up a copy. 
Any input?
Anyone have any good or bad experiences renting?