Textbooks: knowing your options and cutting costs

Twice a year students line up at bookstores to empty their wallets. According to the national chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students, Roxanne Dubois, university students will spend $500-$1000 on average for course required materials.

“The cost of textbooks is not set by governments or institutions, there are a lot of factors that come into play,” said Dubois, who sees science, math and engineering students hit harder than arts students.

Students taking courses with traditional-style textbooks on the reading lists, instead of novels or more commonly found books, may get the short end of the stick when trying to buy used books as well. Campus book stores offer a small selection of resale books next to the new ones, however local used book stores, such as Old Goat Books in Waterloo or Casablanca Bookshop in Kitchener do not offer textbook sales along-side their novel sales.

“We do sell books that students are looking for that are on reading lists, but we don’t sell textbooks,” said Old Goat Books owner Michael Loubert who sees students in the store each term looking for books.

Students can also buy used books each term at the Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE) book swap. Students looking to sell their used books or trying to pick up ones off their reading list for less than what is found in stores can do so within the first few weeks of class both semesters.

Students looking to purchase new books can compare prices between campus bookstores and off campus options like Chapters and Words Worth Books in Waterloo.

While larger retailers like Chapters can sometimes offer reduced prices, especially on novels or more common books on reading lists, independent book-sellers often can’t afford to reduce their prices on hardcover books, but can sometimes offer a wider selection of paperback versions that may be less expensive. As well, if students need to find rare books, especially in the event the bookstore runs out, independent retailers often have better luck ordering books directly from the publishers because they don’t have to go through a central warehouse.

While price is still the most pressing concern for students, they must also consider convenience when purchasing texts. Picking up a book from Chapters or ordering it online can prevent an hour-long wait in a crowded campus bookstore, but only if the book is available. Traditional-style texts are often not kept in stock and can sometimes take up to five weeks to order. In a 12-week term that can have serious repercussions on a student’s ability to perform in class.

Breaking down the cost

A random comparison of textbook prices showed similar prices or an exact price match between the Laurier bookstore and Chapters for a science, business and history course.

First-year history course 101-A Medieval Europe 500-1100AD, requires the book A Short History of the Middle Ages, vol 1 as one of four required books. The book is $37.95 at the bookstore and Chapters respectively. The book is a startling $58.63 at Words Worth Books and takes up to 13 days to order.

For biology course 226-A Genetics, the book Essentials of Genetics is required. At the Laurier bookstore and Chapters the hardcover edition is $134.95 while at Words Worth, the paperback edition is $49.70, but again takes 13 days to order.

Finally, for business course 223-A Fundamentals of Finance, The Principles of Corporate Finance is required. WLU list price is $150, while Chapters has the book listed at an outrageous $234.30. Words Worth offers the paperback version at just $68.58 with the same 13-day average order time.

For students buying books with an eye for resale, the bookstore offers 50 per cent of the original Laurier bookstore retail price when purchasing back students’ editions. The price offered depends on the condition of the book and the edition being resold. Highlighted or poorly treated books will be offered a lower price — if bought back at all. The use of newer editions in future classes can also limit the resale value of a book.

“There’s a reason textbooks cost something,” Dubois said, citing professors’ need to have students buy the latest editions, as well as the fact that textbooks are a product that makes a profit for companies. “It forces students to have to pay the maximum price for their courses.”

Larger companies are becoming more aware of the need for cost cutting measures for students. Both Amazon.ca and Chapters online are increasing texts available on their sites and offer discounts.

A representative of McGraw-Hill Ryerson, one of Canada’s largest producer of post-secondary text books, said up to 90 per cent of there catalogue is now available online as e-books — a measure that may reduce the cost of a text by 20 to 30 per cent.

In addition to sourcing books online and buying used books, students are increasingly turning to other alternatives, such as renting textbooks to save themselves a few dollars.

BookAccess.ca, founded in 2010, offers a wide range of textbooks for students to rent for 30 to 120 days. The cost of renting a science book is about half the cost of buying it new. The book ordered online and shipped to and from the company via Canada Post. Although not for everyone, books cannot be written or highlighted in, renting provides some students a cheaper alternative to traditional campus bookstores.

Renting books may be a good alternative for students who know they won’t use their texts again, but for many students, the books become ones they want to keep, making purchasing their only option.

A third-year double major in English and History, Kayla Grant looks to friends and relatives to help off-set the cost of her books. She asks for books she knows she’ll use, like the works by Shakespeare, for Christmas or her birthday. She knows that for some students, getting textbooks under the tree might make for a less than ideal Christmas, but she knows in the long run it will save her some money.

“That’s something that I’m going to keep for the rest of my life,” she said. “Having (my family) buy the occasionally textbook as a gift means a lot.”

Grant said the high cost of texts would never prevent her from taking a course, but it does impact the way she earns and spends her money.

“I work 40 to 50 hours a week. It just means that I’m probably going to work a bit extra,” she said, noting the cost of textbooks is high for students, but when compared to the cost of tuition and student fees, it seems like just one more financial hurdle.

“If you’re already spending that much money, then it’s just another $1,000. When you’re at that point, you just bite the bullet. It is what it is.”