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The Ultimate Guide to Textbook Shopping

January 16, 2015

orphan survival guide - social media - the ultimate textbook shopping guide

There is no reason anyone should go to the campus bookstore. Ever. For anything.

Not for a book, not for a hoodie, not even for pens. Everything there is marked up beyond belief, and you can easily get the same items for huge discounts–or even get them for free.

You don’t have to be an extreme couponer to get a better deal somewhere else. I will show you the easy way to save hundreds of dollars on textbooks each semester.

I’ve never purchased a book from the campus bookstore. When I was a bright-eyed young freshman, I bought my books on Amazon because that’s the only online retailer I really knew of.

But I stepped up my game when I went back to school as a grownup.

  • Fall 2013: 27 books. $693 at full price. I spent $75. A 90.2% savings!
  • Spring 2014: 28 books. $515 at full price. I spent $57. An 89% savings!
  • Fall 2014: 8 books. $375 at full price. I spent $38. A 90.9% savings!
  • Spring 2015: 11 books. $277 at full price. I spent $16.  A 95% savings!

If I’d bought all of my books at the campus bookstores, I would have spent almost $2000 total. Instead, I paid less than $200 for two years’ of textbooks!

This is a pretty involved process, but it’s saved me almost a thousand dollars so far. Set aside three or four hours when you’re ready to start shopping.

I promise, the work will be worth it.

You can read through this entire guide or skip to the sections that are most useful for you.


Novels are super easy to find for free (or cheap) but actual textbooks are a beast. You’ll want to make sure you have all your information right. I have a spreadsheet in Drive to keep myself organized, and a separate list of places to start my search.

When you make your list, get the full title, authors, and the ISBNs for all formats: paperback, hardcover, and e-copies. You will use all of this information in your search to find the cheapest or freest copy. Also note if there are multiple editions of the same title. Older editions are often tens if not hundreds of dollars cheaper than the latest version.

You probably do not need the latest edition of the textbook!

New editions rarely have significant changes unless it’s a tech-centric or current events-related book. Let’s be real: the AP Style Guide has changed a lot in the last 5 years, but Antebellum American History… probably hasn’t.

Look for the last edition published before the current one, or better yet: find instructor editions.

Some professors get kickbacks for requiring the latest (or university-specific) edition purchased solely from the campus bookstore, so don’t automatically take them at their word if they say you need a specific edition of the book.

If they say you have to buy this specific book, ask them what the differences are between the current and previous versions, and if they can’t tell you, you’re safe with an older edition. Also ask them if they will be using the quizzes and practice tests in the book–if so, you’re stuck with the current edition. Sorry.

Read the book

Pull up the book in Amazon and Look Inside multiple editions and determine whether you really need the most recent edition. Compare the Table of Contents and see if there are any huge page number discrepancies or phrasing differences.

I always recommend using an older or instructor edition of a textbook and then making friends in class so that you can use their copies if you absolutely need a specific piece of information that’s only in the latest edition.

Here’s a glimpse of my spreadsheet showing how I got my books and what my options were. Click the images to see them in high res legibility.

Orphan Survival Guide - Ultimate Guide to Textbook Shopping

Orphan Survival Guide - Ultimate Guide to Textbook Shopping


When you’re a broke college student racking up $45,000 in loans, you want to save all the money you can. A free book is a lot nicer than a cheap book.

Orphan Survival Guide - How To Find Free Textbooks


Being an older student, I have a lot of friends who managed to graduate on time, some of whom are in my program. That $90 book I needed last semester that could only be bought from the professor’s website? One of my friends took the class the year before and let me use her access code.

Making friends with people in your major who are ahead of you or who’ve already graduated, is a great idea–not just for sharing textbooks, but for other networking purposes. They can hook you up with jobs and internships, and they can be the shoulder to cry on when you have 7 assignments due in the same week.

Never underestimate the public/university library’s collection, whether it’s the deadtree books on the shelf or their online services.

Your university library should have a copy of all of your books—and you may be able to check them out for a few weeks or even for the entire semester. The library may also have books on reserve, that are not allowed to leave the building: pretty much a guarantee that you can read your required books for free if you have an hour or two to spare at the library.

Awesome library features:

  • everything is free!
  • books on reserve so no one can check them out
  • or you can check things out for a really long time
  • ebooks you can check out
  • ebooks you can read without having to check them out
  • inter-library loans
  • helpful and nice librarians (probably)
  • free!!!

Helpful Resources:


If you’re taking the class with a friend, share your textbooks! Before I found the free copies through Ebrary, I decided to split the cost of some of my books with someone in my class.

Make friends with people in class, and you can arrange to share the cost of your books. If you don’t want to hang out with people in real life, seek out your classmates online–through forums and official university resources like Blackboard or ICON, major-specific and textbook swap Facebook groups, or through student-focused social networks like Clusterflunk.

Most universities have some kind of forum or bulletin board where students can swap or sell their books to each other. It might even be a Facebook group—or the department could have a Facebook group full of students who’ve already taken the class.

Helpful Resources:

  • Facebook Groups — look for department groups and textbook swap groups
  • ClusterFlunk — connect with people in your class and university
  • Your School’s Online Course Management System


Unless otherwise stated on the download site, on the copyright page of the book, or in the author’s personal statements, downloading free copies of your textbooks is illegal.

Follow this step at your own risk. If you decide to use a torrent, use a VPN or proxy, or go to a public wireless connection like a public library computer or internet cafe.

If you’re committed to paying for your books or you’re terrified of getting a DMCA notice and your internet shut off, skip this step and move on to the textbook listing aggregators where you can purchase books for cheap.

“How can you justify pirating ebooks when you want to write books?!” I hear you cry. I pay for all of my school expenses with student loans and paychecks. I have $5 in savings and live paycheck to paycheck. Most people don’t have a cache of money to spend on books.

Yes, downloading books for free that are not provided by the author or a library is illegal–but for those of us on limited incomes, jacking up the price of a textbook’s new edition after giving it nothing more than a new introduction and cover should also be illegal.

There are so many great resources and databases curated by students and people who work to make books more accessible to people with limited incomes.

An easy way to do a search for uploaded books is to simply type in the title followed by free, torrent, download, pdf, epub, mobi, or doc. You’d be surprised at the weird sites you’ll find that turn up with textbooks when you do this search. I found an entire textbook uploaded as a PowerPoint.

This is customized Google search that targets ebook-hosts. Here is a collection of textbook-related subreddits.

Below, I have embedded a masterlist of places I’ve used or seen referenced in textbook-hunting Tumblr posts, which are dedicated to sharing books and textbooks.

(Please note that this is an image with a list of addresses and not actual links to the sites, because, as stated above, downloading books is illegal.)

Orphan Survival Guide - Download Free Textbooks


Amazon is not the be-all end-all of cheap used textbooks!


There are a lot of marketplace aggregators, some of which are specific to textbooks. The tricky part is that they all search different sites at different times, so they come up with different prices. As a rule, I like to look through at least two or three of them before settling on a book.

Keep an eye out for coupons! A lot of the websites that display in the aggregator results have coupons, especially Alibris and Abe Books–I get coupons for them all the time, usually for $1 off or 25% off.

 Helpful Resources:

Honorable Mentions

Book Swaps

These are hit-or-miss in terms of finding your textbooks. But if you read a lot of fiction, book swap sites can help you get free or cheap paper copies of books. Swap Trees has a list comparing the major book swap sites here.

Helpful Resources:

Book Subscription Services

This is a growing market. I did find a few of my actual sciency textbooks on Kindle Unlimited when I started the free trial last semester, but I don’t have enough free time for the paid service to be worth it right now.

Romance novel review and industry news blog Dear Author wrote a great summary comparing Kindle Unlimited, Scribd, and Oyster, the three major ebook subscription services out there right now.

Time will tell if ebook subscriptions add more textbooks and become more accessible to students, but I think they’re notable if your booklist includes a lot of fiction or bestsellers.

Helpful Resources:

If you’ve made it this far, congrats! You now know basically everything there is to know about textbook shopping! If you have any other suggestions for places you’ve found great deals, let me know!

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  • Reply How To File Your Orphan/Student Taxes | The Orphan Survival Guide February 23, 2015 at 1:11 PM

    […] This is one that may trip up a lot of students: can you count your textbooks? And if so, how much of it can you claim? Since all of my fees are included in my tuition statement, I have nothing left to claim for my education. I can’t claim any of the textbooks I bought for classes, which is yet another reason to spend as little as possible on textbooks. Check out my textbook shopping guide to see how you can save! […]

  • Reply March 1, 2015 at 10:36 PM

    Very nice! What’s missing here somehow is used bookstore aggregator sites. The one I’ve been using is Have used it for years. It seems to be fading. The search engine has definitely aged. Anyone know if there is a newer site?

    • Reply orphansurvivalguide March 1, 2015 at 10:43 PM

      Hi there, thanks for reading! I had never heard of!

      The very last step of my post is dedicated to bookstore aggregators–they pull data from big box stores like Amazon and Barnes and Noble, and also from the big box marketplaces and used distributors like AbeBooks and, as well as rental sites like Chegg. If you refer to Step 3 of the post, I listed several of these sites.

      Like you, I used to stick to a single aggregator (AddAll). But since I went back to school, I found that some of the textbook-focused ones often come bundled with coupons or discounts through affiliate links that can save you even more!

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