Amazon Breaks Into Paper Textbook Rentals

It was announced yesterday that Amazon has started a textbook rental service. This is nothing new, Amazon has been renting textbooks since last year, but only on their Kindle line of e-readers. Under this new program you can rent PAPER textbooks and get them for 130 day periods and ship them back when you are done, for free. Amazon says that they will rent new and used books across a wide variety of subjects.

Amazon’s textbook rental FAQ

MarketWatch article about the new program

I wanted to look at a few aspects of this new program.

Rental periods

For those of us who are horrible at math, 130 days is about 4.3 months. As most regular semesters (spring and fall) are about 5 months long I’m not entirely sure how this is going to work.

Semester breakdown at most schools:

-Spring: late January to mid-May

-Summer: can range from late May to mid-August and anything in between

-Fall: late August to mid-Decemeber

At the end of the alloted 130-day rental period, you can request a 15-day extension FOR A FEE. This is common way to squeeze an extra $5-10 out of students who did not do the math at the beginning of the semester and need the book for more time. If you don’t request the extension and turn the book in on time, they automatically apply it and charge you for it. If you still don’t return the book after you 15 days are up, you get charged the purchase price of the book.

New editions vs. old editions

Amazon claims that they are saving students up to 70% by letting them rent the books instead of buying them. Textbook sticker shock is a huge problem for college students, especially with new editions of books being released every year in many cases. When this happens professors usually require the newest edition, which can cost twice as much as the one that was released just a year ago. I have found that usually these “new” editions are only slightly different, in some cases they just add new blurbs with the latest technology/news as a way of updating them.

Some people are convinced it’s a conspiracy between professors, colleges, and textbook publishers. Fortunately, for every professor that requires the new edition every year, there is a professor that is perfectly happy using the “old” edition. They know that we are burdened with the high cost of textbooks and that even buying used books and selling them back is a huge hit on that credit card bill.

Shipping costs

Amazon’s standard price for shipping books is $3.99 (7-14 day delivery time, plus handling time which can be up to a week) but can be more especially when the book is 1000+ pages long and a whopping 30 pounds.

Amazon DOES charge shipping fees to get the books out to you, but you can ship them back for free. This is different then their biggest competitor, Chegg ships free both ways, which I personally think is the way to go. Even though students save money with renting books, it’s still highway robbery to charge $50 to rent a book for 4 months. I understand that textbooks are expensive and they took a lot of collaboration and work to put together but they should NOT cost more then $50 each in my humble opinion.

Buying the rental textbook

Amazon does offer a deal where you can buy the textbook for the purchase price at any time during the rental period, making it yours to keep forever. In my experience this is pretty standard for textbook rentals but most people don’t have any desire to buy their textbooks, especially ones that have been passed around to countless number of people.

Writing/highlighting/taking notes in the book

Most people prefer paper textbooks over digital ones because they can write, highlight, annotate, and generally mark up their books. On Amazon’s website, the company says renters can write in the textbooks “a minimal amount.” But if a book is returned with “excessive writing or highlighting,” the student can be charged the full price of the book, minus rental fees already paid, and the book is shipped back to the customer to keep. Other signs of unacceptable use: water damage, broken binding, torn or taped cover, fire damage, and strong odor, including from smoking.

This is always dangerous territory with rental textbooks because what you think may be writing in the book “a minimal amount” but Amazon may argue that highlighting three words in chapter 9 is more then a minimal amount. This is one of the bad things about rental and used textbooks- the person before you may have highlighted topics or sections they found relevant but you might think that what they highlighted is completely useless or obvious. Highlighting over previous highlighter is near impossible and even using a different color can still cause confusion for even the most organized student armed with 10 colors of highlighters.

My favorite textbook rental websites

This is my personal favorite,  I find they are less strict on the highlighting/note taking in books but recently their prices have gone up so I’m less inclined to rent from them. You can sell your old books back to them, and they are now offering e-book textbook rentals for a wide variety of e-readers like Amazon’s Kindle, B&N’s Nook, and Sony’s Reader.

They do something which no other company does that I’m aware of, they plant a tree for every textbook rented. Their stance is that the more textbooks that are rented, the less textbooks are printed. This is better for trees and the environment. I think their eco-friendly ideas are cute but not over-the-top like many other companies.

I do have a coupon code for anyone who wants to use it, it never expires. The code is CC109724 for 10% off your total rental.

I like that they offer free (standard aka slow) shipping, free returns, and a 21-day guarantee in case you drop the class or need a different book. They also offer different rental periods for students who are taking irregularly scheduled classes, like 8-week (half-semester) classes and don’t need the book for the entire semester. You can sell your old books back here as well.

Amazon’s buyback method vs. renting

It may just be me, but at the beginning and end of each semester I tally up how much I paid for books versus how much I sold them back for. Most of the time you take at least a $10 loss, but occasionally I have made $10 or so profits. The buyback prices are usually based on the lowest price of the used books listed on Amazon at the time, so it changes all the time. Of course, prices are usually higher at the beginning of every semester (when everyone’s buying books) and lower at the end (when everyone’s selling books) so sometimes its worth it to hang on to your used books for a few months. I will address this in my next book about how to get the best deal on textbooks.

Amazon’s paper textbook rental vs. other rental websites

The good: Amazon as a whole is a giant, and you can always depend on their customer service and methods. You don’t have to worry about your credit card number being stolen or book not being delivered. Amazon’s huge network of buyers and sellers extend across the world so chances are they will have at least one copy of the book that you need. It’s good that they offer free shipping back and that you have the flexibility to extend your rental date should you need the book longer. It’s great that you can buy the rental textbook if you really really want to sleep with it under your pillow every night, and that you can get both the latest edition and the older ones as well. It’s great that you can sell them your old textbooks back at the end of the semester to get some extra money for that Vegas trip at the end of the summer. It’s great that they offer shipping as fast as 2 days because many students wait until the first week of class to buy textbooks, and then need them ASAP. So you can buy your book Monday and have it by your Wednesday night class! Amazon states that they send reminders about book due dates to keep you aware of how much longer you have with the book.

The bad: Paying for shipping is something I always try to avoid, but sometimes it’s inevitable as it is in the case of renting textbooks from Amazon. It seems unfair to me that you pay the shipping to get the book, but they pay it to get it back. I think they need to make shipping free both ways like many other sites. I think in the future they will have more flexible rental period dates like other sites, for example some sites let you rent books for as short as 14 days and as long as 180 days. College is all about being flexible and adapting to crazy schedules and professors, so this needs to change. The “minimal amount” of highlighting and note-taking could go either way, but if you are a compulsive book-note-taker I advise you to stay away from Amazon’s textbook rental until you can investigate how much a “minimal amount” actually is.

I hope that this has given you a basic breakdown of Amazon’s new service vs. other textbook rental sights. I have an e-book planned to address the topic of buying and selling textbooks without breaking the bank, so keep a lookout for it!


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