By Candice Choi, AP Personal Finance Writer
NEW YORK (AP) — To rent or to buy? It's a choice facing students looking to save on college textbooks.
The price for course materials has long been a sore point for families, with students spending an average of $1,000 a year on books and supplies, according to The College Board.
The marketplace has responded enthusiastically, with startups and publishers now offering to rent books or providing electronic versions at a fraction of the cost.
Lawmakers have also taken note, and next summer a federal law goes into effect that will require colleges to list the cost of required materials in online course schedules. Publishers will also need to disclose book prices in marketing sent to professors who may not realize the costs.
The move is expected to help ease the cost of college, with tuition, fees and room and board now at an average of $14,300 a year at public universities and $34,100 at private schools.
Until the new law goes into effect, here are a few ways to keep book costs down.
A relatively new option in the textbook industry is renting.
Textbooks are typically leased for a semester or longer, and costs vary depending on factors including the book's popularity.
Chegg.com, named after the old riddle about the chicken and the egg, is one of the major players in the market and says its rentals can save students 65 percent to 85 percent of the cost of buying books new. As an example, renting "Introductory Chemistry" for a semester costs $44. The book has a list price of $140.
The Santa Clara, Calif.-based company tries to track down any requested book that isn't in its catalog of 2.4 million titles.
Books are expected to be returned in similar condition, but co-founder Aayush Phumbhra said Chegg isn't out to nickel-and-dime students for minor scratches.
"Our goal isn't to gouge customers," he said.
Students pay to have books shipped to them, but the orders come with prepaid envelopes to make returning books easy.
BookRenter.com, which generally works the same way, sends students e-mail or text message alerts when due dates are approaching. It also gives students the option to buy a book at the end of the rental period. Any rental prices already paid are deducted from the purchase price.
If a student decides to drop a class, refunds can be issued within 30 days at Chegg.com and within 10 days at BookRenter.com.
Select universities also have their own book rentals, but the programs aren't common because of the costs in maintaining them.
Before weighing the pros and cons of electronic textbooks, a little background.
E-textbooks can generally be accessed online or downloaded onto laptops, so there's no need to buy a special reader. For copyright protection, companies usually require you to download a free application if you want to read the books on your computer without using an Internet connection.
One popular place to get e-textbooks is CourseSmart.com, which works with 12 of the largest higher-education publishers to offer about 7,000 titles. The company says its e-textbooks on average cost about half the price of new print copies.
The electronic versions at CourseSmart have the same layout as their print counterparts, so there's no confusion if a professor assigns certain pages to be read, said Frank Lyman, a CourseSmart spokesman.
Students pick whether to get the books online or off-line; there is no discount for buying both.
One perk of CourseSmart is that texts are searchable by key words or phrases. Students can also copy and paste up to one page to create notes and print up to 10 pages at a time. Another function lets students highlight passages electronically as they would with print textbooks.
Publisher Cengage Learning also makes its titles available electronically at iChapters.com for half the price of print editions.
One catch with CourseSmart and iChapters is that students only have access for a certain time, usually around a semester or however long the book is intended to be used. So, students wouldn't be able to refer back to certain passages later on in their schooling.
Another option when going electronic is Amazon.com's Kindle DX or the Sony Reader.
The Kindle DX, which has a larger screen than the standard Kindle, costs $489. It has a 9.7-inch screen and weighs a little more than a pound, lighter than most laptop computers. The Sony Reader costs $280 and has a 6-inch screen.
It might not be worth buying a reader solely for e-textbooks, however, since all the titles you need may not be available on the devices yet. The Kindle can only download books from Amazon.
Three textbook publishers — Pearson PLC, Cengage Learning and John Wiley & Sons Inc. — have agreed to make books available on the Kindle. But representatives for Kindle and Sony did not respond to questions about the breadth of their textbook selections or prices.
As an example, however, "An Introduction to the Standard Model of Particle Physics" cost $45.45 on the Kindle, compared to $75.11 for a new copy from third-party vendors.
The benefit of buying a print textbook, of course, is that students can mark up the pages and keep or resell the books.
New textbooks are expensive, however, and the prices for used copies at campus bookstores often aren't all that much cheaper. Beating those prices should be easy if you go online.
On Barnes & Noble, for example, the list price for "Textbook of Basic Nursing" is $94.95. The site lists several used copies from third-party sellers, with prices starting at $39.62.
Vendors on sites like Barnes & Noble, Borders and Amazon also list the condition of used books and often give detailed descriptions about any marks. You can also see reliability ratings for the sellers by other customers. The details vary, but major sites generally have return policies if you're not satisfied with a used book.
Bookstore chains also often offer online coupons or announce special sales via e-mail newsletters, which can add up to significant savings on major purchases.
The result is that used books are often cheaper than even rentals or electronic books, said Nicole Allen, campaign director of Make Textbooks Affordable, a project of the Student Public Interest Research Group.
Another strategy when buying used books is ordering as early as possible, said Steve Loyola, president of BestBookBuys, one of several sites that aggregates prices on new and used books from across the Web.
"There aren't warehouses and warehouses of used books. It comes down to a certain supply," he noted.
The other advantage of buying early, of course, is getting first pick at the books in the best condition.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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