When you’re gearing up for college classes, the worst part has to be that unique sense of dread that hits before every semester: you’re going to need textbooks, and it’s going to cost you a pretty penny.
Don’t do what I did. Buying those textbooks from your campus store is one step short of being robbed. And don’t try to get through the semester without any textbooks—I tried that once and the inevitable hassle just isn’t worth the money you’ll save.
To get textbooks for cheap, you need to go digital. By opting for digital textbooks—also called etextbooks—you’ll be able to get your textbooks at a huge discount. And you have several great options when it comes to getting digital textbooks online.
Here are the best online stores for digital textbooks in ebook format. Save tons of money, carry them with you at all times, and even take digital notes on their pages.
When it comes to cheap digital textbooks, there’s one king: VitalSource. VitalSource specializes in digital textbooks—that’s all they sell—and they often have the best prices for textbooks as ebooks. In fact, etextbooks on other sites are often by VitalSource!
On their website, you’ll see that their etextbooks are broadly categorized into six topics: Business & Economics, Education, Mathematics, Medical, Psychology, and Science. Each of those categories have dozens of subcategories under them.
VitalSource’s digital textbooks are sold in two formats: Reflowable (EPUB) and Fixed Layout (PDF). They’re accessible by web browser or VitalSource’s Bookshelf app, which is available on Windows, Mac, Android, iPhone, Chromebooks, and Kindle Fire tablets. With the Bookshelf app, textbooks remain accessible when you’re offline.
VitalSource has a reasonable return policy: within 14 days of the purchase date, as long as you haven’t viewed more than 20% of the textbook, and as long as any online resource codes are unused. You can only return 3 textbooks per 90 days.
Textbooks.com is a dedicated online textbooks store, with both physical textbooks (new and used) and digital textbooks in stock. With a selection of over 10 million textbooks—both new and used—there’s a good chance you’ll find the one you need here.
Unfortunately, the interface is a bit lacking and it’s not easy to browse only the etextbooks. But if you know which exact textbooks you need (and that’s likely the case), you can just search its title or ISBN. If an etextbook version exists, it’ll show up on the product page.
Textbooks.com sources their etextbooks from several places, so each textbook will require a particular app to access. But most of them are accessible via Textbooks.com’s Bookshelf app, VitalSource’s Bookshelf app, or Adobe Digital Editions.
Textbooks.com’s return policy is the least accommodating: once you activate your etextbook, it’s no longer refundable. As long as you don’t activate it, you have 30 days from the date of purchase to return it for a full refund.
If you opt for a physical textbook instead, Textbooks.com offers two perks: free shipping on orders of $25 and up, as well as a 50% Cash Back Guarantee on select textbooks (i.e. you’ll get 50% of what you paid back when you return it at the end of the semester).
eCampus is another dedicated online textbooks store, with millions of new and used textbooks in both physical and digital formats.
eCampus is partnered with VitalSource for their etextbooks. They share many of the same features and restrictions: etextbooks are available as EPUB or PDF, and can only be returned within 14 days of purchase, as long as you haven’t read more than 20% of it or activated any online resource codes.
If you opt for a physical textbook, eCampus offers two perks: free shipping on orders of $35 and up (otherwise $1.25 per item + $5 per shipment), and a hassle-free buy back program with shipping covered. They also have a no-questions-asked return policy within 25 days of purchase date.
Apart from the above, eCampus mainly stands out as one of the best textbook rental websites. If you don’t need online access codes or supplemental materials, textbooks are cheaper to rent than buy. eCampus’ textbook rentals have free shipping over $35, three rental durations, and free return shipping.
If you want your digital textbooks in a Kindle-compatible format, you’ll want to get them from Amazon. They may not have the best prices for ebook textbooks, but that’s part of the Kindle premium.
Known as Kindle eTextbooks, these digital textbooks are mirrored as closely to the physical textbook as possible (page numbers are guaranteed to be the same). You can also highlight text, take notes, and create digital flashcards with ease.
Amazon has a stricter return policy than most among etextbooks retailers: returns must be submitted within 7 days of purchase date and are subject to approval.
Note that Amazon also has a physical textbook rental program. With it, you get free 2-day shipping with Prime Student, free return shipping, and no-questions-asked returns within 30 days. If you decide to purchase the textbook rental, 100% of what you paid toward the rental will go toward the purchase price.
5. Bigger Books
Bigger Books is yet another online textbooks store, but with a focus on used textbooks only. They have the largest selection of used physical textbooks, plus etextbooks through VitalSource.
Because Bigger Books is partnered with VitalSource, they share the same conditions: etextbooks are available as EPUB or PDF, and can only be returned within 14 days of purchase, as long as you haven’t read more than 20% of it or activated any online resource codes.
If you’re OK opting for a used physical textbook, Bigger Books offers free shipping on orders of $59 and up (otherwise $1 per item + $4 per shipment). Physical textbooks can be returned within 25 days of the purchase date, minus shipping fees and a 10% restocking fee.
Bigger Books also offers online textbook rentals, which may or may not include supplemental materials and online access codes. Textbook rentals from Bigger Books have free shipping over $59 as well as free return shipping.