Buying textbooks online is a great way to save money. Finding additional ways to save money is especially welcome for most college students who tend to be strapped for cash.

While saving money is a good thing, when buying used textbooks online a good general rule of thumb to follow is be careful what you pay for - there are some bad deals out there on the web. Purchasing a textbook is often a fantastic deal, but once you receive it you might not be happy with the results. However, knowing what to look for ahead of time can avoid potential problems.

Used textbooks
Credit: Leigh Goessl

Some tips to try to avoid falling into the pitfalls of buying used textbooks online:

Pros of Buying Used Texts Online

It’s Cheaper

Hands down the biggest advantage to buying used textbooks online is the price. If you buy at the school bookstore you're going to pay top dollar for books, whereas purchasing online you typically can get the same textbooks - at a fraction of the price.

Shop From Home

Convenience is another huge advantage to buying used books online. This is especially true for non-traditional students who only come to campus for evening classes when the bookstore isn't open or for distance learners who never set foot on campus. Plus those long lines that tend to occur at the beginning of a semester can be avoided too.

When you buy texts online you can do so at any hour and don't have to worry about racing to the bookstore at school before it closes or the popular texts sell out.

Similar Quality to New

While some used books are in poor condition, many websites advertise a book's quality and, if you want something new or gently used, you can usually easily find these on the web.

Cons of Buying Used Texts Online

Delayed or Non-Delivery

Occasionally, you may not receive your book on time. This could happen for a variety of reasons. It could be the seller turns out to be non-reliable, gotten lost in the delivery process, or was not mailed out as timely as you'd thought it would be (those "standard" shipping time frames can take weeks). While often the problem is eventually resolved, by then the class has usually already started and the book needed. In that case, it is a risk factor you take.

empty mailbox
Credit: Alan Levine/CC by 2.0

It can be frustrating after ordering a book and day after day as classes are about to start, there is still an empty mailbox.

Receive Wrong Edition

Publishers often quickly put out new editions and colleges are quick to adapt new versions of texts. As a result, students often cannot resell their books on campus and will put them up online to sell. While usually older editions work perfectly fine for a course (many professors are understanding in this type of situation), sometimes there is new information or different problems in the text and this could cause you a problem.

Online Access Keys

Sometimes you have to buy new, or at least buy an online access key from the publisher in order to gain entrance to online materials. If you buy a used book this access key will have already been used. Before purchase, check with the bookstore at your school to see if there might be a key. Many classes do require one.

International Editions

International editions are soft cover versions of U.S.-based texts. A good amount of the time they are identical to the text, but there are some kinds of texts that do vary from the U.S. edition. These books are attractive because whether used or new they are often much cheaper in price. The problem comes when case studies or assignments listed at the back of a chapter differ from the version the professor is using. This happened to me once where it did create a conflict for a couple of assignments. 

Poor Condition of Book

When buying used most people do not expect to receive a perfect book, but sometimes the book ordered just does not meet the description. Sometimes there are excess notes, highlights, tears or pages falling out.

Tips for a Successful Online Textbook Purchase

Research the Website

Before buying any used textbooks, do some homework before buying and get a feel for the website. Is it user-friendly? Are prices low, but still competitive? Do you see any negative comments about the website on the Internet?

If you see negative information or arrive on a really clunky website full of errors, it's not a good idea to buy from that site. You might want to start by shopping on or which are pretty reliable sites (I was very successful on Amazon). In the case of Amazon, they guarantee satisfaction so if your book doesn't arrive and you can't rectify with the seller, they will refund your money.

Read Ratings and Feedback on Individual Sellers

Often websites, such as Amazon, offer buyers and sellers the opportunity to give feedback on one another. Before making any purchase from a seller, be sure and check the ratings, recent feedback and overall selling record. If you see any negative comments, ratings and overall poor service, avoid that seller and move on to another. Even if you have to pay a few extra bucks to buy your book, it's well worth it than dealing with the headache of a non-reliable seller.

Credit: John Liu/CC by 2.0

Buy Before You Need It

To ensure your book arrives on time or if you have any problems in the process, it's good practice to try and buy at least two weeks before your class is due to start - more if possible. This way you don't have to pay expedited prices to have your book shipped. However, keep in mind, on sites such as Amazon, they usually offer a generous time frame to sellers to ship the book(s). It's a good idea to see what kind of mailing the shipper uses if you are under a time crunch for your materials. As soon as your college lists the required books - start doing your research because this gives yourself a wide time frame to receive the book(s), this way you can pretty much eliminate most delay risks.

Ask  Seller About Edition

As I noted above, this happened to me. To avoid the problem of old editions and international versions of texts, I recommend you shoot the online merchant a quick email to inquire which edition and version the advertised text is - just to clarify. This way you can be assured you'll receive the right book and, if you don't, you have proof the seller didn't ship the item as described.

Buying textbooks online is a great convenience and well worth the effort if you are looking to save some money on pricey books. If you are aware of the drawbacks and follow good practices, you can easily avoid most of the pitfalls of buying textbooks online.