Why Your iPad Is Almost Always The Cheapest Way To Get Your Textbooks [Back To School]



The first week of college is filled with a bunch of crazy new things you have to adapt to if you want to make it out alive. Co-ed dorms. People with bad facial hair. Faux-Intellectuals. Scantly clad women. Demented professors. Weird cultish groups called fraternities. The absence of personal hygiene. And most importantly, the astronomical prices of textbooks.

Why have we had a congressional hearing on steroid use in baseball, but not a peep about college textbook prices? We thought that the iPad and eBooks were supposed to make education a whole lot cheaper, but most college students still buy physical textbooks. Here at Cult of Mac, for back to school season, we wanted to find out what’s cheaper: buying an iPad and only buying eTextbooks or going the traditional route and buying forty or fifty pounds worth of dead paper every semester.

Which is better for the penny-pinching student? The results are pretty surprising.

It’s Possible To Recoup The Cost Of A New iPad By Buying eTextbooks

The cheapest model of the new iPad costs $499 plus tax. In order for it to be worth that investment – in terms of saving you money on textbook prices – you’ll need to be able to save $62.37 per semester by purchasing eTextbooks instead of the regular paper kind. If you’re able to purchase most of your books as eTextbooks, then it’s pretty likely that you’ll save more than enough over four years to cover the cost of the new iPad.

Everyone’s course load and reading list at school is different, but here’s a breakdown of the book costs this semester for our friend Jessica, who is about to enter her junior year at Arizona State University. All of her textbooks are available as new, used, rental, eTextbook, and eTextbook Rental.

New Textbook Used Textbook Rental eBook eBook Rental
Life: The Science of Biology $196.25 $147.25 $78.50 $94.99 $75.99
Practical Research: Planning and Design $84.85 $63.50 $42.21 $33.99 $33.99
Visual Environmental Science $116.50 $87.50 $81.55 $65.50 $54.50
Voyages in World History $87.75 $66.00 $43.83 $46.49 $46.49
Elementary Differential Equations $224.25 $168.25 $168.25 $113.50 $39.49
Total Cost $709.60 $532.50 $414.34 $354.47 $250.46

Jessica could rent all of her textbooks from the bookstore for just $414.34, but she’d save $163.88 for the semester if she rents them as eBooks instead. Also, If she wanted to buy all of her textbooks new and keep them , then she’d save $355.13 if she just buys them as eBooks.

Even if this is an odd semester with higher book prices for Jessica, she’ll still probably save more in the long term by getting an iPad and eTextbooks instead of traditional textbooks.

Sample iPad savings per semester: $163.88 for renting, $355.13 for buying

Renting An eTextbook Will Always Save You The Most Money

Physical Rental eTextbook eTextbook Rental
Total Cost of 20 Different Textbooks  $1451.53 $1574.58 $1108.83

From the data we’ve gathered, renting physical textbooks is still cheaper than buying eTextbooks. However, renting eTextbooks will save you the most money. So if you’re going to rent your textbooks, you can save a lot more if you rent them in a digital format instead of the physical format.


What Happens When You Can Only Go Half-Digital?

The biggest problem with trying to go completely digital is that publishers still aren’t releasing every textbook as an eTextbook as well. Even though we researched over 100 different required textbooks from universities across the U.S., only 32% of them were available as an eTextbook or eTextbook Rental.

Some eTextbooks are widely available from a number of retailers with competitive prices, but sometimes students won’t be able to find the digital version of their required textbook. The big question is, what happens if you’re forced to go half-digital, half physical for your textbooks? Can you still save a lot of money? Yep.

Here’s an example of a student at Clemson who can buy half of their books as eTextbooks on their iPad.

New Textbook Used Textbook Rental eBook eBook Rental
Business Data Comm. $189.50 $142.25 $102.50 $106.50 $58.66
Life in the Universe $139.00 $104.25 $75.25 $91.80 $47.19
Operations Management $239.75 $180.00 $129.50 $139.01 $121.24
Pearson Custom Business $111.75 $84.00 n/a n/a n/a
Java Software Solutions $121.75 $91.50 $65.75 n/a n/a
Econ Today $137.25 $103.00 $103.00 n/a n/a
Total Costs $992.50 $745.25 $560.00 $337.31 $227.09

Even though they need to rent two of their books and buy another, this student would still save $80.16 this semester by purchasing eTextbooks when possible. That doesn’t sound like much, but over the course of four years that averages out to $641.28 in total savings – enough to pay for a 16GB iPad with 4G.

Every student booklist we researched had at least two textbooks available as eTextbooks. Overall, adopting a digital strategy with college textbooks should pay off over the long haul. But there are exceptions.

Sample iPad savings per semester: $80.16 for purchasing eTextbooks when available

Digital Doesn’t Win Every Time

Sometimes booksellers will offer a great price on a used textbook rental that eTextbooks can’t match. It’s rare to see a textbook rental cost significantly less than an eTextbook rental, but it does happen. And if you can’t even find an eTextbook Rental for any of your books, you might face higher costs for going digital.

Here’s how that happened for a student at the University of Maryland:

New Textbook Used Textbook Rental eTextbook eTextbook Rental
Foundations of Multidimensional Data Structures $71.20 $56.25 $23.47 $70.90 n/a
Notes on Data Structures $33.80 $26.70 $26.70 n/a n/a
Technical Communication $109.05 $86.15 $38.75 $45.99 n/a
The Physics of Sound $151.45 $119.65 $33.13 n/a n/a
Physics Lab Manual $50.65 $40.00 $39.84 n/a n/a
Probability Statistics for Engineering $252.05 $199.10 $114.51 $93.98 n/a
Total Cost $668.20 $527.85 $276.40 $210.87 n/a


For this particular student, three of his six  textbooks are available as eTextbooks, but two of them are more expensive than a rental textbook, and we couldn’t find anyone selling eTextbook Rentals for his other books. He’d actually end up spending $34.14 more if he bought eTextbooks when he could and rented the rest.

The market for physical print can be a bit unpredictable. You might be able to find a great deal on Amazon or someone giving away the textbook you need on Craigslist. The availability of eTextbooks should increase dramatically every year. So if you’re starting your Freshman year of college, buying eTextbooks should be a safe strategy, whereas Juniors and Seniors might be leery to ditch print.


Shop Around For Deals On eTextbooks

Knowing where to buy eTextbooks is one of the biggest challenges to embracing digital books. You can find some stuff on Amazon and the iBookstore, but right now there’s really not a great one-stop shop that has every eTextbook you’ll ever need. This isn’t a comprehensive list, but we got the best results for both physical and digital books from these sites:


Don’t Buy From Your College Bookstore

Whether you want to buy physical textbooks or eTextbooks, we found that college bookstores consistently had the worst prices on textbooks. Take Elementary Differential Equations and Boundary Value Problems for example. Arizona State University students can buy it new at their bookstore for $224.25 or buy it new from Barnes and Noble for $39.49

Unless you need a textbook immediately, you should search for it online first before paying the high markup at your bookstore. Every little bit of saved cash counts, especially when your student loans have to pay for your books.


The Digital Revolution hasn’t completely reshaped the textbook industry just yet. But it’s starting to, and the iPad is the most open platform to for eTextbook reading because it can be used to read eTextbooks from the iBookstore, Barnes and Noble, Amazon, Kno, and many other suppliers.

Even though some eTextbooks can be hard to find, the financial benefits of investing in digital format will most likely pay off for students over the four years spent at college. If you’re looking for an excuse to buy a new iPad, this might be the best one we’ve seen.

  • andrewtbaker

    It would just take a few large, influential universities to state that by 201x, all textbooks must be available digitally or they are out of the curriculum. Wish that would happen. Publishers need to embrace the medium instead of avoiding it in hopes of making some more money. If I can get away with it, I don’t buy textbooks that aren’t available digitally.

  • Buster

    @andrewtbaker In theory that would be nice. But professors are the ones that choose which textbooks they’re going to use for their class, not the University or Publishers. Many professors write their own textbook which have limited print circulation. University officials would have to be the ones to press professors to adopt digital books as well, which might be hard in some instances.

  • Ivo Shandor

    Forget about ebook rentals. Most textbooks can be found on torrent sites. Unless you have to have the latest edition, a previous edition will work just fine too. Don’t forget that your school library has copies of all textbooks on reserve. Most school libraries have scanners as well. Problem solved. I started grad school last year and have yet to pay for one book. If publishers didn’t charge such a ridiculous amount, I would have no problem paying. But over $150 for a book? No thanks.

  • technochick

    @andrewtbaker In theory that would be nice. But professors are the ones that choose which textbooks they’re going to use for their class, not the University or Publishers. Many professors write their own textbook which have limited print circulation.

    More often than not they either wrote a textbook that has been fully published or they are using a course pack. If the journals etc would sell them rights to select articles in digital format they might jump for that system if only to avoid the dance of putting a couple of copies on file at the library and keeping hands off with folks making a personal copy (trick used to avoid the costs and paperwork to create a printed collection)

  • Shane Bryson

    The problem is, NO COLLEGE UTILIZE THESE BOOKS! These books are not really conducive to a college course. Apple really dropped the ball on partnerships for college texts books. I work in a community college and what we have discovered in our research is publishers don’t publish books for the iPad because Apple has made it so difficult with licensing and such that they don’t want to publish their “real” college textbooks for the iPad.

    Apple just hasn’t made it easy for schools or publishers to adopt this format. In the long run, it’s going to hurt them.

  • technochick

    because Apple has made it so difficult with licensing and such that they don’t want to publish their “real” college textbooks for the iPad.

    perhaps you can clarify what licensing you are referring to?

  • mashed_cows

    “Weird cultish groups called fraternities.”………………… I’m going to make the assumption you did NOT go Greek in school.

  • copperbum

    booko(dot)com – i found most of my textbooks listed there for less than half of the retail price offered at my university.

  • Greg

    Hey good stuff Buster. I’ve been able to find most of my books in a .pdf format. I’ve also had a couple books that I’ve removed the binding and scanned into my Mac via a document feeder.

  • realclasshelp

    Hey thanks for the tips! Our students can always use it. To the students: if you don’t want to spend on the books, our tutoring service has most of the ones that professors require. Call us at 1(855)GET-HW-DONE and mention this article for discounts on English and Math courses!

  • Derek

    Of course, if you compare textbooks, you would find A) that eBooks will almost always be significantly higher than new, used or rentals, and B) if you sell back that new or used book, you will only be out of pocket a FRACTION of what that pricey eBook on your iPad costs…