Tuesday, September 14, 2010

University book buying - some advice

Soon the university term will be starting once more, bringing a whole new generation of students with all the usual hopes and concerns. If you're one of them I wish you the best of luck.

One area where I can offer some advice on how to minimise costs and hassles is the age old problem of buying books. It causes some students to run up massive debts immediately only to make next to no use of the books. Others find they are at a disadvantage because they do not own key books that are essential for the course in question. And some find that they have the wrong edition, which can cause endless confusion and even make it impossible to take the book into an exam. Then there are those who order online, only to find the delivery proves impossible.

With a little advanced planning and careful research it is possible to tackle the task to best effect. Here's a few tips:

Find out just how "essential" a book actually is before purchasing.
There is no universal definition of "essential" on reading lists. Sometimes it means a class will be following a particular text book which the student will need to read week in, week out. At other times it means the book is useful background reading, but a straightforward readthrough in advance will suffice and it's not necessary to actually own a copy.

Some of the distinctions will take a little time to work out; others will become clear immediately. If you're taking a course based around a particular set of writings - for instance a history course on Heredotus, a literature course on Shakespeare or a philosophy course on Russell - then you will almost certainly need access to a copy for the entire duration (but see below for editions). On the other hand if you're taking a general survey module then you may not need to actually buy an overview book. The first classes will help make it clear which is which; though some lecturers will put explicit instructions in course outlines circulated in advance.

Check very carefully if you need a precise edition.
Some courses will use a very specific edition of a book, usually the current one. Others will be more general. In some subjects like Law and many sciences books are updated almost every year and using older editions can confuse. In others like History, Philosophy, Theology, Literature and so forth the books are not so often updated and have a longer shelf-life, but watch out for "readers", anthologies collecting extracts of key texts. Primary material books can date at very different rates - for instance one of the Penguin Classics translation editions I used as a first year undergraduate was in print for nearly fifty years and any edition would have done perfectly well (but in the last couple of years a new translation has been published). At the other end of the scale Law statute books, containing all the relevant legislation in a particular field, have new editions almost every year.

In some courses the exam is "open book" and students can take specified books in with them - but be warned these sometimes only permit a specific edition.

Look around for the best prices and convenience.
Most universities have a bookshop either on campus or very nearby. These are easily the most convenient placed to try but be warned they rarely have discounts. Bookshops in university towns often stock some of the most in demand course books but not the more obscure. There are several online sites that do offer discounts but you have to wait a while for the goods to arrive.

Consider the second hand market carefully.
Many previous students have sold their books to the second hand part of the university bookshop, or put them up on the likes of eBay and Amazon, or even self-advertised on online university forums. This is one way to cut the cost significantly but make very sure you are buying the right edition.

Make sure you can actually receive deliveries before ordering online, and choose the delivery service carefully.
I've blogged about the problems of couriers before; suffice it to say that couriers find some university addresses particularly difficult to reach. Remember also that thick parcels don't fit through all letterboxes so you may be facing a trip to an inaccessible depot in a different town. Also check you use the correct postcode for your building - it's surprisingly common for universities to use the post codes assigned to different buildings. (You can check it online via the Royal Mail's online Postcode finder.) Royal Mail should have no problems delivering but other firms have more mixed results.

Don't expect to make much money when selling books on.
University bookshops often offer a buyback service, but at quite a low rate. And they will only take the current editions of books they expect to sell. If you're the final year to do a particular course then don't expect there to be much interest. Some books just won't be accepted at all because new editions come very fast - Law statutes are often explicitly banned.

There are alternatives such as selling online, but the prices are invariably quite low. And postage rates will eat heavily into takings, especially on large books where postage costs significantly more than the maximum allowed rate. The best bet is probably selling to fellow students in lower years.

Finally if you do find your finances struggling to keep up with essential book purchases then discuss things with your lecturer(s). They will be willing to help.

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