In August 2019, the attentions of many Snopes readers evidently turned toward the upcoming academic year, and for some, the fall 2019 college semester. With that, we received multiple inquiries about whether the online retail giant Amazon really operates a program for college students to rent textbooks. It does.
Customers can go to the Amazon Textbooks Store here, search for new or used textbooks, pay a fee to rent them (typically until the end of the upcoming semester, whichever it might be), and have them shipped to their home, provided they live in the U.S. Customers must ship the textbook back to Amazon by its due date, or be charged an extension or buyout fee, which are set out under ‘Rental Details’ on the book page, in order emails and within a customer’s order history.
The textbook rental program was first launched in 2013, an Amazon spokesperson told us. Customers are not required to have an Amazon Prime or Amazon Prime Student membership in order to use it.
This page on the Amazon website addresses frequently asked questions, and this one contains the rental program’s terms and conditions. We found two sample textbooks through the search function in the textbooks store section of the site, in order to test out the rental system. The return due date on both was Dec. 18, the end of the fall 2019 semester for many.
In one case, a chemistry textbook with a list price of $300 was available for purchase for between $153 and $204 and available to rent for $30.61. For students who are not interested in owning the book, that represents a savings of 90% off the list price, and 80% off the purchase price of a used copy.
In the other case, we found a copy of the commonly used “A Writer’s Reference.” It had a list price of $81, the new paperback version was available for purchase for $79, the eTextbook was available to buy for $55, a plastic comb copy was available to buy new for $101, and a new copy of the spiral-bound version was available for purchase at $67. Students could also rent the spiral-bound version for $45, or rent the eTextbook until Dec. 12, for a minimum of $32 (the rental price increased as the rental period lengthened).
The two rental options represented savings of 33% and 42%, when compared to purchasing the spiral-bound or eTextbook versions, respectively. However, we also found that a used copy of the plastic comb version was available to purchase for just under $5 — that’s more than six times cheaper than the cheapest rental version and also allows a customer to keep the book. This somewhat complicated example illustrates that, although renting textbooks through the program could allow for significant savings in some cases, it does not always appear to be the most affordable option.
The rental program also appears, in general, to be targeted more towards particularly expensive reference books, such as those used in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) field, rather than the slimmer (and cheaper) books that professors in the humanities often assign in their curricula. However, we did find that some textbooks with list prices under $50, in various fields of study, were available to rent through the program.
We asked Amazon whether the company was consulting or collaborating with colleges and universities, in an effort to ensure the availability of textbooks that were, in fact, being assigned in curricula in the forthcoming fall 2019 semester. A spokesperson told us the company “works with publishers of popular textbooks to try to ensure that books listed on curricula are available through Amazon’s rental program.”
We also received inquiries relating to the claim, made on social media, that Amazon would “pay” customers to return their rented textbooks. This is not the case, though the company does offer free return shipping to enable students to more easily return books by their due date.