4 questions to ask when ordering textbooks for customers

If there’s one type of book I will hold a party for when it goes totally to ebook format, it will be the textbook.  They change so frequently and are so specific they’re pretty well not worth carrying in a general shop.  Leave textbooks sales to those that specialize in it.  However, if you have a brick and mortar shop you’ll often have students in at this time of year looking for books.  Generally if they’ve come to you, its because they’re hoping you can get it cheaper than the local college… or the local college didn’t order enough textbooks for the class, which is a surprisingly common occurence.


In either case, they want the absolute BEST deal you can get them, which can be tricky when so many kids are familiar with the internet already.  You CAN often find them a great deal…  but you can waste a lot of time doing that if you don’t ask some specific questions up front. Get some additional info from them at the time they’re asking for the quote.  Here’s the questions you need to ask students looking to have you special order a textbook:

1. What is the ISBN?

For the love of god, get the ISBN.  Textbooks have so many editions and books with similar titles by the  same author that its really the only way to be sure its the RIGHT book. Don’t even start the search process without it.  Tell them to find it out and call back if they don’t have it.

However, DO search under the title, author, and edition or publication date without the ISBN.  Some dealers don’t put them in (for whatever reason) and you can sometimes snap them up on the cheap that way… but make sure you have the ISBN for the book so you can compare all the other data to make sure its the right one!

Also try the edition both as a number and written out. Different dealers will write it as 3rd or third… and you can often location a cheaper copy with that slight difference in how its listed.

2.  Does this have any auxilary material like a workbook or CD that comes with it and do you actually NEED that?

A lot of textbooks come bundled with CDs or DVDs these day… and a lot of professors never assign anything off the CD or DVD so you can scoop up a textbook without the CD for anywhere from 20-50% off the price of one with it.

Sometimes students really DO need the workbook or CD, so make sure you know before looking.

3. Is an international edition okay?

90% of the time, the International Edition IS okay.  The International edition generally looks exactly like the US edition except that its a paperback rather than hardcover… and is often half the price of the US edition.  New international editions are often cheaper than used US editions!  (even after having it shipped from the Philippines!) There’s also some minor differences in paper quality and printing, but generally it’s not an issue.  They also come with angry messages on the front saying they should only be sold in X country.  Ignore this.  The Cannot be sold in X country is really intended only for distribution at wholesale level and individual books aren’t something the publisher will enforce.

HOWEVER, an international edition may NOT be acceptable if the student will be doing exercises out of the book for grading purposes.  There can be some minor differences in pagination, so if they’re supposed to answer all the questions on page 34 and turn it in for grading… the international edition might not have any problems on 34!  It’ll usually be within a page or two of the US edition, but this can cause problems and they might be unwilling to trade off the savings for the headaches it will give them.

Usually college students don’t get that type of assignment, so its more of a concern with high school students.

The international edition is probably also NOT okay if they’re replacing a lost or damaged textbook for a school or library. They need to get the EXACT replacement.


4. Is one edition back acceptable? How about two?

For really cash strapped students, this MAY be an option, but they need to check with professor first.  Or at least look at their sylabus and figure out if it requires them to use something that is ONLY in the current edition.  This can often make a HUGE difference.  Two editions back may actually plunge it into the realm of Amazon’s penny books! For someone struggling to put themself through college, this can make the difference between whether they can afford to take the class or not this semester.

Generally this trick only works for humanities courses or introductory level basic sciences.  There probably isn’t a lot of difference between two editions of the same Intro to Biology book, science hasn’t changed THAT much in the two years between printings. The citric acid cycle still works the same way it did two years ago!

An advanced computer programming book… that HAS changed.  Generally the higher the course level, the less likely this is to work. Anything with constantly updating info like Current Affairs, cutting edge technology, or law, the previous edition just isn’t going to fly. The changes ARE significant and important.

Humanities courses you have better odds of this working since the thing that changes between editions is usually what’s actually included, not the content of the reading.  They may include a different essay ABOUT Hemingway, but they won’t actually change the words in the Hemingway short story they’re supposed to read!


Asking those questions up front means you spend lees time working.  The margins are TIGHT on ordering textbooks so you don’t want to spend too much time looking.  Your time is worth money!  But armed with that information you can often get students a huge discount off what the school bookstore is asking for a new textbook and they’ll come to you first for other things and tell their friends.  Yes, you may not make huge amounts of money on these because of how tight the margins are, but you will make consistent cash flow every time textbook season rolls around. And if they stay in the area, you may have made a customer for life.

BONUS TIP: If you sell on Biblio and offer a dealer to dealer discount, check Biblio first! If your dealer discount matches or exceeds the other guy’s, you’ll get a percentage off.  This is  often a BIG deal with textbooks because they’re so expensive.  Even a 10% discount can add up on a order fast.    Make sure you’re logged in while searching.




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  • Great info Nora – In this posting you said, “or the local college didn’t order enough textbooks for the class, which is a surprisingly common occurrence.”

    I wonder if the local ‘institution’ doesn’t want to be stuck with overpriced leftovers for the following year? Hmmm! Makes one think the whole deal is a bigger scam than it is.

    My daughter is taking classes and I taught her how to shop for her books online. I wonder if a B&M can set up a side business training students to do their own shopping?

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