How Much Will Students Really Save Using Amazon’s E-Textbooks?

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It’s a very frustrating part of the college experience. You pay more than $100 for a textbook, haul it home and then never open it. You turn it in at the end of the semester and get a pittance back. Heck, even if you read the book, it’s hardly a bargain. Thankfully for broke college students everywhere, Amazon is changing up the model by offering e-textbook rentals.
With the launch of Kindle Textbook Rental this Monday, the company says students may be able to save as much as 80% off textbook prices. For a fee that in some cases is about 50% of the cost to buy a used textbook or own the Kindle edition, students can rent a book for a minimum of 30 days. At the end of the those 30 days they can extend the rental for as little as one day for an additional cost or choose to purchase the book.

(MORE: Good News, Students: Amazon Intros Kindle Textbook Rentals)

For example, a new copy of David P. Clark’s Molecular Biology retails on Amazon for $104.31. Used copies begin at $40 and the Kindle edition is $39.99. But still cheaper is the rental price of $18.36. To rent Molecular Biology from July 20 to the end of this year is $34.08 — still cheaper than buying the book full price.

And, because Amazon products are cross-platform, the e-books can be read not only on the Kindle, but also on smartphones and tablets that run on some versions of Apple, Windows and Android operating systems.

While the Amazon program certainly doesn’t reinvent the wheel — websites such as Chegg, Kno and Inkling already offer similar services — they are by far the largest and most high-profile book seller to enter the market.

The program will undoubtedly have an effect on the already-struggling college bookstore which has struggled to compete in the age of Amazon. But it could also have an effect on the number of e-textbooks sold overall. After all, what student would buy an electronic edition when they can rent one for much less? (Since we all know no one goes back and reads those old textbooks, anyway.)

(MORE: Should You Buy an eBook Reader?)

To combat that, the company is offering an incentive. Margin notes and highlighted passages will be stored, even after the rental is returned. Meaning that if for some reason a student has a hankering to re-read their old organic chemistry textbook, they can re-rent it or purchase the Kindle edition and get all their old notes back, too.

The real test, though, may be to see how popular the electronic rentals are among students in the first place. Despite the hours they spend looking at one screen or another every day, according to a study by the National Association of College Stores’ OnCampus Research in April 2011, 75% of students still prefer print textbooks.

But while the number of students purchasing electronic books is still low, it is on the rise. Of the 600 students surveyed, just 18% said they had purchased electronic books in the past three months, but that was an increase of six percentage points from a similar survey conducted a few months before.

Odds are when students find out about the potential savings the rental program will take off. After all, we all know college students would much rather spend money on booze than books.

Kayla Webley is a guest contributor for Moneyland. Find her on Twitter at @kaylawebley  or on Facebook at facebook.com/kaylalwebley. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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