Big savings, a little more work
When hunting for cheap textbooks, inevitably a student must ask themselves “How far am I willing to go to save?” If your answer is: “pretty far,” you ought to consider buying the previous edition of the required textbook. Buying the previous year’s edition can save you a great deal of money, but it’s also going to create a little more work for you. Best case, you end up saving enough money to afford an awesome pizza party at the end of the semester, and you don’t have any issues between the older edition and the new one.
Worst case scenario, when the professor says: “read chapter 8 by Monday,” you’ll have to stay after class to see if his chapter 8 matches up with yours. Sometimes your professor will assign you to read a section in the new edition that your edition doesn’t have, and you’ll need to borrow from somebody.
It’s a bit of a toss-up, but it’s one that’s weighed in your favor.
When you buy the previous edition of a textbook, you are trading the ease of just doing exactly what the professor says for the affordability of the previous edition, and if that sounds too inconvenient for you, it might be better to explore one of the other savings topics we have on the main page.
Talk to the prof - If you are thinking about using the previous edition of a textbook, it is important to first consult the professor who assigned the textbook. Office hours are there for a reason, and most of the time your professor will have used the previous edition and will know whether or not the previous edition meets the requirements for the class.
Professors are not out to get you when it comes to textbooks. There’s no secret cabal of publishers and professors who meet together to discuss exactly which book to use and how much to charge for it (at least, we hope not). Most of the time, your professors just choose the most recent edition so the text is as up-to-date as possible. They also sometimes take advantage of easy homework and test scoring that online resources can offer, which is a real time saver for them.
When you approach your professor, make it clear that what you’re doing isn’t going to make their job any harder. You don’t want to be the student who says, “I couldn’t do that assignment because my edition doesn’t have that chapter.” That’s not going to fly, and it’ll just frustrate them. Work with your professor to save on the textbook while also getting the materials you need to actually do well in the course.
Ultimately, buying the older edition is the wrong choice if you’re not going to learn what you need to without the most recent edition. If your professor tells you that you absolutely need the most recent edition, don’t fight them, just go back to our list of strategies to save on textbooks and use an alternative method.
If, however, they tell you a previous edition would probably work, it’s time to move to the next step: evaluation.
Know your textbook: which textbooks change with new editions, and which don't
Textbook publishers produce new editions of books every year or two, but have you ever wondered how much changes between editions? Not much, we discovered.
A ‘new edition’ doesn’t actually have to contain new content. According to ISBN.org, a book will get a new ISBN and can be considered a new edition if one of the following conditions are met.
“…content has been altered in a way that might make a customer complain that this was not the product that was expected. Or, text has been changed to add a new feature, such as a preface or appendix or additional content. Or, content has been revised. Or, the book has been redesigned.”
Now, that doesn’t mean that every new edition is simply the old one with a new cover. In industries where quite a lot changes year to year, like computer science, biological science, or medicine, the updates actually do help you out. You don’t want to learn the wrong medical procedure because your book was outdated, after all.
But, for history, philosophy, mathematics, literature, and other more stable fields, there tends not to be much difference from one edition to the other.
Ways to handle the differences between new editions
Libraries frequently have older editions of textbooks on the shelves that you can check out for exactly zero dollars. Take your freshly checked out textbook to your campus bookstore, pull the new one off the shelf, and compare the two. It’s unlikely that the pages will match exactly, but that’s not really what you’re after. You should be looking for chapter titles or (perhaps more importantly) chapter topics. If the newest edition of your textbook has the same number of chapters, and those chapters all cover the same topics, you’re probably safe buying the older edition.
You can also compare the older edition with the most recent version if you have a friend or classmate who has already bought it. If you can’t get your hands on the older edition before you buy it, you can check online and see if Google Books or Amazon has a preview of the book that you can compare against the newest version.
A little more work
What’s most likely going to happen is this: Your professor will say: “Read chapters 3 & 4 by next class,” but your previous edition’s chapters don’t match exactly. You’ll need to raise your hand (or talk after class) and ask “What topics do those chapters cover?” Then you’ll know what to read. This is what we mean when we say going the previous edition route means a little more work for you.
Keep in mind too that you’re going to be missing some of the content everyone else has with the newest edition, like those ‘featured chapters’ where a well-known person writes a two or three page essay for the book. Don’t worry if a homework assignment is assigned on Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s article on page 45, which you don’t have. Just ask a classmate if you can snap a photo of the article with your smartphone or borrow the book for an hour or two while you write the report. It’s a little more work, but you’re trading the time spent doing these small extra things for the money you didn’t spend on the newest edition.
But when you think about it, saving a huge amount of money is worth the extra effort in the long run.