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Amazon Joins College Textbook Rental Arena, Students Looking For Deals Turn To Online Options

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The days when students hunted down all their expensive textbooks in a traditional campus bookstore have ended.

Following the trend of students renting textbooks online, Amazon Inc., a long-time student favorite for bargain books, recently announced it will offer a textbook rental system through which students can mail back well-kept books free of charge after 130 days, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Amazon's decision to hop onto the physical textbook rental market will increase competition, potentially a good thing for college consumers. Even companies that pioneered the rental model are trying to find innovative ways to turn a profit.

Five years ago, Alan Martin, CEO of Campus Book Rentals, started his company hoping a website could offer college students an way out of buying expensive textbooks. At the time, textbook rental services were practically non-existent. For instance, the option was absent from Amazon or Barnes and Noble, and Martin, who was then a Webster University graduate student, granted his company a pulse by ponying up a quarter-million dollars on maxed-out credit cards.

Martin dropped out of school, banking on his company's success and further upping the ante on his gamble with debt.

Now 33 years old, he pulled out of debt in 2009 and turned profits annually since then. Now, it's a different textbook market.

"All the folks who have been on the block who were just selling are now renting," said Martin in a phone interview. "Even at the college bookstore level that never rented a book prior to about three years ago."

There's a chance students have used Campus Book Rentals before without knowing it.

The company partnered with a number of colleges and universities, like New York University, to set up touch screen kiosks on 6,000 campuses that are usually placed in schools' bookstores where students traditionally purchased assigned texts. They don't feature the company's logos and are not paid for by the schools.

"They're completely, privately labeled for the bookstore," said Martin. "so students have no idea we're behind the technology."

When the student renting the book brings it back, Martin's company sells the book back to the bookstore. If the bookstore no longer offers the textbook, his company rents it out to another school.

Data gathered by Student Monitor, LLC, a college market research firm, reveals at least 15 percent of students rented textbooks after 2010, and 27 percent of students rented at least one used textbook.

It appears students attempting to spend less on college texts are succeeding. Another study by Student Monitor showed students spending an average of $345 on textbooks in the fall of 2005. In spring 2011, the average fell to $252.

However, recent studies suggest students may be getting the raw ends of deals by renting instead of buying and selling used books online.

BigWords.com, the first price comparison company to partner with Amazon's rental services, found through a survey that buying and selling books instead of renting them saved students an average of $1,000 per school year.

BigWords recently created a "consider buyback value" option to its price comparison toolbox, allowing students to compare the amount of savings from buying and then selling the book over the cost of renting books.

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