Two of the biggest book retailers in the U.S., Amazon and Barnes and Noble, both offer electronic textbook rentals. The service doesn't always offer cost savings compared to purchasing a traditional textbook, but it does offer convenience. If you're not sure where to shop, consider how the two companies compare on pricing, rental terms, portability and other factors.

TUTORIAL: Education Savings Account: Introduction

Amazon advertises that students can save up to 80% off the list price of printed textbooks with Kindle Textbook Rental. Barnes and Noble states that students can save up to 60% with e-textbooks compared to the cost of buying a new textbook.

Which retailer is cheaper really depends on an individual student's needs, including book title, book edition and rental length. The two vendors offer different titles in electronic format, so students won't be able to price shop on every book they need. Some titles are only available in print no matter where students shop. One retailer may have only the most recent edition as an e-textbook, and another may have only a previous edition.

If both vendors carry the same edition of the same e-textbook, rental length can be the deciding factor when it comes to price. (For related reading, see 5 Alternatives To Expensive Textbooks.)

Rental Length
With Amazon, students can rent a book for as little as 30 days to as many as 360 days. This feature means that students in universities that operate on quarter systems don't have to pay to rent a book for an entire semester. It also means that students don't have to rent a book for an entire semester if a class only uses a book for part of a term. Students can extend a rental by as little as one day at any time. They can also purchase the book with a credit for the amount already paid for the rental as long as the rental is still active.

Whereas Amazon consumers have flexibility in determining the length of their book rentals, Barnes and Noble appears to offer only one fixed rental length, which varies by book. Rental periods do not appear to be extendable. The option to rent an e-textbook for a short period can offer substantial savings. Absent this option, the convenience of having a textbook in electronic form may be worth the premium to some students.

Trial Periods
Like its other Kindle books, Amazon offers free samples of any textbook available in electronic form. Samples can be read on a Kindle or computer. Amazon does not offer a free trial, but rental books can be returned for a full refund within seven days. At Barnes and Noble, some titles come with a free seven-day trial, and all titles are refundable if they have not yet been downloaded. Titles that the student has already downloaded are refundable within seven days.

Electronic textbooks free up much-needed storage space in cramped dorm rooms and relieve students of the physical burdens of carrying textbooks, which can strain backs and necks.

Amazon's rental price grants students the ability to read an electronic textbook on a variety of devices, including computers, e-readers and mobile devices (the reading apps are free). The ability to read a textbook anytime and anywhere makes it easy to take advantage of time that would otherwise be wasted. Waiting for the bus? Study a few pages of your textbook on your phone.

Unlike Amazon's e-textbooks, Barnes and Noble's e-textbooks can only be read on computers. The free software required to read the books is called NOOKstudy, but the books cannot be viewed on the NOOK e-reader. An exception is books that might be required for a class but aren't textbooks, such as novels for an English literature class.

Study Aids
Both companies include free study aides with their book-reading software. Barnes and Noble's NOOKstudy software allows students to digitally highlight and make notes in textbooks as well as tag important content and search. Amazon offers similar features and lets students retain their highlights and notes even after the rental period expires. Barnes and Noble does not.

The Bottom Line
There are substantial differences between Amazon and Barnes and Noble in terms of e-textbook rental features and pricing. Amazon appears to have an edge when it comes to portability, study aides and rental length (and therefore price, in some cases), making it a possible leader in this market. Money-wise students should check both options before renting any given e-textbook. (For related reading, see 7 Money-Saving Resources For College Students.)

For more on this subject, read Do e-Textbooks Help Students Save Money?

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