Swoopthat scoops up college text book bargains

College students may not be able to do much about the rising cost of tuition, but there are plenty of deals to be had when shopping for college text books online.

Now is the time to start. Armed with the ISBN for each title, students can search sites such as Amazon.com, eBay's Half.com or comparison sites like Pricegrabber.com to view prices for new and used titles available from hundreds of book sellers.

Enter Swoopthat

Web startup Swoopthat builds on that idea but adds a couple of interesting twists. Unlike online comparison shopping sites like Pricegrabber, swoopthat.com focuses exclusively on college text books, searching offerings from more than 1,500 affiliated book sellers to find the lowest price for each title. It also shows the best package price for students who prefer to buy all of their books from one source - a nice feature.

But what's most interesting about Swoopthat is that the site includes a free textbook exchange service where college students can buy and sell their own books. Also, students can enter a their college's name and their course numbers from a drop-down list and Swoopthat will automatically identify the book titles needed for each course -- no searching for ISBNs.

Swoopthat's search service is free to students, and while affiliated book sellers pay a commission for every book sold through the service, students can sell their own used textbooks on the exchange for free.

Once you have your class schedule from your school, Swoopthat uses that information to pull the list of books you need directly from your college's Web site (if you prefer, you can also search by ISBN). Swoopthat lists 1,200 colleges that it supports and users can request that a college be added if it's not on the list (My daugher's school was added within 24 hours of her request). Launched last Spring, Swoopthat already has 9.2 million users, says CEO Jonathan Simkin.

How does Swoopthat get students' lists of required books? In 2008 the Federal government passed the Higher Education Opportunity Act, which went into effect in 2010. The HEOA's textbook affordability provision now requires that colleges post all classes and required books online. Swoopthat indexes the data and and updates it weekly.

Using Swoopthat

To use the service you select the college name, course department code, course number and section from a series of drop-down menu options. Swoopthat then shows the required books, which you can add to your shopping list.

Swoopthat user interface

Once you've gathered all of the titles, click "find" and Swoopthat searches for and recommends the lowest price option for each title. It also includes the best price for each available type of media: new, used, rental and e-book.

Shoppers can view user-generated seller ratings (one to five stars), and used books include vendor-provided condition ratings as well as comments, such as whether a book has bent pages or highlighting. While you can't filter results today except by price, Simkin says the company is working on letting users restrict search results based attributes such as a given seller's rating, shipping time or book condition.

Comparing the deals

My daugher tried Swoopthat while searching for the best deal on five college text books she needs for the Fall semester. So how well did Swoopthat do? Buying all five titles new at the college book store would have cost $423. But most students prefer to rent titles there, and four of the five books were available for rent. Going this route brings the total tab down to $276.

The most popular alternative for comparison shopping is Amazon.com, and many or her peers say they buy their books there. Amazon offered the same books new for $310.34 or used for $218.52, with free shipping.

Swoopthat's best price? $143.99, which included four rental books and one "good condition" (we'll see) used title. That price, including delivery and rental return shipping costs (about $4 per title each way, or about $36 total), is still about 35% cheaper than the book store's best price. Buying all of the titles new would cost $291. Buying all used came to $210.81.

While Swoopthat offered substantial savings over the college book store, the price gap was smaller when compared to online alternatives such as Amazon.com and Half.com (both of which are Swoopthat affiliates).

Prices for individual titles vary considerably by site. Swoopthat's biggest win: It found a used copy of an English textbook for $5. The same book sells new in the book store for $100.

On the other hand, students willing to search by title may find additional savings by using multiple comparison shopping sites. Pricegrabber, for example, found a new copy of a psychology text for $45.84 - $25 cheaper than Amazon and better than Swoopthat's best price of $67 for new and $59 used.

Another consideration: Used prices tend to vary day by day, as some copies sell and others are added.

It pays to shop around. Overall, however, Swoopthat identified some good values and is definitely worth adding to your list of comparison shopping sites.

What sites do you use to get the best deals on college text books? Share your favorites below.

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