On Friday afternoons between work and rugby practice, Brittany Wolfe would rush to the campus library hoping copies of her advanced algebra textbook had not all been checked out by like-minded classmates.
It was part of the math major's routine last quarter at the University of California at Los Angeles: Stand in line at the reserve desk in the library's closing hours with the goal of borrowing a copy for the weekend.
The alternative was to buy a $120 book and sell it back for far less. If she could sell it back at all. "It's like this terrible game of catch your books when you can," said Wolfe, a new graduate who estimates she saved $800 a year using books on reserve and who now shares textbook tips as a counselor to incoming UCLA students. "It's frustrating when you're already stressed about school. Being stressed about textbooks doesn't seem right."
Maybe, just maybe, relief is on the way. A new federal law requires publishers to provide textbook price information to professors and calls on colleges to identify course textbooks during registration, giving students more time to shop around. Experts call it a step in the right direction, but not a game-changer.
At the same time, a robust online marketplace of used books and recent inroads by textbook rental programs give students more options than ever. The prospect of digital books and slow-but-steady growth in free online "open" content loom as developments that could upend the textbook landscape and alleviate the perennial problem of rising prices.
"Change is coming, but it's not going to happen immediately," said David Lewis, dean of the Indiana University-Purdue University-Indianapolis University Library and assistant vice president for digital scholarly communications at Indiana University.
"If you're in junior high school, you can be sure it'll be better. If you're in high school, there's a shot. If you're starting college as a freshman, you might see it as a senior. It's on more and more people's agenda."
According to a 2005 study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, college textbook prices increased at twice the rate of inflation over the previous two decades, though not as dramatically as tuition.
More recent data from the National Association of College Stores show textbooks costs climbed 14 percent from the 2006-2007 academic year to 2008-2009. A 2010 survey by the group found students spent an average of $667 per year on required course materials including textbooks, although other studies have put the figure at about $900.
In 2008, Congress responded by including textbook-affordability provisions in the Higher Education Opportunity Act.
Along with the price-disclosure clause meant to push professors toward cheaper options, it requires publishers to offer textbooks separately from extra items such as workbooks and CDs. The practice of "bundling" products leads to markups of 10 to 50 percent and makes books harder to sell, according to the Student Public Interest Research Groups, which pressed for the reforms.
"We have more lower-cost options than ever before, and professors are going to have more information than ever before," said Nicole Allen, textbook advocate for the student PIRGs.
Like the music and media businesses, the textbook industry has been revolutionized by the Internet. Although used books long have been an option for students, the Web opened up a world of bargain-hunting beyond the campus bookstore.
These days, sites such as BIGWORDS and BestBookBuys let students search several online stores at once. The 13th edition of the seminal textbook "Marketing Management," which lists for $190 new, can be had for as little as $19.99 used.
More recently, textbook rental sites such as Chegg, BookRenter and CollegeBookRenter have arrived, offering rentals at roughly half the cost of buying. Their business model — Netflix goes to college — has prompted college bookstores and publishers to play catch up and offer rentals themselves.
Textbook publisher Cengage Learning began renting directly to students last spring and has expanded its online rental inventory to 3,000 titles. Campus bookstore operator Follett will introduce rentals at more than 800 bookstores this fall, and Barnes & Noble will do the same on more than 300 campuses.
Earlier this summer, BookRenter, which has contracts with Amazon.com and other online booksellers to fill orders, announced that more than 75 campus bookstores would use its platform to rent textbooks.
Chegg keeps its own inventory of nearly 5 million books at a warehouse outside Louisville, Ky. The startup aspires to forge direct relationships with students, shipping products in their own packaging, offering a liberal return policy and promising to plant a tree for every order, said CEO Dan Rosensweig, a former Yahoo executive.
Behind the scenes, publishers get a share of the rental revenue — something they can't say about used book sales.
Open access textbooks pose a bolder challenge to the status quo. The startup Flat World Knowledge contracts with authors to write new textbooks and publishes them for free under an open content license, allowing professors to edit the raw material and add their own contributions while giving students access to a Web-based HTML book.
Last fall, about 480 professors adopted one of the company's initial 10 business and economics titles, said co-founder Eric Frank. About 1,200 professors are expected to use 22 titles to teach 95,000 students this fall.
The company is betting students will pay a reasonable price for greater convenience. Flat World's revenue comes from selling everything from $30 black-and-white copies of its books to $3 audio chapters, as well as study aids such as digital flash cards. About 55 percent of students are buying something at this point, Frank said.
So far, the main drawback to open access is the dearth of titles, said Albert Greco, a professor at Fordham University's Graduate School of Business Administration and an authority on the textbook publishing industry.
Greco and others forecast a major shift in the next five years to digital textbooks, which already cost about half as much as new print editions on CourseMart.com, a kind of textbook iTunes launched in 2007 by the major textbook publishers.
That would doom the used book and print rental marketplace, Greco said. As for immediate relief from the new price disclosure law, Greco said it won't do any good for students unlucky enough to have four courses with brand-new books.
"Whether it will help students comes down to, 'It depends,' " he said.
Sophie Stanish, a junior at Fordham University in New York, fumes about paying $200 for a new math textbook she couldn't sell back and a $10 short-story collection that fetched 75 cents at trade-in.
She likes the concept of Fordham's "E-RES" program — short for "electronic reserve" — in which professors scan sections of textbooks to the extent allowed by copyright law and then put the material online for free.
But, she said: "I can't read off a screen and retain the knowledge as well. It's a personal thing. I like to highlight."
Other colleges seeking to provide relief have adopted textbook loan programs. At City College of San Francisco, Kathy Gill said she misses class to line up early for a popular loan program for students on financial aid.
The limit is two loaned books, so the business major still shops online for used and rental options each semester.
"You do get a little bit of a break," Gill said. "Every little thing helps."