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8 Startups Disrupting the College Textbook Industry

  • 23 November 2017
  • Walter Couture

Textbook publishers are reinventing themselves to stay competitive in the digital world we live in. This is especially true in the college sector where there are 22 million students spending on average $1200 each per year on textbooks.

For students wanting to cut costs, maybe buying used books from the campus bookstore, or getting them from a classmate or friend, is a stressful need that could still cost a sizeable amount. Reselling textbooks yields little in return.

Students are finding that they get the best deals when they are able to cut out the middleman and buy and sell textbooks directly with online publishers.

Many startups are also recognizing the market potential of college textbooks online. Here are 8 of them.


Locolist calls itself “Your Campus Craigslist.” It was begun in 2015 by students from Purdue and Arizona State universities.

Locolist provides an app that enables college students to easily buy or sell products and services to one another on campuses around the country.


If the student can’t find a local textbook or buyer for one he is trying to sell, Locolist has a trade-in partnership with, allowing students to trade-in used textbooks for up to 80% of their original value. The app is free and is being used by 155,000 students at 275 colleges nationally.



Packback is a Chicago-based startup that enables users to rent digital textbooks

for $3-$5 per 24 hours. This pay-as-you-use method allows users to save hundreds of dollars on printed textbooks. The principle is similar to renting videos.


Packback began as a dorm-room operation at Illinois State University (ISU) in 2011 when Kasey Gandham, Mike Shannon, Jessica Tenuta and Nick Currier entered campus competitions. The competitions led to working with advisors who helped them come up with the idea for a digital book rental service. That idea evolved into Packback.


RedShelf is an eTextbook company that partners with more than 500 educational bookstores, offering students content at a 60 percent discount compared with the paper versions of the books. It hat has raised $4 million from Coniston Capital and other investors including the National Association of College Stores.

RedShelfTim Haitaian and Greg Fenton, co-founders of RedShelf believe that the discounted e-book market effectively kills the textbook resale market, which means that the next generation of students will have to buy the books again.

RedShelf has over 370,000 titles and is shooting for a half-million.

Read anywhere, anytime and on all of your devices – RedShelf

Ingram and CourseSmart (VitalSource)

According to Publisher’s Weekly, Ingram Content Group’s acquisition of CourseSmart unites the two largest players in the digital textbook market. CourseSmart has been rebranded as VitalSource.

Ingram’s VitalSource e-textbook platform boasts over four million faculty and student users and offers content from over 500 academic publishers.


VitalSource has 1.5 million faculty users and says that it offers more than 90 percent of the textbook titles in higher education and at 60 percent the cost of print.

Combined, the two companies become the largest provider of e-textbooks in higher education.


FlatWorld is one of the pioneers in the movement to bring more affordable, “open” educational content to college students.

FlatWorld has grown into one of the largest open, e-textbook publishers in the country with over one million students now accessing its content in 77 countries.


The company has raised over $35 million in its quest to create a platform to help universities offer mobile-first, adaptive courses and degree programs.

How it works – FlatWorld


Chegg claims to reach 30 percent of college students on 7,000 campuses across the country. which allows students to rent, search for and purchase digital textbooks.

It offers several apps including one that has access to over 2.5 million step-by-step textbook solutions from 2,000 college textbooks. The app allows students to search by book and by chapter to find what they need.

Chegg Books

Another app allows students to use their phone’s camera to scan ISBN numbers, or QR codes, and enter a title or author to search and find textbooks or content.

App – Chegg Books


Co-founded by Ariel Diaz, Brian Balfour, and Aaron White, Boundless is a free, digital alternative culled from existing, open educational resources. Diaz says that students at more than half of the colleges in the U.S. have used Boundless’ resources to date.

Because it has a free and open approach, the company is dealing with a number of lawsuits from textbook publishers. While it deals with these challenges, it continues to move ahead and has released 18 open textbooks featuring content licensed by Creative Commons, the same license used by Wikipedia. The 18 textbooks cover college subjects ranging from accounting and biology to sociology and economics.

Catalog – Boundless


Sidewalk is the rebranded name for CampusBookRentals, originally started to rent textbooks to college students on campus.  Sidewalk now works with campus stores to help them with their programs. Half the company’s revenue of $40 million comes from bookstore partnerships.


Founded by CEO Alan Martin, Sidewalk offers bookstores four different services related to students renting or buying textbooks on campus. One of them is the placement of touchscreen kiosks on campus allowing students to rent about 90 percent of the textbooks in the store. Sidewalk buys the book and rents it to the student, then gives the store buy-back options.

The company claims to have around 350 university bookstores using its services, including those of Cornell, UNC, and UCLA.

About Walter Couture

Walter is an award-winning writer and blogger; former K12 teacher, corporate and college executive. Managed $100 million sales force for Received BA in Psychology from University of Minnesota, MA in Teaching & Learning with Technology from Ashford University.