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How to Compare Textbook Editions (for free)

  • Sean 

Let’s call textbooks what they truly are, a scam. This article is about how not to get ripped off when deciding whether to buy the new or old textbook edition.

There are so many textbooks with barely any changes between the editions, these essentially just reshuffle information around.

Anyway, I’m done ranting about the textbook racket.

Let’s get into how much textbooks can change between editions and how to compare them.

How Much do Textbooks Change Between Editions?

At the start of the semester, I always try and see if I can find the current edition of the textbook I need, but sometimes these are hard to find. On the flip side, older editions can be tempting because they are easy to access and much cheaper.

From my experience textbooks can change significantly between editions or almost not at all.

Some textbooks may only have minor updates, such as corrected errors or updated statistics, while others may undergo significant revisions to reflect new developments in the field or to re-organize the material in a different way. While in some cases, a new edition may have completely rewritten chapters or an entirely new structure.

The frequency of new editions can also vary, with some textbooks being updated every few years and others only being updated every decade or longer.

The changes are likely to be less significant if the textbook’s edition is updated very regularly compared to being updated over longer time spans. A good starting point is to assess how long ago the last edition was released.

How to Compare Textbook Editions

However, not all hope is lost. You can compare textbook editions for free before coming to a purchasing decision. These are essentially different ways to get access to the full textbook to check the table of contents (this is ideal). Or alternatively, access the publisher’s description of the book to see what has been updated or revised.

However, accessing this information isn’t always clear.

I’m going to use an example textbook for this purpose. I’ll show you all the sites I use to compare new editions and old editions using this example textbook.

Let’s get into the best ways I have found to compare textbook editions.

Search an online database

Online databases are the fastest and easiest way to compare textbook editions.

There are a couple of websites I use for this purpose. Unfortunately, these don’t exactly include super detailed information about the exact changes being made.

Also, they are not going to be super honest with you since it’s in their interest to sell you why the book is different. You need to have your bullshit detected turned up to the max.

Here are my favorite sites for this purpose.

We can get a pretty good idea of how different a new textbook edition is with a seller description from Abebooks and a table of contents from WorldCat.


Abebooks is a solid database that sells textbooks. I find that the store descriptions can give you a good general overview of the differences between a new and an old edition.

Here’s an example of me looking up a textbook on learning and memory.

You may have to look at a few sellers until you find one that actually gives a long description of the item you are looking at.

Here is what I managed to find on Abebooks for my example textbook:

Using AbeBooks to find textbook descriptions


WorldCat can be used in the same way for this purpose. But I have found that you can actually get the table of contents with this site, which can be very handy.

Here is what I managed to find on Worldcat for my example textbook:

Using WorldCat to find textbook descriptions

You can see that using a combination of these two sites can give you a decent idea of what the differences are between textbook editions.


VitalSource is the last site that I use to find textbook descriptions. This site is actually my favorite because it includes both the table of contents and the description.

Although keep in mind that you won’t get so lucky with every textbook.

Here is what I managed to do for my example:

Using VitalSource to find textbook descriptions

You should be able to find your textbook across these three sites, but sometimes information is missing, or not detailed enough, etc.

Personally, I want more detailed information before coming to a purchasing decision.

This is why I have another method that will maximize what you know before you buy. Just go straight to the source.

Go to the publisher’s website

This one is a little less convenient but it can work, especially if you can’t find anything on the other sites I have listed.

You can see that I managed to find similar information here to the other sites in my example book.

I’m not going to bother linking out to this site since it will likely be different for many textbooks. Just look up the publisher and usually, they will have a website you can search for your textbook in.

Compare them at your library

You can also go to your university or college library and compare them directly. I think this is the ideal solution, you don’t have to rely on the description of someone else who is trying to sell it to you. It just takes a little extra time.

To do the library compare strategy borrow a textbook on reserve and then go find the older edition on the library shelves to compare them.

What does on reserve mean?

It’s common for university and college libraries to have textbooks that you can borrow for a few hours (this is what on reserve means). These will likely be the newer editions so you will have to check the actual main shelves for the older edition to compare them.

Sidenote: before you go to the library, is probably worth making sure they have both versions of the textbook by searching for it on their website

Once you have both editions in your hands you can compare the table of contents. You can even scan the pages of both by looking at the assigned readings in your syllabus to look for more differences.

If there are very few if any differences, you might choose to go with the old edition. If they are significantly different, you might choose the new one. It’s up to you to determine how much difference between the editions you are comfortable with accepting.

Buy both editions, compare them, and refund one

This is the last resort I would try if I wanted to compare textbook editions. I don’t use this method.

In this strategy, you buy both the new and old editions of the textbook (or just one of them if you already have access to the other), examine them, and then return either one or both of them.

You can either buy them in person and refund them or do it online.

This can work, it’s just a hassle because the refund policies often don’t allow this. Online textbook vendors often have refund policies that don’t allow you to read more than a certain amount of the textbook (roughly 20%). Alternatively, If you buy the books in person the refund policy might include that the book has to stay sealed.

However, if your sources of textbooks don’t have restrictions like this that prevent this strategy, you could do this.

You just have to be very careful that the refund policy actually doesn’t in some way restrict it. You have been warned, don’t get stuck with two textbooks.

Lastly, you might be wondering, is there just a website that explicitly compared textbook editions?

Is there a dedicated website that compares textbook editions?

Unfortunately, sites that compare textbook editions don’t really exist. This is probably due to the sheer amount of work that setting up something like this would take. Can you imagine finding and comparing every new textbook that comes out? This is daunting even if you are finding the differences online via publishers’ notes.

The best you can really do is look at the notes on databases or compare them yourself.

The Takeaway

Differentiating different textbook editions can be hard. But through a combination of searching for online descriptions, you can take a good guess at what separates a new and an older textbook edition.

Ideally, though you should compare textbook editions with both books in front of you at your college or university library.