ORONO, Maine — Sara Domenech of Exeter struggled to hold on to her textbooks as she walked across a parking lot at the University of Maine recently.

The 19-year-old sophomore majoring in biomedical engineering said she had visited the campus to buy her books a few weeks before classes start Aug. 30.

Even though students need to make sure they are using the correct version of a textbook, there are several online resources available for finding reduced price or even free textbooks. A few of them are:

The total: $535 for five books — four used and one new.

That’s about the same amount Domenech said she spent for textbooks during each semester of her first year at UMaine.

“I still have to spend between $100 and $150 for a lab book that’s not in yet,” she said.

The cost of Domenech’s textbooks for the fall semester is a bit higher than average for students in the University of Maine System, Rosa Redonnett, executive director of student affairs, said Wednesday.

“The average cost of textbooks for a full-time student is estimated to be about $1,000 for an academic year or $500 a semester,” she said.

Full-time students attending one of the state’s community colleges are advised to budget $600 for books and supplies per semester, according to Helen Pelletier, director of public affairs for the Maine Community College System.

That’s substantially higher, however, than the national average of $667 that students spent on textbooks and other required course materials in the 2009-2010 academic year, according to the National Association of College Stores, or, NACS, based in Oberlin, Ohio. That’s down slightly from the $702 average reported the previous year. The average price for a new textbook last year was $64, and $57 for a used one.

Congress takes action

The increasing cost of textbooks, up 14 percent in the past year, according to NACS, has gotten the attention of legislators in addition to students, parents and institutions.

Federal legislation to control the cost of textbooks took effect last month. It was passed by Congress as part of the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008. It requires colleges and universities to offer students the option of buying textbooks without extras such as compact discs, study guides and other add-ons that have increased prices. Colleges also must make available during registration, which usually takes place several months before classes begin, the list of textbooks required for each course so students have time to seek out the best price and to spread out their purchases over several months.

Colleges and universities as well as students, faculty and textbook publishers are searching for ways to reduce the cost of textbooks. Some of the options being implemented in Maine include renting instead of purchasing, comparison-shopping online and open-source publishing, which refers to information that is available free online.

Rentals a growing trend

Even though most students continue to buy textbooks and other course materials from their institution’s bookstores, the fastest-growing trend in the industry is not in the sale but the rental of textbooks, according to Charles Schmidt, spokesman for the NACS. A year ago, just 300 of its member stores were renting textbooks. This fall, half — or 1,500 of its 3,000 member stores — will offer students the option of renting some textbooks either directly from the store or through an online rental service with which the store has contracted.

Students at Husson University will have the option of renting some textbooks for the first time this semester. Of the 500 titles required for courses, 180 may be rented, according to Janet Francoeur, Husson’s bookstore manager.

“The Husson Bookstore is eager to launch Rent-A-Text because we are committed to providing students with affordable textbook choices,” she said earlier this month. “The rental program will help students minimize the cost of their textbooks while allowing them to use the text as if it was their own.”

The bookstore is one of 800 around the country operated by the Follett Corp. of River Grove, Ill.

The rental cost at Husson will be about half of the price of a new book. Signs beneath books include the cost of a new book, the cost of a used book, and the rental cost. For example, “Criminal Behavior” costs $99 new, $75.25 used and $44.55 to rent for the semester.

“The best value is to buy a used book and to sell it back to the bookstore at the end of the semester,” Francoeur said. “We will buy it back for 25 percent of the new cost if the instructor is going to use it again. That is a risk the student takes.”

Husson is not the only institution of higher learning in Maine that has begun renting textbooks this year. UMaine’s bookstore is also testing the waters for the first time, and will rent 18 to 20 of the more than 1,000 titles required for courses this fall. The bookstore at Bates College in Lewiston also has contracted with Follett to rent some titles.

“One of the best parts of the program is that it will allow students the freedom to highlight their books and take notes all within the normal wear and tear associated with their course work,” Husson’s Francoeur said. “Also, this Rent-A-Text program will give students the choice to buy their [rented] textbook through Oct. 31,”.

Bookstores appear to be eager to get into the rental business due to the success of the textbook rental website Chegg.com, based in Santa Clara, Calif. Founded in July 2007, Chegg.com claims to be the No. 1 online textbook rental company and claims to have saved students on more than 6,400 U.S. campuses more than $200 million. The company offers students access to a growing catalog of more than 4.2 million titles, a variety of shipping options and free returns, according to information on its website.

As part of the company’s ongoing environmental efforts, it arranges to plant a tree every time a student rents from Chegg.com through a partnership with the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit American Forests’ Global ReLeaf program. Chegg recently was named to The Wall Street Journal’s Next Big Thing: Top 50 Venture-Backed Companies

What students are doing

About 15 percent of college and university students do not buy the textbooks required for at least one of their courses, according to NACS data.

“That’s really not a good idea,” Francoeur said.

A.J. Rutherford, 28, of Enfield and a student at the University of Maine, has had success buying textbooks online.

“The way I’ve been saving money is keeping an eye out for books that I need well in advance of classes,” he said in response to a reporter’s query on the Bangor Daily News website. “The idea is to keep the books one needs in mind when shopping online (via Amazon, eBay, Valore Books etc.) and watch for deals. This doesn’t always work, but has yielded some success for me.”

Rutherford said he was able to get a copy of “College Algebra & Trigonometry” for $27.98 including shipping. The book retails at about $150 new and $100 used, he said.

The key to shopping online for textbooks is to use the International Standard Book Number — or ISBN — number rather than the title. Francoeur warned that students sometimes have wasted money by ordering the wrong edition or ordering it from another country, which delays arrival until classes are well under way.

An Apple iPad has replaced most of the textbooks Jared Sawyer, 29, of Bangor needs for his classes at UMaine.

“I’ve yet to recoup the amount I paid for it in the savings, but the other aspects of the device have already made it worth the price,” he said in an e-mail. “Apple has a native iBook application that has a large selection of books, if they are not available in that form I also have a Kindle [an e-book reader] application on the iPad from Amazon. Between the two, I have access to nearly every book and textbook I would need.”

Having the money to pay for books before classes begin also can be an issue for some students.

“The key is being able to front the money for the books,” Rutherford said. “A lot of people are going to college and waiting for their financial aid to kick in and get their books directly at the bookstore.”

Future of printed textbooks

Although the sale of electronic book readers and the number of e-books continue to grow slowly, 74 percent of college students surveyed in 2009 preferred a printed textbook over an electronic one. Electronic textbooks made up just 2.8 percent of total textbook sales in 2008, according to NACS, but that percentage is expected to grow to between 10 percentand 15 percent over the next two years. Last year, about 15 percent of college courses offered a digital textbook.

Digital books also are not always the least expensive option for students, according to Francoeur, because they can’t easily be resold. One new textbook at Husson that has an e-book option costs $109.25 for the electronic version, $126.25 used and $168.25 new in print.

NACS recently broke down where each textbook dollar goes. More than three-quarters, or 75.9 percent, is the wholesale cost, which includes royalties to authors, the cost of having textbooks reviewed by peers, and the expense of printing and marketing. One cent of every dollar goes for shipping, 11 cents goes to pay bookstore personnel, nearly 6 cents pays for bookstore operations and a little more than 6 cents is pre-tax profit for the stores.

Faculty members in the University of Maine System and the Maine Community College System are aware of and sensitive to how much students must pay for textbooks, both Redonnett and Pelletier said.

Steven Barkan, a UMaine sociology professor, is working with an open source publisher, Flat World Knowledge, to keep the cost of his next textbook down.

“For me, cost is a very important factor,” he said earlier this week. “The cost of textbooks has gone up faster than inflation in the 31 years I’ve taught at UMaine. We have a lot of first-generation college students who are working 20 to 30 hours a week to pay for school. I saw this as a potential way to save students a lot of money.”

When his new book is published later this year, students will be able to read it free online. Copies from the print-on-demand publisher will be available for $30 and $60. In the less expensive copy, all of the photos, graphs, and chapter headings will be printed in black and white, according to Barkan. The more expensive version has color.

A different textbook by Barkan, published by a major textbook publishing house, sells for $120 new, he said.

“Flat World Knowledge has as high quality a peer review process as other publishers in the field who have published my books,” said Barkan, who has written more than a dozen books in his field.

The best deal

Students will find the best deal for textbooks at the 30 or so colleges and universities around the country that have rented textbooks to their students since their founding, according to Schmidt.

The University of Eastern Illinois in Charleston, Ill, began renting textbooks to students for $1 a year when it was founded in 1899, Carol Miller, director of textbook rental, said Thursday.

A Maine native brought the school’s policy to the attention of the Bangor Daily News in response to a reporter’s query on the paper’s website.

The current cost of renting textbooks at the University of Eastern Illinois is $9.95 per credit hour each semester, according to Miller. So, a full-time student taking 15 credit hours would pay about $150 a semester to rent books for all of his classes. That’s equal to the amount a Maine student might pay for one new book and, maybe, two used books.

Of that $9.95, Miller said, $1 is dedicated to pay for the new textbook building on campus. The other $8.95 pays for textbooks.

Richard Young, manager of the UMaine Bookstore, was skeptical that University of Eastern Illinois’ rental program could pay for itself, but Miller said that the rental fee covered operational expenses.

“That does pay for the books,” she said. “We have some additional income from late fees and charges for damaged and lost books. We do sell books to various companies that are no longer going to be used, like when a new edition of a textbook comes out. We do everything we can to recoup our costs of buying new books.”

The majority of the textbooks at the University of Eastern Illinois are used for two or three years, which also is the average at UMaine and Husson.

In-state tuition for the 2010-2011 academic year at UMaine is $9,626 compared to $7,620 at the University of Eastern Illinois, while out-of-state tuition is $23,876 compared to $22,860 in Illinois.