Inside the Philosophy Factory kindly asked me in a comment on my last entry about our rental text system from my point of view. And since I aim to please, here goes:
Basics: Our bookstore offers both purchase and rental texts; each instructor chooses texts for his/her classes (though I understand that in some departments, faculty all use the same text for a given class) and says whether they should be purchased or rentals.
Our students play a flat fee of about $50. each semester for the rental texbooks, no matter how many they use or not.
Ordering: In order to get something NEW ordered as a rental, we have to make a commitment to re-use the book for 2-3 terms (I think 3, but I can't remember for sure) when we teach the same class. The bookstore loves it when we re-use the same textbook for years on end; they probably love the old Riverside Shakespeare anthology.
For rental texts, the bookstore really likes when people re-use the same books from semester to semester, and when people teaching different sections use the same books. So when colleagues who used the same first year writing text wanted to change to a new, briefer edition, the bookstore strongly encouraged me to change. It worked fine for me, so I changed. SOMETIMES, if you're using an older edition, you can't get new desk copies (because the publisher has put out a new edition); but the bookstore will let you use a rental.
The bookstore sends my department a list of all rental texts that we've got on hand (that is, that we've used within the past 3-5 years); once a text is part of the rental collection, you don't have to commit to using it more than once.
Advantages: Cheaper for students. I think this is HUGE, especially for science and language studies texts.
As an instructor, I like that I can order an anthology by rental and have students only read 3-4 essays out of it, and students won't have spent $60.+ for the text. I regularly use McDonald's Bedford Companion to Shakespeare for contextual readings for my Shakespeare classes, for example. I like to have students read from it, but wouldn't expect them to really want to keep it long term.
Disadvantages: Students don't plan to keep these books, and tend not to take good care of them over the years. Students write all over the texts, but not in ways that will necessarily help the next person. Within a few years, the books are falling apart, literally, even hardcovers.
On the other hand, because they don't plan to keep the books, they don't write notes in them the way I want them to.
There's at least slight pressure not to get a new edition; now, not every new edition is an improvement over the last, but sometimes that's an issue. Also, once a book gets to a certain age, the wear and tear means there are fewer available, and they can't really be replaced (or not in a cost/effective way), so that can be its own problem. Our bookstore tends to under-order purchase books, though, so order problems happen both ways.
Gen Ed vs Majors Classes: I'm more likely to order a rental text for a general education class (lower level, introduction to lit, poetry, drama sorts of classes are what I teach) rather than a majors class (though I have used Richter's theory anthology in my theory class for a few readings in addition to purchase texts). I hope that majors want to write meaningful notes in their texts and keep their texts to reread. Yes, I live a rich and full fantasy life.
To Sum Up: I basically like that we have the option, though I use it less than I might.
I think rentals are probably really helpful for science type books since they go out of date fairly quickly (so students wouldn't be likely to keep them and read them in coming years) and are incredibly expensive.
For lit anthologies, I use rentals, generally (for poetry and drama classes, lower level, often general education students). But, what if I didn't? Would students resell the books (at a big financial loss) or keep them to read and reread? I think for most classes, students would resell anthologies.
Novels and plays and such don't really work with the rental system because most of us don't teach the same novels or plays from one term to the next. And we want students to write in their books and hope that they'll keep them.
Philosophy? As I was writing this, I started thinking about books I still have and use from undergrad classes. Not too long ago, one of my grad students was talking about his interest in existentialism, so I read up a bit before we met to talk about his work. I started with two books from my intro lit class at a community college (An old edition of Hakim's Historical Intro to Philosophy and Lavine's From Socrates to Sartre) and was able to remember enough to be at least minimally useful to my student. I was never a philosophy major, just someone who wanted to learn and found the reading challenging and enjoyable, but I'd kept the texts and they've come in useful at least once.
On the other hand, I was a science major, and have only saved one or two books from that part of my life, because I just don't imagine rereading biochem and such for fun.
ItPF, I hope this helps at least somewhat. If you have questions about specifics, feel free to ask, or drop me an email and I'll try to respond.