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More recently, textbook rental sites such as, and 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 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 Chief Executive Officer Dan Rosensweig, a former Yahoo executive.

Behind the scenes, publishers get a share of the rental revenue.

Open-access textbooks pose a bolder challenge to the status quo. The startup Flat World Knowledge contracts with authors to write textbooks and publishes them free of charge 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 that students will pay reasonable prices 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, Mr. 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.

Mr. 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, a kind of textbook that iTunes launched in 2007 by the major textbook publishers.

That would doom the used book and print rental marketplace, Mr. Greco said. As for immediate relief from the new price disclosure law, Mr. 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.