Some of the email and comments I've received about the "Five Things" post have given me the idea that a short commentary on book buying on the internet might be helpful. Since I am essentially buying and selling via the internet (and in our open shop) every day, I am aware of the advantages and pitfalls of internet book buying. This post will try to point out some of those issues and help you make better book buying choices.
1. The majority of internet booksellers are not open bookshops, but virtual booksellers.
An "open shop" is a traditional bookstore that has an established place of business and open shelves where customers can buy/sell new or used books. A "virtual" bookseller is someone who does not have an open bookstore, but rather a space where they store their books. Their bookstore is a web-page at places like Ebay or Amazon.com. While there are many good virtual booksellers (including some who, because of rising real estate prices, used to be open shops and have become virtual booksellers in order to save on overhead, there are many, many individuals who use unethical business practices to squeeze money out of the unwary book buyer. Such practices include copying other booksellers booklistings, offering the books at higher prices (their profit on the sale) and then when they have a sale, contacts the original bookstore to pay for the item (usually asking for a "discount" in the process) and having the book "drop-shipped" (shipped to their customer).
There are many good virtual booksellers, but I tend to buy more from established open bookshops. Why? Because service is usually better, you get a wider variety of books to choose from and because you are supporting a social institution that benefits the community as well as the individual who owns the bookstore. Plus, most open shops who sell online have added a percentage to their online price in order to cover the fees they are charged by the "broker" they are using to sell their books (Amazon.com, Abebooks.com, etc). If you ask, usually the bookseller will tell you that the in-store price is cheaper and they will offer the book to you at that lower prices. Our books at Iliad Bookshop are 20% more expensive on line than in our bookshop. We routinely inform customers who order direct from us about the difference and offer to sell at the lower price. Virtual bookstores, on the other hand, have no open shop and all the prices already include the mark-up for broker fees, so you generally don't get a price break shopping at a virtual store.
2 How do you tell if a bookstore is an "open shop" or virtual?
This depends upon the business that is "brokering" the deal between you and the bookseller. In the case of Amazon.com, you have a huge amount of virtual booksellers and finding out if the seller has an open shop is often difficult. By following amazon links for the seller (including the seller ratings page) you can usually come to a link for the sellers homepage which will reveal whether the seller has an open shop. On a site like abebooks.com, each seller has a homepage that will reveal an address and contact info. Usually if the seller has a P.O. box, it means they are a virtual bookseller. Other sites may have the information easy/harder to find, but if you just take the time, you should be able determine the kind of bookseller you want to buy from.
Also, keep in mind that on sites like amazon.com, the bookseller has a rating that you can examine. I've purchased low-priced books from virtual booksellers because their rating was very high and the feedback comments were positive. Never buy a book from a seller whose rating is below 95%. You'll be asking for trouble. In fact, I never buy a book from seller's whose rating is below 98%, but that's just my own personal preference.
3. Try to buy the book directly from the bookseller
If at all possible, contact the seller directly to buy the book. As I've already mentioned, open bookstores who do internet business are set up to sell over the phone or via the internet. Some virtual booksellers do not have accounts with Visa/MC/AMX and so they rely on the broker to handle the charges for them. By contacting the seller directly you can get a possible disount and get a reasonable quote on shipping. Established booksellers usually have an honest returns policy, so if you get the wrong book, they are less likely to give you a hassle about returning it. Or, if the book is lost in the mail, you can work out a reasonable compromise in dealing with the loss. Virtual booksellers are much less likely to process returns easily or, unfortunately, with honesty.
4. Figure out your shipping options carefully.
Shipping is the one area where the internet book broker is still failing it's customers. Because no real system has been developed to handle shipping betwen the broker, the buyer and the seller, honestly, there is all kinds of price gouging going on. For example, Amazon.com charges a flat rate regardless of the size of the book. Unless we choose the size of our books carefully, our bookstore usually loses money on shipping. So, many booksellers (both open and virtual) add
some money to the cost of the book to cover those times where they lose money on shipping. In other words, these booksellers are charging you for potential loss on shipping. Understandable, but not really fair, in my opinion.
There are two basic types of domestic shipping that I think are best for books, both involve the USPO and not UPS or FedExp (which, from my experience, I do not recommend). They are "media" mail and "priority" mail. Media mail is your best bet because it's very cheap and generally reliable. A package travelling across the country will take about 7-10 days to get to you. The package that amazon.com charges you $3.50 for actually costs around $1.97 to ship, if it's a standard, 2-pound package. Priority mail is even better for those packages you want quickly. There are "flat rate" priority packs that fit books perfectly and are free at local post offices. A bookseller would pay $4.05 for a priority pack that would take about 2-3 days to arrive cross country. Larger books can use flat rate boxes for $9.90. In both cases you can expect to pay several dollars more than the actual cost for priority shipping. Check the rates carefully to make sure you are not being over-charged. Amazon.com isn't too bad, but abebooks.com allows booksellers to set their own rates and many unscrupulous booksellers will rely on the fact that many book buyers don't take the time to check what they are being charged for shipping. They offer very cheap prices for the book, but scalp you on the shipping. Still, remember that if the book you are buying is large and heavy, you'll be paying extra for the shipping. As size and weight go up, so does the shipping. You can get a good idea of what the USPS charges for shipping by going to their "domestic shipping calculator" page here:
Choose "package" for the size of item shipped. Put in 2 lbs for the approximate weight of the average book and then check the level of shipping you want. This is a good way to understand the range of shipping options you have and their relative costs.
International shipping is even more problematic than domestic shipping. Since foreign shippers will be using their own postal system for shipping, there's no way to tell what a fair rate would be. You'll have to do some comparison shopping here to get an idea of what a reasonable shipping rate would be. The first thing to do is to contact the seller and request a shipping quote for both surface and air shipping. Any decent seller will offer this information. If they refuse, do not buy from them period.
Surface mail is the slowest and most unreliable method of international shipping. You package travels by boat and is usually stored in huge bunches on pallets in the ships hold. Needless to say, the handling is terrible and your package might get damaged. Airmail is the best method. Many countries have a flat rate airmail rate that can be a cost saver if the bookseller is honest. Ask about this when you inquire about shipping. Remember though, there is usually a weight threshold where the price starts to increase dramatically. In the U.S. that pound limit is 4 lbs. So, don't be suprised if your large book shipped via airmail from Germany is very expensive.
5. Don't be afraid to ask questions, but ask intelligent ones
Always ask about something you don't understand when you are purchasing a book. While some obvious questions are tedious to answer over and over, I really don't mind telling you that I will pack and ship your book carefully. In fact, I probably pack these shipments even better because I want to make sure they get their book in the best condition. While I generally pack books in jiffy bags, I'll box it if the customer makes the request. It's also important to ask about the bookseller's return policy if the book is damaged. Some will not return you book or refund you unless you have purchase insurance. The USPS has very good insurance rates and you should be able to get insurance for a regular sized, average books for only a few bucks. ALWAYS insure your expensive purchases. UPS and FedExp have a slight advantage here because insurance and tracking are automatic with these carriers. But I think the terrible customer service these huge corporate dumbells provide offsets their benefits in this area. That is why we choose not to use these companies for shipping.
Tracking your package is another big issue with books. Many customers assume that packages are trackable and routinely call us and ask for a tracking number. The USPS does not provide tracking unless you pay for it. We spend a little bit more on our shipping to get delivery confirmation so that when a dispute arrives we can verify if the package was delivered or not. Personally, I don't need tracking info on a package so I don't ask for it. Each internet book broker has different polices regarding tracking. You'll need to read up on them in order to know what you can or cannot do.
6. The lowest price is not always the best price for a book.
The internet is a book buyers market. While sellers make money, a book buyer has the advantage of being able to search hundreds of sites for the best price. Many sellers routinely underprice books in order to move them out of their store. I almost always research the books I catalogue for sale on the internet and underprice all of the other sellers on Abebooks.com because we bought the book cheaply and I want to sell it cheaply. This is another advantage in using an open shop bookstore to buy books from: you'll almost always get a book in the condition it is described in. I only buy books in good condition and when I describe the condition of the book on the internet, I over grade it. That is, if the book is Fine condition, I list it as "Very Good", etc.. This results in happy customers.
When you see a book online for forty cents and then another one for $4.50, you might think that the forty cent book is the one to buy. But this isn't always the case. On amazon.com check the sellers rating. Sure they sell cheaply, but they often ship very late and package poorly. Also, you might be getting a book in very poor condition, even though it's described as "in good shape". Underlining, highlighting, torn pages, are all underscribed in very cheap books. Since they are selling their books so cheaply, they want to spend the least amount of time in processing the book. This includes the book description. That $4.50 book might be the best one to buy because it's coming from a legitimate booksller with a high bookseller rating and because it will arrive in a timely manner in the same condition it was described.
I hope these comments have helped you understand better how to buy books on the internet. Please leave any questions you may have regarding this topic and I'll answer them as best I can.
And now here is a short list of internet sites and brokers you can use to look for that special book.
The best book search engine is:
this is a meta search engine that covers almost all of the major sites including abebooks.com, alibris.com, amazon.com, powellsbooks.com, etc. The advantage with this site is that you can comparison shop with different book brokers to get the best price.
The three best book brokers on the net:
Each of these book brokers have advantages and disadvantages that you'll have to weigh before you use them. On balance, abebooks.com is the best, in my opinion, because of direct access to the bookseller. But their shipping matrix is poor, whereas Alibris.com has an excellent shipping system. Amazon is an excellent site for more contemporary books. Pricing is all over the map on collectable books, so you'll have to do some searching using addall.com to find the best price.
Three outstand bookstore with major net presence:
Tattered Cover Books
and, of course, The Iliad Bookshop
Powell's books, in particular, is an outstanding online bookstore. I highly recommend them, even though their huge size sometimes leaves for occasional inconsistent customer service, they have one of the best collections of used books in the world.