Buying Books Online: Thoughts

One of the first uses that I could think of for the Internet, all the way back in 1995 or so, was shopping for books. Fortunately, I wasn’t alone. And while the online book-buying landscape has changed considerably in the past couple of decades, the unique challenges of replicating the in-store book buying experience have not.

For all of my bookseller friends out there, I have to say, first and foremost, that buying in person at a locally-owned shop is almost always the best way to go. Browsing is an experience that is hard to replicate online, and supporting your local bookseller (assuming that they live up to the name) is worthwhile. But we’ve all had those books that we’ve discovered that we must have, that we need. Urgently. Panic! Not only is there not a copy to be found, you don’t have a decent independent bookshop within fifty miles (this is my case). That’s where the online part comes in.

Having selected your book, paid the price asked and the freight, and waited, there’s nothing worse than the experience of opening the package and… disappointment. The description said “Like New”… so what in blazes is this? Crushed corners, stickers on the cover, ripped dust jacket, writing all over the inside… I’ve seen it all. And hopefully, I’ve learned a few things.

As a result of my experiences, I have compiled a few basic rules that I would endorse for buying second-hand (and even new) books online – anywhere -, and they look something like this:

  1. Consider condition. Unless the book is extremely rare or you simply don’t give a fig for condition, I would never buy anything described as being in anything less than “Very Good” condition. Condition-grading is a subtle, delicate art, and good sellers will make a point of describing defects thoroughly. If the description of defects is generic or clearly a boilerplate block of text copied to multiple entries, be wary.
  2. Keep personal information personal. Always report anything suspicious, like price changes, oddities of availability, or requests for personal information to the website directly. Using the majority of websites normally to complete a transaction should provide the seller with all of the information that they need. And, of course, if you don’t see that the site is secure when you go to checkout (usually represented in your web browser by a green padlock icon in the address line, but it varies browser to browser), then DON’T SHOP THERE.
  3. Secure transactions one step further. If you’re really a stickler for security – and in this world, everyone should be – consider getting one of those Visa or MasterCard credit cards that you can purchase in shops and top up. Some banks also offer limited spending cards which are unconnected to your main bank account. You’ve still provided your basic address information, but if the site is hacked, the only thing at risk is your temporary card.
  4. Double-check. If condition, edition, or accuracy matter to you (say, you collect Penguin Classics in a certain version), double-check your purchase with the seller before you buy, or only use sellers who have provided a photograph. Be aware that some sellers, it must be said, are careless about using the right image, particularly the companies that I call “bulk resellers” (see below). If you have doubts, or it’s crucially important to your enjoyment of the book, ask first.
  5. Do a test purchase. Never spend large sums without some contact with a seller. I like to send small test orders through to see how they are handled if I am considering a larger purchase. If all goes smoothly, I’ll order again. If you don’t want to send a test order, but want to spend more than US$50 or so, consider emailing the seller for details. Ask a question, ask for a photo, ask them how long they take to process orders. The nature and promptness of the reply will tell you a lot about what they think about their customers and their business.
  6. Consider where you’re ordering from. Be aware of geography, both yours and the seller’s. If you live within the US and getting the book quickly matters to you, it’s probably best not to order a book sent via USPS Media Mail from someone in California if you live in Maine. Consider Priority Mail if it’s urgent (and contact the seller first to make sure they will handle your order promptly). Media Mail is an odd beast in the US, but a good rule of thumb is that the nearer a seller is to you, the more quickly your book will arrive (unfortunately, this isn’t always the case). And international orders, of course, will take longer. My longest-ever international order took something like six months to come via “Surface Mail” from South Africa. It was cheaper, yes, but that’s a long, long time to wait for anything. When the book finally did turn up, I’d forgotten about it.
  7. Chose, compare, ask. The most expensive version is not necessarily the best version. Of course, you can’t always know this unless you buy multiple copies with the same described condition at the same time, and then compare the books that you receive. Again, ask questions if you’re going to spend a lot of money, and don’t spend if you’re not satisfied with the answers.
  8. Consider who you’re buying from. Companies which do volume sales of old school editions or unsold remainders, what I think of as “bulk resellers,” can be a blessing and a curse. If you see the same company name repeatedly, particularly for popular titles, you might be looking at one of the large firms that simply hoovers up books for resale, indiscriminately. Consider the advantages and disadvantages of your source before you buy to ensure satisfaction. Things that look too good to be true often are, as we all know.
  9. Mistakes will occasionally happen. The vast majority of booksellers are well-intentioned, honest, forthright…and human. Everyone makes mistakes. If something is wildly wrong with an order, assuming malfeasance, incompetence, or ill-will right out of the gate is premature. If you order something and it doesn’t meet your standards, or you feel that the item was misrepresented, open a dialogue with the seller immediately. Be polite but firm. It will quickly become evident to you what sort of seller you are dealing with by how quickly they respond and their attitude, and you will be able to take it from there.

I hope that these thoughts will help to guide you, or reassure you, as the case may be. If you do have questions and there’s a point that I haven’t addressed, feel free to drop me a line:


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