The Pros and Cons of Amazon.com for Buyers and Sellers


Chris Volk, IOBA President

Chris Volk

This is the third in a series of articles taking a brief look at the pros and cons of the various multi-dealer book-listing databases. The first and second in the series looked at AbeBooks.com and Alibris.com and can be found in the two previous issues of the IOBA Standard. This article takes a look at Amazon.com, the largest and in many ways the most important internet bookselling site. Amazon’s commitment to “branding” and to creating a significant presence on the net resulted in years of losses, but it also created a name that has become a household word. For most people, and not just in the United States, Amazon and bookselling on line are synonymous.

When looking for a relatively recent book—that is, titles published after the advent of ISBNs (International Standard Book Number), roughly 1970—Amazon.com offers more copies from more booksellers, both professional and amateur, than any other site in the United States. AbeBooks.com used to dominate in pre-1970 books, at least in terms of quantity, but this is beginning to change, and Amazon’s selection is expanding rapidly in this area also. In the past month, I have found several books where the only copy being offered on the internet, as far as I could determine, was on Amazon.com. It offers a marketplace unequaled in its reach on the internet.

FOR BUYERS: PROS

More books offered, used and new, than can be found anywhere else, with most of the new books being sold at some sort of a discount, often a significant discount.

Free shipping on new books at a low order threshold (just $25), or discounted expedited shipping through Amazon Prime.

Increasingly broad selection of out-of-print books, including those which were not issued with ISBNs or were issued before the use of these numbers.

There are many sellers who list books on Amazon and nowhere else. These range from sellers with thousands of books, to those who just have a few books to sell from their personal library. Amazon encourages the listing of even just one book by a seller.

Feedback on sellers. While any feedback system can be abused, reading the feedback about a seller, especially one with a significant amount of negative comments, can give a buyer some valuable information. Unlike eBay.com, the majority do not post feedback on Amazon.com; feedback comments probably represent somewhere between 25% to fewer than 10% of all customers.

Ability to place a pre-order for a book which has no copies listed. The buyer can specify the maximum price and the lowest acceptable condition, and if a book meeting these requirements is listed, the order is automatically placed. For a scarce book, where condition does not matter, or matters little, this can be useful.

Amazon’s A-Z guarantee. While not quite as strong a level of protection as it was in the past, this does give buyers a way of resolving problems if contacting the seller does not work. Because the Amazon.com marketplace is so valuable to many sellers, however, they are usually quick to resolve problems. When I received a trade paperback instead of the hardcover I ordered, the seller quickly gave a full refund (note: in this case, the seller had violated Amazon’s rules by listing a book which did not match the “product details,” something that happens frequently, and is sometimes disclosed, sometimes not).

A very easy to use check out system, including “one click” buying if you only want one book, and standard shipping is acceptable.

An enormous amount of other information about the book, including both editorial and reader reviews, a look “inside the book” which shows other books that referenced this specific title, and more. Amazon just added links to forums for discussions about a product or book (and if there are no discussions, links to active related forums) and its own version of Wikipedia, called amapedia.com. Amazon has always been content-driven, but the content is increasing significantly. Many internet buyers check Amazon for information, even when actually buying elsewhere.

FOR BUYERS: CONS

Search results can be a mess—there is just no other word to describe it! If a title has a paperback copy in print (or relatively recent), sometimes this is the only option which will show up when doing a simple author/title search. In order to find hardcover copies, you have to click on the paperback and then go to “all editions” etc. This is true even when the “recent” edition is no longer available, and there are copies listed under the other editions. The situation is even worse for older books. Amazon.com bought several databases of pre-ISBN books, but the information in them is often incomplete (“binding unknown”) or incorrect (“4 pages”). In addition, Amazon.com allows sellers to create “product details” pages, so sometimes a book which only had a few different editions might have 15 or 20 variations shown on Amazon, with the number of books “available” for each variant ranging from none to 50 or more. In order to really know what is available, you need to click all of these options.

Here’s a recent example. I searched for a popular book issued in hardcover and book club in 1984, as a mass market paperback in 1985, and as a trade paperback in at least 1997 and just recently in 2007. The search was run using the author’s last name, and a short form of the title. Fourteen different results come back with the 2007 trade paperback first (which lists 50 used and new copies). The second result is the 1997 trade paperback (this used to be the “top result” until the new edition came out) with 26 used and new. These are followed by mass market paperback with 34 copies, hardcover with 5, paperback with 4, hardcover with 1, etc. and finally gets down to several listings for hardcovers and paperbacks with no copies. In looking at this screen, it appears that there are only 6 hardcover copies available, with the lowest priced at $7.50.

If you click on the first title, you will see only the product information related to that particular edition. However, if you click on the second title for the 1997 trade paperback, which indicates that there are 26 used and new starting at $17.45, you will find the link to “other editions,” and HERE you will see a link to “hardcovers—106 used and new from .01.” So whether you are looking for a very inexpensive copy or you want a choice of “collectible” copies, this is where the majority of copies listed on Amazon.com will be found. But this is not all. Click on the title for the mass market paperback (34 copies used and new from .65) and you will see a link to 16 more hardcovers starting at $1.76. If you know the ISBN and use that as your search criteria (for the hardcover, for example) you will only see the 106 which we found linked to the 1997 paperback.

The “advanced search” function will bring up better results—that is, all 5 hardcover options ranging from no copies to 106—but a buyer looking for the “best” first edition at the best price will still have to click on several different results. Note that this example is for a recent book. The results can be even more confusing for a pre-1970 title.

The advanced search only has very limited options for narrowing down searches. If you are looking for a collectible copy, for example, it is important to remember that not all copies listed under that tab are “collectible” and some listed simply as “used” might be collectible. Amazon does not permit a book to be categorized as “collectible” unless the price is more than the list price (with a minimum of $10), nor can an “ex-library” copy be described as collectible, no matter how desirable the title might be.

Books are listed which the seller does not have in his or her possession. This is especially true for uncommon books where it might appear that there are 4 or 5 copies available, all at rather high prices, but in reality the seller will try to find a copy after an order is received. Amazon.com is the first site where this happened, however it is no longer the only site, nor the worst.

Often there is no or little detail about the condition of the book. The books are assigned a grade, ranging from “used-acceptable” to good, very good and as new, but the actual description often consists of nothing more than meaningless phrases like “satisfaction guaranteed,” “we ship fast,” or a generic “book may have” highlighting, library markings, tears, etc.

While it is possible to click on a seller’s name and find other books offered by that seller on their “storefront,” the ability to search those books is very limited.

Shipping fees are not combined. If you order multiple books from the same seller, a full separate shipping fee is charged for each book.

Prices can be higher than on other sites. Some sellers adjust for the higher selling costs on Amazon.com; other sellers use computer driven automated pricing. Automated pricing can sometimes work in a buyer’s favor as the prices are driven to one cent, but if the low priced copies are sold, then the price can also automatically jump up—sometimes way up! One feedback statement I read recently on the site was from a buyer who wanted 3 copies of a title. He was able to place an order for 2 copies at approximately $6 including shipping, but when he returned to order a third copy, the lowest priced (from the same seller) had increased to $24.

No unified international site, or combined international search. Each country site is separate. Only sellers with a US presence are allowed to list on Amazon.com, only sellers with a UK presence can list on Amazon.co.uk, etc.

Not all sellers will ship internationally or by expedited mail.

FOR SELLERS: PROS

MORE BUYERS than any other bookselling site. What else matters more?

The ability to determine if expedited or international shipping is an option, so large, heavy books which are expensive to ship can be excluded.

Control over frequency of payments. Funds are automatically transferred every two weeks, but sellers have the option of doing so as frequently as once a day.

In addition to Amazon’s own traffic, uncommon books on Amazon.com get very good search engine exposure. I was searching for some titles that did not appear on the meta-search engines like BookFinder.com or AddALL.com, but a Google search brought up the copy listed for sale on Amazon.

Information that can be useful in determining books for which there is substantial demand, such as the sales ranking.

FOR SELLERS: CONS

The search problems described above might make your books hard to find. If you list your books individually, you can sometimes improve their visibility.

The common use of automatic pricing, and the fact that Amazon always displays books “lowest price first,” often means that even if you list a copy at the “best price,” within hours or days your price may be undercut.

Descriptions are limited to 1000 characters. You cannot upload a photo of your actual copy (except in limited circumstances such as in a seller-created product detail page), and the stock photos do not always match the copy you are selling.

In doing a bulk upload, many books will be rejected for various reasons, such as the ISBN, the price being too low for a collectible, etc. Amazon’s matching on pre-ISBN books (a feature they expanded after closing zShops for booksellers) is getting better, but still misses many books.

If you wish to give a partial refund (for example, when a customer purchased more than one book and paid more than necessary for shipping), it counts against booksellers in the “performance standards.”

Frequent and seemingly arbitrary changes by Amazon. For example, the email notification of a sale no longer contains the buyer’s information. While Amazon created an “improved” alternate, in a downloadable file, this only works for PC users, not on Macs.

Amazon does not permit the listing of “advance review copies” or “teacher’s editions” no matter how long ago they were issued, nor how collectible they might be.

Shipping fees are set at a uniform rate, and it is a violation of Amazon’s policies to request additional shipping from the customer. Although Amazon.com changed its language and now states that the entire shipping fee is remitted to the seller, the new $1.35 “final value fee” on all books is the “shipping skim” in new clothes.

Chris Volk operates Bookfever along with Shep Iiams out of the Sierra foothills of Amador County, CA.

IOBA Standard, Fall Edition 2007, Volume 8, No. 4.

The Standard: The Journal of the Independent Online Booksellers Association

Check out the Independent Online Booksellers Association Website