How to Buy Books Online


Who needs an article about how to buy a book online? After all, isn’t it just a few clicks and the book appears at your door? But how many times have you made an online book purchase only to receive a paperback instead of a hardcover? An out-of-date textbook instead of the current edition? Or maybe a book filled with high-lights, missing materials, or so badly packaged that it was destroyed in transit? Unfortunately, regular online book shoppers may repeatedly encounter these problems.

The aim of this article is to offer you, the buyer, some insights from a bookdealer on how to avoid these unpleasant experiences and to make buying a book online feel more like shopping in your favorite book store.

The first thing to do before making a purchase is to define what kind of book you want. I’ve broken this down to two broad categories: a reading copy (meaning a recent, common book), or a first/special edition. Determining what kind of book you’re looking for will help you decide where to purchase and give you a way to sift through your choices.

In this article, I’ll cover purchasing a basic reading copy since there are fewer variables (but many of the principals also apply to first editions). I’ll use Amazon for my examples since it’s the most trafficked venue.

Start by using the search box to find the title you’re looking for. I default to the “advanced search” option since it provides separate fields for title, author, etc. When you reach a book’s individual title page, you’ll see a box labeled “More Buying Choices. [#] copies used & new” on the right. Click on this link and you’ll see used copies arranged in order by price from low to high, with the cheapest copies having the best screen real estate near the top of the screen (except for Amazon partners or “Fulfillment by Amazon” deals which are bumped up regardless of price). There are also tabs for new, used and collectible, but for our purposes use the “All” tab.

You will find that in most cases the first page or so of listings for a common or backlist book will be priced at (or near) the hard-to-believe price of one cent.

One cent certainly sounds good but look closer and you’ll notice that listings from these “penny sellers” offer very little information about the book. Their descriptions are usually based on a generic template, used for every book they list, and these descriptions often raise more questions than they answer. Here are samples of typically unhelpful template copy:

May show water damage, moderate or excessive highlighting or underlining and/or excessive wear.

Books may or may not include additional materials such as CD’s, cassettes, cards, dust jacket, etc.

May contain highlighting/notes, may not include CDrom or access codes, customer service is our top priority!

In each of these cases, the space a professional bookseller would use to give clarifying detail is entirely filled with CYA (Cover Your A**) copy that warns the buyer to expect nothing. The verbiage on potentially missing “access codes” and “CDRoms” is also wasted as these descriptions are all from paperback bestsellers which would not contain such supplementary materials to begin with.

The dirty secret here is that the sellers of .01 cent books make their profit on the shipping commission; the meager difference between the cost of mailing and the slightly greater amount that Amazon reimburses the seller for the shipment (a difference of around one or two dollars). Subtract from this amount the price of a bubble mailer, the cost to acquire the book (often negligible because penny dealers get inventory for little or nothing), and Amazon’s commission and it’s easy to see that such a seller can’t afford to spend time describing a book or providing any manner of customer service.

So to save a few dollars, you may wait indefinitely, receive nothing like the item you intended to buy, and have to manage a return with a potentially unhelpful seller. Isn’t your time worth more than that?

My guideline for purchasing even a reading-copy is to scroll past all of the $.01 listings and template copy until I find a bookseller who is actually describing the book in hand; one whose description provides some assurance that I’ll be satisfied with my purchase.

There are professional organizations for booksellers, including IOBA, ABA, ABAA, ABAC. and others. Most of these organizations hold their members to high standards. For instance, the IOBA code of ethics states [link to full code of ethics]:

Members will provide a thorough and accurate description of all items offered for sale, noting appropriate bibliographic details, all significant defects, and all restorations or sophistications.

When you deal with sellers who value their trade enough to acquire professional credentials, you are not only more likely to get the book you thought you were ordering, but you can be assured that if anything goes wrong, the seller should be responsive and eager to correct any problem.

Once I’ve found a few potential sellers, I check their feedback (if available). Amazon’s stars and “percentage positive” ratings are broadly useful, but be sure to click through and skim the comments left by customers. See if there are negatives or complaints from previous buyers that would annoy you if you were treated the same. Also, see if any buyers went an extra mile and left a glowing positive review. There are a few caveats however. Since leaving feedback is optional, most buyers won’t bother unless they have a grievance (justified or not) or had a stellar experience. Also, because of the way seller rating is calculated, a single recent negative comment can have more weight than hundreds of older positives. Think of customer feedback the way you would a restaurant review on Yelp, useful information but to be taken with a grain of salt.

Once you’ve chosen a seller and checked feedback, determine if you have any outstanding questions. Is this the correct edition of a book required for a class? Do you need the book for a vacation next weekend? Do you have special sensitivities to pet or smoking odors? Send the seller a message and see if you can get a response.

Most good booksellers will appreciate a question (even if it doesn’t lead to a sale) because you are giving them a chance to personalize their service. You may even be bringing an unknown selling point to their attention. Unfortunately, figuring out how to contact a bookseller is often harder than it should be. Many of the larger aggregate sites (venues that display wares from many sellers, like Amazon) hide or anonymize seller contact information and monitor customer/seller communications, filtering out email addresses and weblinks. The stated aim of this barrier between buyer and seller is to prevent information abuse, but a side effect is that a seller often can’t send you an additional image, refer you to another item in his or her stock or give you direct contact information to speed service.

Here is Amazon’s description on how to contact a seller with pre-order questions:

From the product listing, click the seller’s name. You’ll be taken to their storefront page where you’ll find information about the seller and a “Contact this seller” link. The seller will respond to you via e-mail.

Once you’ve chosen a bookseller you have confidence in and received answers to any questions, add the book to your shopping cart. During the checkout process, select a shipping option that will get you the book when you need it. Use expedited shipping if you’re in a hurry (with confirmation from the bookseller if you have a hard deadline). Also, check that your address is up-to-date. Many buyers forget to update their shipping information after a move which leads to misdirected packages. Finally, click the checkout button and know that you’ve done everything you can.

Now a week or two later and it’s the moment of truth. Was the shipment on time? Was it well-packaged enough to survive the USPS? Is the book everything you expected? If so, congratulations! Your extra effort paid off. Leave feedback for the professional bookseller who served you. We often lead solitary existences—with little to no contact with the outside world–so kind words are appreciated. You’re feedback also makes the shopping process that much easier for the next buyer. And make it all fives. Don’t try to be nuanced. You’re making up for the guy who left one star because he didn’t think the book was a good read and blamed the seller.

If the book isn’t what you wanted, stay calm. Most buyers don’t realize that a book order is the responsibility of the seller until it arrives safely, in the condition described. First, save the packaging in case the book needs to be returned (or you need proof of damage for insurance purposes). If the book didn’t arrive on time, check the postmark and the shipping method to determine if the seller or the postman is to blame.

Once you’ve collected these facts, contact the seller. Explain your grievance and offer a possible remedy. Would a partial refund satisfy you? An exchange? If the item needs to be returned, ask the bookseller what shipment method to use and send it out promptly. Media mail will often suffice. You aren’t doing the bookseller a favor by returning a $20 book via priority or express mail for which the seller then needs to reimburse you.

If you came to an agreement and received satisfaction, consider leaving positive feedback. After all, handling a complaint with care and courtesy is the definition of customer service. If, however you’ve stated your case and the bookseller is unresponsive, explain that if you’re not satisfied by a given date, you plan to leave negative feedback and seek a chargeback on your card. Then do it. Many sub-par sellers count on buyer inertia to accept a lesser product and not seek a refund.

This may seem like a lot to go through to make a book purchase but more effort up front leads to a better book buying experience and more time to read.

In the next installment, I plan to cover the purchasing of first and special editions with information on how to choose the right venue, and using the search tools of each to find the best books.

The Standard: The Journal of the Independent Online Booksellers Association

Check out the Independent Online Booksellers Association Website

1 comment for “How to Buy Books Online

  1. Garry
    September 3, 2012 at 12:22 pm

    I’d love to find an online bookseller who sells new textbooks and takes the time to package them so that they survive the USPS and UPS. In fact, I’d be willing to pay a premium for such a service. As things stand, amazon.com and bn.com both ship heavy (4+ lbs), expensive ($150+) texts with no packaging so that they inevitably arrive with damaged corners and spine. Newton (not to mention the customer) be damned from their corporate perspective. Pleading with these companies to improve their packaging is as effective as howling at the Moon; their minions in India and elsewhere will apologize endlessly for the “inconvenience,” but Bezos et al simply continue to roll the same blankety-blank stone up the same bleeping hill.

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