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The IOBA Standard is the journal of the Independent Online Booksellers Association and covers the book world, with a special focus on the online used, out-of-print, and collectible bookselling markets.


Buying Inventory on the Internet from Overseas Dealers

Ellen Firsching Brown

For many years, I was reluctant to purchase books from overseas dealers. Not speaking any foreign languages, I assumed it would be a nightmare communicating with them, figuring out the exchange rates, and arranging for shipment. What convinced me to try buying from overseas was my experience selling books to international buyers. Almost as soon as I opened my online bookstore, I began receiving inquiries from overseas clients. Working through these transactions convinced me that the international book market was both accessible and reliable. It was not long before I started buying internationally. I now have done so frequently without a hitch.

For those of you who have been hesitant to buy from overseas dealers, I offer below a few tips to guide you through the process. With the weak dollar, it may not be the best time for Americans to be spending money abroad. Nevertheless, there is a wide variety of material readily available in Europe and elsewhere that cannot be easily found in the United States. If you have not yet explored overseas book listings, I suggest that they are worth further investigation.

As you probably know from your experience with the major online marketplaces and meta search engines, searching for books on the international book market does not differ much from searching the inventory of U.S. dealers. When using a service such as AddALL or viaLibri be sure that, on the initial search screens, you include international resources in your preference list. The only challenging part is what to do with overseas listings once you find them, particularly the ones written in foreign languages.

When I first started buying internationally, I limited myself to dealers who listed their inventory in English. I ignored the foreign language listings as if they did not even exist. But then, on a foray into a used book store in small town in southwest Virginia, I stumbled onto a reference book issued by the American Library Association called The Language of the Foreign Book Trade: Abbreviations, Terms, Phrases. I snapped it up and began trying to make sense of some German and French listings that I thought might be interesting. This worked passably well until a friend introduced me to the wonders of the free translator service available on (Under the heading “Other Languages,” click on the link for “Translator: Translate Text Instantly.”) Using this program, you can instantly translate foreign language listings by copying the listing text and dropping it into the translator program. Designate what language the listing is in and into what language you want it translated. Within seconds, you will have a fairly legible translation of the text. Gaps can generally be filled in with the ALA guide.

So, what do you do once you have translated the listing and decided you want the book? What if you have questions about the condition or are wondering about the possibility of a dealer discount? As it turns out, a large number of overseas booksellers do speak English even though their listings are in their native language. Thus, you might want to send an email in English to see if you get a response. Another option is to type your questions into the translator program in English and then ask it to translate your text into whatever language you need. You then copy the translated inquiry into an email. I generally include a copy of my inquiry in English in case that might help. To my knowledge, I have not yet offended anyone.

At this point, currency issues may be on your mind. While most listing sites will provide prices in various currencies, things can get complicated when you are negotiating discounts or attempting to combine shipping on multiple volumes. Again, the internet offers an easy solution. There are numerous online currency converters that, for no charge, convert foreign currencies into U.S. dollars and vice versa. Google and Yahoo both offer this service, as do numerous banks and financial websites.

Next come questions of shipping and customs. To my surprise, neither has turned out to be a major impediment. International shipping is often fairly reasonable if you are not in a rush to obtain the item. If a listed shipping fee seems high, ask the dealer to determine if there are alternative methods of transport that might be more reasonable or if there is a discount for multiple purchases. I have even had luck asking a dealer in Zurich to obtain books from other local dealers so that he could combine shipping in one package. Moreover, I have never been directed to pay a tariff nor had any trouble getting packages through customs. (My casual reading of the Harmonized Tariff Schedule posted on the website of the U.S. International Trade Commission suggests that printed books are generally duty free, but I am no expert. Questions can be directed to your local U.S. Customs office.)

Finally, there is the issue of remuneration. Rest assured, paying for international purchases need not pose any additional stress if you are able to pay with a credit card or PayPal. Be aware, though, that there might be a fee involved. Contact your credit card company or PayPal for specific details.

Ellen Firsching Brown operates Liberty Hall Books out of Richmond, VA and can be contacted at




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