Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Buying Used Books on the Internet—Caveat Emptor

When I started selling books in 1994, the Internet was still a novelty, and there were, I believe, only one or two avenues to purchase used books online. The number of online booksellers was very limited, and the level of professionalism was quite high among those dealers. Now there are thousands of online book dealers, and the overall quality of service has declined dramatically. (Prices have declined dramatically too—very nice for the buyer, but not so nice for us dealers).

There are many venues for your online book purchases. You can shop through Amazon, of course, and EBay, but there are many more, including Alibris, and my favorite, Biblio.com. One online listing site for independent dealers is ABE Books, which lists books from 7,058 dealers in the United States.

I have just received a copy of James Safire’s novel of the War Between the States titled Freedom: A Novel of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. (This 1100 page monster was recommended in another volume that I highly regard, Jeffrey Hummel’s Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men: A History of the American Civil War.) I searched online for a used hardcover copy and ordered it through ABE Books from a dealer located in Florida.

I often search for used books on ABE, and nine times out of ten, it seems, this particular dealer has one of the least expensive copies available, often priced with no additional charge for shipping. Another thing you will notice if you search for a book and find it at this dealer, it will almost certainly be described as “a wonderful copy.” Here is the dealer’s description for the book I just received: “A wonderful copy with some minor edgewear to the cover. Dust jacket has some edgewear present. Hardcover, Very Good/Very Good.”

I have usually assumed the cheapest copy available is not going to be a very nice copy, but I’ve always wondered about this dealer’s “wonderful” copies, so I ordered this one to find out. I now wonder how any book dealer could describe the book I received as “wonderful” or “Very Good.”

First of all, this hardcover is a Book Club edition, which should always be noted in a book’s description, as often these are of inferior quality compared to the publisher’s original edition. Then there is that “some edgewear” on the dustjacket. The jacket of this book was not only worn but also torn along the edges in several places, the corners worn through, with another one-inch tear on the rear. The jacket would rate no more than “Good” in my shop. The book itself probably rates a Good or Good+. The edges are worn (as described), the spine is bent, and it shows rough handling.

The condition of this large book was probably worsened as it came through the mail because the packaging was totally inadequate. This 2.5-inch-thick volume came in a padded envelope, which had come open in transit, with no other wrapping around the book, and there was no invoice or packing slip.

On the plus side, it was cheap. For this massive volume I paid $3.64 including shipping. I ordered it on March 2 and received it March 15—about average shipping time for Media Mail. So, if you are not too concerned about the condition of the book, and you can wait a couple of weeks to get it, this dealer might be the place to shop. However, if you are concerned about quality or condition or speed of service, I would recommend that you not buy the cheapest copy you can find. If a dealer boasts of listing 1.2 million books and has the cheapest copy available, they are not paying much attention to accuracy in their listings.

The Internet certainly offers some bargains for book hunters—but caveat emptor—let the buyer beware.

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