Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The online book buying jungle

I'm not sure we would want to go back to the pre-Internet days, when information about new and old books and their availability was fairly limited and purchasing out of print publications was much more difficult, time consuming, and expensive than it is today, but I find obtaining books from the general run of third-party sellers to be increasingly less enjoyable and often downright aggravating. With the trivial ease and relatively low expense of listing books online at various venues, the scene is flooded with amateurs, mega sellers, and hobbyists that invest no time in become familiar with books or in complying with even the basic rules of the various bookselling venues. Even worse, the bigger the seller the more willing the venue is to overlook a common pattern of transgressions.

Here is a recent example (one that is sadly all too common). I'd been searching for a reasonably priced copy of a certain Civil War book that's been OP for going on 15 years, and I found an online listing for a 'NEW' copy at less than 1/10 the going rate. Of course, the unlikely condition and price raised a number of obvious red flags, so I sent off a politely worded and apologetic inquiry seeking a reaffirmation of the book's condition and a description of how the seller packages his books. The replies (a series of increasingly insulting missives delivered in rapid succession, in which it was admitted that the seller was selling a used book with highlighting inside as 'new') ended with the lovely:
"Please don't order this book. I think you are going to be a pain in the ass, and I don't want trouble with [venue X]. Thanks for your interest."
I had a good laugh about that one.

It is also strange the defensiveness that inquiries about packaging engender. One would think independent sellers would jump at the opportunity to separate themselves from the competition, especially if the book's price is considerable. Instead, one often gets the canned response "I've had X number of customers and no one has ever complained". Invariably, this is code for 'I package as terribly as the next guy'. Sadly, if I requested a partial or full refund for every order that was grossly misgraded and/or underpackaged and consequently badly damaged (as I would be entitled to do), I would have my buying privileges revoked.

The seller rating systems employed by online venues are all fatally flawed. The vast majority of book buyers are only concerned with price and apparently have a bizarre conception of who controls delivery time, leaving the overall seller ratings of horrific mega sellers indistinguishable from those that excel through proper grading, packaging, and overall customer service. So where does this leave a buyer who actually does care about correctly identified books and their condition? You have to be a pain in the ass. You have to ask a lot of questions (politely and diplomatically, of course) a paying customer should never have to ask. The content of the reply and manner in which it is conveyed will inform you far more about the likelihood of you getting what you want than any of the silly rating systems out there.


  1. Drew,

    I'd have attempted to purchase it just to be that guy's biggest pain in the ass ever.

  2. The thought crossed my mind!

  3. Unfortunately you are right it is all to common. Though I have not had such unique response. They usually just stop answering my emails.


  4. I hope that you fired off the 'pain in the ass' missive to the venue.

  5. Yep, and as far as I can tell his listings were all removed.

  6. I agree. I wish sellers would sometimes make it clear whether a book has a dust jacket or not, is it ex-library or not, does it have ,like you mention, highlight and underlining. Somehow I have had mostly positive experiences. I have become more selective, though, in who I purchase from.

    I just wish the darn corners of the books wouldn't get bumped in the mail and sellers packaged more carefully. They make a killing on the shipping and handling. It wouldn't hurt for them to package nicely.

  7. Hi Drew -

    Its gotten so bad that I will now buy only from dealers that I know or those who have solid credentials, such as being a member of ABAA. I'd rather pay a few bucks extra and get a book that will probably be in nicer condition than I'm envisioning and will be professionally wrapped and packaged as well.


  8. That is unfortunately all too true. Sometimes it's hit and miss. I just recently purchased the first three volumes of Gordon Rhea's 1864 campaign, which was described as drop dead mint. Well, they were not quite that, close however, and for $20 total, hard to compalain about that.

    I also collect military miniatures and that can be a horror story in and of itself.



When commenting, PLEASE SIGN YOUR NAME. In order to maintain civil discourse and ease moderating duties anonymous comments will be deleted. Comments containing outside promotions and/or product links will also be deleted. Thank you.