Why Buy Inaccurately Listed Books?

We've all seen it, the lazy or deliberate lister sticking their trash in the offers for a collectible we've been searching for. But they're not always trash, and they're often worth buying, although not exactly for the asking price.

You are a book collector. You are looking for a specific book, at a specific price, that you can make money on. So when you see a listing or an offer that is obviously incorrect-- why would you take a second look at it?

Inaccurate offers are common in secondhand book marketplaces. They happen on Abe, Alibris, Amazon... everywhere. In general they are an annoyance, and in general they are a hindrance to finding the book that you need. But there are advantages to this situation to the savvy book collector.

The first advantage is downward price pressure. Obviously this is only an advantage when you are buying-- not when you're selling. When you are buying, though, inaccurate listings of other editions will generally be the lowest-priced copy, and often significantly lower than the real copies. Resellers seizing an opportunity to sell their book, for far more than it's worth, to someone who's not paying particular attention to the exact edition.

When you're selling, on the other hand, there are two ways to clear out inaccurate listings. You can either report them, or you can purchase them. Depending on the price, and whether the book is clearly an inaccurate listing, it makes returning or getting the book completely free possible without risk. If the book is $30 or less, oftentimes the seller will just tell you to keep the book or give you enough of a discount making even the incorrect book worth the price.

Many times the wrong books do have some value, by virtue of being an edition of a valuable book. They're just not as valuable as the one that you're searching for. Buying them strategically is a useful option to clear them out out of the listings when you're trying to sell a legitimate copy.

The second option is to use the reporting mechanisms on each platform to report an inaccurate listing. This is actually very tedious and has varying levels of success. But it is an option, and if you were talking about a book in the $500 and above range, it can be worthwhile. You do not want downward price pressure on the books you are trying to sell.

The economics of returns for books look something like this: it is about $3 to send the book in the first place, After which Amazon takes their percentage of the sale. You receive the book and it is inaccurate, so you tell the seller. They don't want their feedback affected, so they have a few options. They can pay another $3 for you to return the book, which is their obligation, because the listing was actually inaccurate. Or they can offer you a discount to keep it, and in most cases the discount offered is somewhere in the range of 20%.

But all of this is subject to negotiation. You can obviously give them a counter-offer for a discount, and make sure the counter-offer is such that the book you got is worth the price that you end up paying. The seller is putting time into the transaction and is risking their feedback, and he's on the hook for another for few bucks to return the book to them. At which point they have to spend more time and money to reshelve the book, make sure that the book is in the same condition that it went out in and ready to resell, relist it correctly, and do any other processing to get back ready to be sold and shipped out by Amazon. You can see why their best interest is in you keeping the book. So don't be bashful about pushing back on the discount offered.

If there isn't enough discount, or there isn't enough value in the book you got, you can take the return and you won't end up spending a dime on the book. And the book will definitely not get relisted incorrectly. But, especially if you really do enjoy book collecting, oftentimes it's fun just to see a book, whether you keep it or not. And you have plenty of packing material around to send it back when the shipping is free.

I recently got two copies of an interesting 1970s book: "How to Live on Almost Nothing and Have Plenty" by Jane Chadwick. I was actually looking for a hardcover version of the book, and at this point I am almost unsure that a hardcover exists anymore. But there is an Amazon listing for a hardcover edition, and listings that you can see have a matching ISBN to the Amazon listing. So I ordered a copy. It arrived, it was softcover.

I let the seller know that I needed the hardback. Obviously, they do not have the hardback. So they told me to just keep the book. Free book! One of the copies was over $40 though, and was a newer edition, an edition that is sold new for about $15 by Amazon. They offered a refund of 20%. I responded that the book itself, new, is far less expensive than their discounted offer and I declined. I got a shipping label to return it for free. In the end, for no money, I got two copies of a 40 year old interesting book that I wanted anyway.

Since then, I have acquired a few copies of the hardcover, and clearing out the inaccurate price listings on Amazon has restored the price of the correct hardcover book to over $900. So a single dishonest Amazon seller was absolutely killing collectible prices.

Inaccurate listings are an annoyance, but they're always going to be there in book marketplaces. So to preserve the price level of books that you're selling, it can make sense to clear them out, and maybe end up with some new books for free. Or you can report them, you choose. But it's uncertain whether that will fix the issue. As with so many things, it is better to work with the situation as it is than it is to wish for a different situation.

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