Navigating the Online Book Buying Landscape

Sounds simple, right? You want a book, you buy it on the internet. Options abound, and you need to understand them before you buy.

There are literally hundreds of bookstores on the Internet. All of them have their own unique twist on what Amazon likely does best. But that doesn't mean Amazon is always the best for everything you need when you're buying books.

Finding books really does seem like it should be a simple thing. but there are broad classes within the market that make things confusing enough that it's something you need to pay attention to as you broaden your buying horizons. Of course there are new books, and these are new from the publisher, sold by a major retailer, the kind of books that you'll find at Amazon or Walmart or Target or Barnes & Noble. This is probably what most people think of when buying books. This from a store to an individual.

Many of these same stores also directly sell used books. This is where things can get confusing. Within used books, you can buy them directly from a merchant, or many merchants' websites may just provide a marketplace where individuals sell used books to other individuals. If that's confusing, think of eBay, just with only books.

Actually buying a used book directly from an online store is relatively rare anymore. There are stores like Powell's that sell used books that they have purchased in their stores, and these are relatively safe stores to buy from. You have the normal store guarantees and return policies that you would expect with any other purchase. Amazon and Barnes & Noble also sell some used books.

For the book buyer, and more importantly the book collector, the more difficult (and important) landscape to navigate is the book marketplace. This is where the best deals are to be had. So it's critical to understand what you're looking at and what exactly you're buying before you purchase.

As we mentioned before, book marketplaces are essentially listings of books for sale from one individual to another. Most marketplaces have a system for grading the books into broad condition values, and these usually include things like 'new', 'used', 'acceptable', etc. But these values are generally left to the seller to grade, and there are not often photos along with the book listings, as opposed to eBay. And even on eBay, the picture is often a photo of a stock book rather than the actual book that you're purchasing.

With these marketplaces it is critical to read the condition notes. It is not so much the case now, but in the past these notes might include things such as "this is a news print edition of this book" or "this is a compact disc not a physical book". Things that are essentially saying this is not the book you're looking for. So you want to purchase books that are the actual ISBN, the actual copy that you are looking for.

We've written before about ways to use inaccurate listings to your advantage, but here we are only speaking about getting the exact book that you want from a site. Sites like eBay and Amazon, for example, the sellers are very protective of their feedback. So if you read the notes, and the book description matches the book that you are looking at, and it sounds like what you want, you can feel some sense of security. If, when it arrives, the book is incorrect, you can either return it or get a discount or refund. But if the seller is a new seller, or already has poor feedback, or the seller has so much feedback that your feedback is not going to affect them, you can still end up with mislisted or cross-listed books.

Because of their higher price in general, textbook marketplaces are actually very common. Textbooks are often in excess of $100, so reselling them to another student when they are done with the book is very common. Most large textbook sellers in fact do provide a marketplace on their website. ECampus, TextbookX, ValoreBooks, and many others allows students to sell their textbooks to other students. These are where a lot of the newsprint edition books and books with missing digital bundles end up. Especially for students, marketplaces are something to be cautious of.

In the same industry, textbooks, there are also many book rental sites. These allow you get the book, keep it for about 3 months weeks and return it. You just pay the rental fee, you don't have to buy it and then resell it later. In general, if you are collecting books, you won't be shopping on book rental sites. They are generally not going to be carrying collectible books or much of anything interesting to the book collector.

To really confuse the issue, places like Amazon and Walmart combine all of these types of sellars. Amazon, for example, sells both new and used books as Amazon. They also have a Marketplace where individual sellers sell new and used books to buyers. To top it off, you can also rent books from Amazon as well. So some stores are one thing, some stores are another thing, and a few stores are all of the above. The important thing is, as a book buyer, that you keep track of whom you are buying from and what kind of a seller they are. That will help you know what to watch for, to make sure that you get what you need.

For the most part, collectible books are going to be found on Amazon, Abebooks, Alibris, Biblio, and eBay. Those are the big marketplaces, and those are where people that sell rare books go to sell their books online. That doesn't mean it's not worth looking elsewhere. Going off the beaten path is often where the best values are going to be found. eBay, for example, often has incomplete book listings that you wouldn't otherwise find, so the seller doesn't have the proper pricing information on it. And so there are times you can get books far under their Amazon selling price by carefully searching eBay.

This week I purchased three copies of a book that is currently $900 on Amazon. There were three copies on eBay for under $20, but the next least expensive copy was on Biblio for about $350. That is not typical, but if you follow some of our suggestions on finding these kinds of books, there's no reason you can't find similar deals.

As you're shopping for your books, you will see things are very different depending on the type of store you're shopping. If you keep in mind these basics, it'll help you understand what you're looking at and what to look out for.

We'll write some specific how-to articles on how to best buy from the different types, and what kinds of books are best bought there. But until then, if you have any comments email

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