About buying and selling used books and stuff online. Plus my adventures and random thoughts.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Guide to Shopping for Used Books Online

Have you ever been sorely disappointed when the brand new book you ordered had someone else's name written inside? Did you ever order up a book to give as a gift, and change your mind when it finally arrived in the mail because it was not as nice as you expected?

Nowadays, anyone can open an online bookstore and sell books. That means a flood of amateur sellers, including me, now offer their wares to anyone with a credit card and a modem. Many amateurs overstate the quality of their offerings, which leads to buyer disappointment and frustration.

I'd like to think that most of us don't misrepresent our books on purpose. We just might not be reading all the fine print and conditions that our online outlets provide. After all, when did you ever read all the terms of service on your software or PayPal?

E-bay's affiliate, Half.com, does provide some narrow definitions for rating books, definitions that seem to be often ignored by sellers. But there are things you, the buyer, can do to lessen the chances you will end up disappointed.

Read the Seller Comments and Item Description

Quite often, the comments will show that a book listed as "brand new" was put in that category by mistake. The seller will be forthcoming about the flaws of the book, such as rips in the dust-jacket, name written inside, and so forth, that should have lowered the condition rating.

When I offer something still in its original shrink-wrap, I will post a comment to say so.

Check the Seller's Feedback

Amazon, Half.com and e-bay all offer up the seller's feedback for you to look at. This is an important resource, and we hope you leave appropriate feedback after you complete a purchase.

But realize that all transactions represent gambles. The feedback ratings help you to gauge just how big a chance you are taking. The risk of making a purchase from a seller with a 100% positive feedback of 5 exceeds the risk of trading with a 99% positive seller with 695 feedbacks. By the same token, you could be disappointed by a seller with a 93% rating on 57,000 feedbacks.

The seller's feedback rating is only one clue; the actual comments people left may be more informative. Even positive comments can reveal problems, such as "Not quite what I expected but acceptable" or "no real problems with transaction." Those comments reveal lack of enthusiasm, but could still be lumped in with positive feedback.

A comment such as "Better than described" or "Exceeded expectations" tells you that the seller rates items conservatively. If other's expectations were exceeded, then your chances of disappointment are reduced.

Something else to look for in seller feedback is multiple feedbacks from the same buyer. This tells you that the seller is getting repeat business. Of course, repeat business means a satisfied customer.

Don't be scared away by one or two negatives in an overwhelmingly positive feedback picture. No one can please everyone all the time; and everyone (including me) makes mistakes. Actually, a perfect 100% score is just a little bit suspicious. A perfect record (like mine, as of this writing) could result from great service and good products. Or, it could be faked.

Check the Seller's Refund Policy

On e-bay, a reputable seller will usually address refunds in the terms of service portion of his auction listing. If the seller doesn't explicitly state a refund policy, you can always e-mail them and ask.

If trading through Amazon or Half.com, a 100% money back policy is already in place.

Contact the Seller With Questions

A seller who is serious about getting and keeping your business will respond to e-mails from you. Some sellers list a phone number you can call.

I recently got an e-mail from a woman who wanted to know if a book I was selling was from a smoke-free home. Well, we don't smoke, but I didn't know about the book's previous owners. When I examined the book, I didn't notice any odor, but my daughter did, so I wrote back to the customer that she should pass on that purchase from me.

Yeah, I lost a sale, but I figure that was better than having an angry, frustrated, disappointed customer.

Know the Correct Way to Rate a Book

Professional traders in collectible and antique books use a very specific system for rating books. If you are shopping in that area, you should not need any advice you can get for free by reading this. Just expect to get what you pay for. And know the risk you take is inverse to the reputation of your dealer.

Half.com and other online sellers use a different system geared towards the mass market; textbooks fall into a third category with somewhat lower expectations.

Condition rating requires some degree of judgment. But too many sellers substitute wishful thinking for actual knowledge and examination of the books they offer up for sale. I'm sorry, but no amount of judgment will erase someone's name inked inside the front cover, or unfold a creased page, or magically repair a ripped dust jacket. These flaws may be minor in the eyes of the seller, but even the most myopic seller should be able to spot them and rate the condition of the book accordingly. To succeed in the long term, even the mass market needs accurate condition ratings.

Pay Attention to Shipping

On one recent trip to the post office, I observed a woman holding a large empty envelope. "It was supposed to contain a book," she was saying. Apparently, the thin paper tore open in transit, the book fell out, and only the wrapper with the address got delivered. The clerk could do nothing to help.

Reading comments from other buyers shows that not all sellers appropriately package their books for shipment. I use only boxes or bubble-wrapped lined, heavy duty mailers and have started mentioning that in my listings. Even a book that sells for a mere $0.75 deserves to reach the buyer undamaged. Buyers should take note if the seller tells you how an item will be packed; when choosing between 2 sellers of the same item at the same price, pick the one who promises to pack it properly.

Know Your Tolerance for Risk

If you can't afford to lose $3.92 on a bad book purchase, then don't bid on the book in the first place. The same rule applies to a $99.00 book.

How I Rate Mass Market Books

After selling books online for only a few months, and seeing how others describe their wares, I'm really tempted to grade books as much better than their actual condition. I can't count the number of listings where the condition of the book is shown as "brand new" and the comments say someone wrote their name inside, or that it was read only once.

Misleading inflation of book grading undermines all online sales, and the practice must be stamped out immediately. Well, maybe we can't stamp it out, but we can make it clear why it's a bad thing and what the right thing is.

Most people, when their choice of restaurant disappoints them, will simply never return. How many first-time customers become one-time customers because they bought a "brand new" book that had someone's name written in it? My guess is quite a few. Only by doing our best to consistently rate books as accurately as possible will we be able to get the repeat business that will lead to greater profits.

People will post comments on their listings that contradict the stated rating, as in the example above. The problem with putting important information in the fine print, information which says the book does not really deserve the rating assigned to it by seller, is that most people do not read the fine print. When they get the package, they look forward to seeing their purchase for the first time. When they open it, I want them to congratulate themselves on making a wise purchase. I want them to come back and buy again. I don't want them to say, "I'll never make that mistake again."

In other words, the right thing to do is also the profitable thing to do.

I base my rating system on Half.Com's; but what do the categories really mean? And, more importantly, why would a book not fit into a higher category?

Brand New

Half.com says "Brand New - New, unread, unused and in perfect condition with no missing or damaged pages."

"Brand new" means the book is the same as found on a shelf in the store. I use it for books I bought on clearance at the local outlet of a big chain. I also use it for books that I get which are wrapped in shrink wrap by the manufacturer. And books I bought direct from the manufacturer.

Only on very rare occasions do I use it on inventory picked up elsewhere. To qualify, the book must be absolutely clean, obviously never read even once, with no marks, folds, creases, edge wear, "shelf wear," bumps, stains, writing, underlining, highlighting, erosion, etc., etc. The cover must be shiny and new looking, the binding tight. A name written inside or a bookplate knocks the book out of this category.

For the most part, a book purchased at a library sale, garage sale, flea market, etc, can at best be described as "like new," almost never "brand new."

Like New

Half.com says, "Shiny, undamaged cover, dust jacket included for hard covers, no missing pages, all pages undamaged (no creases or tears), no underlining/highlighting of text, no damage to binding, no writing in margins (Could easily be mistaken for brand new)"

To qualify, the book must not have any visible signs of wear or obvious signs of use. I would never rate a book with a name written in it as "like new" or a one with a book-plate.

Many of the books I get at library sales qualify for this rating. But even a tiny rip in the dust jacket drops the book to a lower level, as would a single dog-earned page or the name of the previous owner written lightly inside the front cover.

Very Good

Judging by the comments on the listings, many books for sale that are listed as "Brand New" and "Like New" on e-bay, Amazon and Half.com belong in this category.

Half says, "Doesn't look brand new but has no easily noticeable damage to the cover, dust jacket included for hard covers, no missing pages, all pages undamaged (no creases or tears), no underlining/highlighting of text, no writing in margins, very minimal identifying marks inside cover, very minimal wear and tear (You would give it to a good friend as a gift)"

If a name were written inside the front cover of an otherwise perfect book, this is the rating it would get from me. If the pages were damaged in any way, the book would drop to a lower category. For example, if one or more pages were dog-eared; or there was writing in the margins, the book would at most be "good." I tend to tolerate a little wear on the edges of the covers, because brand-new books from the store often show the same type of wear.

The paper used for mass market books usually contains acids. These acids cause the paper to turn yellow or brown with age, and to become brittle. A book with pages yellowed from age could still be rated as "very good" so long as it met all the requirements above.


According to Half, books in this category show "Very minimal damage to the cover (no holes or tears, only minimal scuff marks), dust jacket not necessarily included, minimal wear to binding, majority of pages undamaged (minimal creases or tears), minimal pencil underlining of text, no highlighting of text, no writing in margins, no missing pages (You would use it yourself, but wouldn't necessarily give it as a gift)"

For a hardcover, a rip in the dust jacket would not matter much, except the description should point out that flaw as well as any other significant flaws. Some dog-eared or turned down pages would be allowed. A name written inside, a dedication or a personal message would not matter much.

Note that a textbook with highlighting would be allowed into this category, even though non-text books would not.

Books with rips in the actual cover, cracks in the binding, and so forth, should never be rated "good."


Half says, "Some damage to the cover but integrity still intact, binding slightly damaged but integrity still intact, possible writing in margins, possible underlining and highlighting of text, no missing pages (Item beaten up a bit but it works)."

I translate that to mean if I'm still comfortable reading the book, despite its many flaws, the book is acceptable. Obviously, if it smells bad, or pages fall out every time I open it, I won't be comfortable reading it.

Some people have to have a copy of every known edition of a particular book, even that highly obscure French translation published forty years ago and retired from the library. Condition may not be as important to a collector who wants to round out his collection and hasn't found the very or like new item he is searching for. Such a customer would be my ideal buyer for an acceptable copy of an old book.


A fair number of books in this category are rated as acceptable by their hopeful owners who offer them up for sale. Half.com says, "Major damage (holes and/or tears) to a significant number of pages and/or to cover, missing or stained pages, book cover is missing, book is not readable."

This is where that book that got ruined when the basement flooded belongs. Also, the book the Labrador retriever mistook for a chew toy. Those of us who love books hurt when we realize nothing can be done to save the copy we have in our hands. But we must be brave, face the pain, and discard those moldy stacks of ancient paperbacks we recovered from Mom's cellar.

Of course, an unacceptable book is a dead loss. Throw it away; don't try to palm it off on some unsuspecting buyer on the other side of the country for a measly $0.75.

Buyer Beware

If you buy very many used books online, you will get burned sooner or later. Tens of thousands of amateur sellers create an environment that guarantees problems. Even the most professional operators will inevitably make mistakes.

Most of these problems can be solved by contacting and working with the seller. Even a rank amateur would not ordinarily take advantage of you. As a conscientious seller, I personally welcome opportunities to improve my services.

As a last resort, if all efforts to resolve the problem fail, leave negative feedback and complain to e-bay, Half.com or Amazon if appropriate. The community is strengthened when we can identify the bad apples.

Then get over it. Life goes on.

Visit my online shop.


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