This article is intended for a buyer who is looking for the more common reading material. Acquiring collectible, antiquarian, scarce or rare books require a deeper level of buyer knowledge and experience than is presented here, and will be discussed in future articles.
There are a lot of online booksellers. They range from full-time professionals providing very personalized service to fast-buck artists who only care about making a quick profit. My intent is to provide some guidance for you when purchasing books online.
Buying a book from an online seller can be very a very rewarding experience. It can also turn into a nightmare of finger-pointing and blame over the condition of a book, or how much it should have cost including shipping/handling.
Online, you buy books on faith that depends upon the accuracy of the description. However, descriptions are subjective. That is, ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’. Sometimes the seller’s description of what he considers a collectible ‘nearly new’ book will appear to you to be more like a ‘reading copy’ that has been through a washing machine and then run over several times by a car. Sometimes hidden shipping/handling charges can pop up if terms and conditions of sale have not been carefully read and understood.
If you buy a lot of books online, you will run into these scenarios from time to time. I will explain how I minimize problems when I buy books online.
First, I tend to look at several different sites. The larger sites have more of a selection; more copies generally translate into lower prices. The larger sites usually require their sellers to provide some level of buyer protection as well.
Smaller sellers can give more personal service, i.e., live phone conversations. See if the bookseller belongs to a professional association, such as VABA, the Vermont Antiquarian Booksellers Association. Associations have rules and guidelines that members follow, so they can give a buyer more confidence about buying from a small store.
Look at the site’s list of book description guidelines. These differ from site to site in varying degrees, but they are all variations of what I consider to be the “gold standard” guidelines for book condition grading, the AB (Antiquarian Bookman, Bookman’s Weekly) guidelines. Here is a link to the Vermont Antiquarian Booksellers Association version of guidelines for book grading: VABA Book Grading Guidelines
One of the most important things to remember when looking at seller descriptions and website condition guidelines; think of them as absolute. If a book is described as ‘Fine’, it should look like a brand new book, regardless of its age.
Read descriptions carefully. Be wary of qualifiers such as “Damp stain on bottom edge, pages 10-15 missing, but otherwise Very Good.” Are you kidding me? This is not a ‘Very Good’ book. Even a ‘Poor’, or ‘Reading’ copy has to have all the pages present. Some sellers will describe a list of defects for what is actually a ‘Fair’ copy, but still present it as ‘Very Good’ or ‘Fine’. However, as in most things, there are going to be exceptions. Unless it is extremely old (before 1800 or so), extremely rare, or has valuable parts such as hand-colored illustrations, etc., this book should probably be thrown away. Buying books in these categories, either online or in person, will be addressed in future articles.
Ex-library books are almost in a category of their own. No matter what condition it is in, an ex-library (ex-lib or X-lib) book should automatically be dropped one or two grades, regardless of the seller’s description. The seller’s price should also be a reflection of this condition.
Look for description/presence of a dust jacket. Starting in the early twentieth century, nearly all books were issued with dust jackets. Even some of the more recent pictorial hardcover books originally had a dust jacket, even though they may not have one when you come across it.
When you find a book or two that you think meets your needs for description and price, look at the ratings of the seller. The larger sites with multiple sellers (such as Amazon or eBay) generally have a rating system in place. Look at the overall rating and sales volume of the sellers, and definitely take the time to read some of the rating comments of each seller. Read both the good and the bad. You will develop a feeling for how this seller conducts business, and whether or not you might want to buy a book from them.
Below are three different examples describing book condition. Two descriptions are for the same title; the third is from a similar book in the series.
Listing #1: ‘Collectible – Like New* First Hardcover* Dust Jacket – Like New’
Rated 97% positive with 235 total ratings.
“Almost Like New hard cover (Ace/Putnam, Publisher (1993) First Printing in Very Good condition. Mylar DJ Cover. Unread ex-Library Book.”
Listing #2: ‘Collectible – Very Good * Dust Jacket – Very Good’
Rated 98% positive over past 12 months, with 470 total ratings.
“Ace/Putnam, 1993, Full Number Line, 1st Edition This hard cover novel is in very good condition. The dust jacket is in very good condition. The cover boards are clean and bright. The pages are tightly bound. The pages are clean, white, and unmarked.”
Listing #3: ‘Collectible, Very Good, VG dust jacket’
Rated 100% positive over past 12 months, with 480 total ratings.
“1989 ACE/PUTNAM HB/DJ VG+ BOOK IN A VG DJ BOOK SQ TIGHT CLEAN AND BRIGHT SPINE WRINKLES DJ 1/4 IN TEAR BOTTOM FT EDGE LIGHT RUBS NOT XLIBR NO WRITING NO ODOR/MOLD NO BK CLUB NO PR CLIP NO REM MARK NO BENT PG CORNERS.
Which seller would you buy from? Number one is a no-go. A book is either like new or it is not. ‘Almost’ just doesn’t cut it. ‘Unread X-library’ collectible? Puhleaze!
My preference would be tied for numbers two and three. Number two is short, positive and to the point but lists no defects. Number three is very detailed but seems to dwell a little too much on the negatives.. but I would probably still order the book from number three. Pay a little more if you have to, if you find a seller you really like the looks of. You will have fewer problems in the long run.
As I said before, read the description carefully. This applies to both the book description and shipping/handling terms. Sometimes extra shipping & handling charges are mentioned for large or heavy books. I try to keep it as simple as possible for customers and include basic shipping for media mail in the cost of my online books. I also ask a buyer to contact me before buying when they need extras such as expedited delivery or international shipping. It is always better to get all your questions answered before paying. I would rather prevent a problem than solve one any day.