How to Buy Used & Discount Books Online (Cheapest Isn’t Always Better)
In this article we will give you information on how to buy used and discount books online, information which we've gleaned from over 13 years in the online book business, including illustrations, how-tos, and screen shots of most major book buying websites.
In this article you’ll learn:
- The best places to buy used books online
- How to decide which seller to buy from
- How to get the best price for the best service
- How to get the best deal on shipping
- How to minimize damage during shipping
- How to ask questions before you purchase
- Other hints and tips for getting a steal
Where to Buy
Let’s start with the best places to buy used and discount books. The following sites host third party sellers, which means, there are thousands of different booksellers listing their inventories.
My favorites are:
There are several other sites, but these are the big ones. They contain hundreds of thousands of independent booksellers and the inventories of almost everyone selling books online. They also have private parties selling their personal collections. Half, Ebay, or ABE do not sell their own books, when you buy from them, you are always buying from a third party. Amazon & Alibris sell books themselves as well as hosting third party listings from independent sellers.
What Are the Differences Between Bookselling Sites?
My favorite place to buy books is Half.com. Even though it is owned by ebay, it has a straight-forward, easy to use interface. Ebay has tried to close Half.com several times but they always pull back at the last minute. Why? Because people LOVE Half.com. It is FREE to list and Half.com only charges sellers a 15% commission when their book is sold. That means a ton of people sell their personal collections, including text books and DVDs for extremely low prices. Book salesmen also use this site to sell off their samples when they are through with them. Some online booksellers buy their books on Half.com and resell them on other sites for a nice mark-up.
- Easiest site to Use
- Easy to Choose the Condition You Want
- Many great deals
- Easy to determine the quality of the bookseller
- Uncluttered Search Results
- Discounted shipping with multiple purchases from the same seller
- Book inventory isn’t as big as some other sites
- Sellers tend to over-grade the book condition
- Sellers Inventories can be out of date
- Hard to find contact info for the bookseller
- Search doesn’t catch misspellings
- No international shipping
- Lots of inexperienced sellers
- Virtually no customer service from Half.com
- Owned by eBay
How Do I Know Which Seller to Buy From on Half.com?
I put sellers into 3 classes:
First and foremost, I like to support sellers like myself, small to medium in size. Why? I'll give you my observations and opinions on each group:
Newbie/Micro Sellers tend to be inexperienced. They don’t know how to pack books, so you may get a nice gift book sent in a bubble mailer with no extra padding which increases the chance of damage during transit. Micro Sellers tend to ship infrequently, so you could order a book on Thursday morning and it won’t be shipped ‘till Monday. They don’t check their e-mail everyday (or 200 times a day like I do!) If you have a pressing question, it might not get answered until it’s too late. If you have a complaint, they may take it personally and think you are trying to rip them off, and they may not act in a professional business manner.
How to identify a Newbie/Micro Seller:
You can tell a Newbie/Micro seller by the small amount of feedback they have, less than 1000.
The above seller hasn’t sold many items. The Detailed Seller Ratings over on the right show the Communication, Shipping Time and S/H Charges have some “dings” to them. If you are only shipping 5 – 15 items per month those should be perfect!
Mega Sellers: I like to stay away from Mega Sellers. You are not as important to them as you are to a Small/Medium Seller. Mega Sellers don't care enough about their feedback. The most important thing to Mega Sellers is their bottom line. This means cheap packing materials, probably padded envelopes which are okay for a small book, but may leave that perfect gift book you wanted damaged during shipment. If there is a problem with your order, they may not answer your e-mails. If your order is out of stock, they may take several days to refund your money. They have employees pack your books who don't give a rip about you.
How to identify a Mega Seller:
Mega Sellers will have high feedback numbers. But this can be deceiving, a Small to Medium Seller can have 50,000 feedback and not be a Mega Seller. You need to click on their feedback and see how many feedback they have received in the last 30 days. If they have 2000 + feedback in the last 30 days, that's a Mega Seller.
The above seller ships thousands of items per month. Although they have a lot of positive feedback, they also have over 100 people in the last month that weren’t happy with their purchase, so much so they felt compelled to leave feedback about it.
Small/Medium Sellers will answer your questions quickly, they will do you special favors like withhold an invoice with a price if you are sending it as a gift. They will personally pack your order and feel responsible that you will be happy with your purchase. They ship orders at least 5 days a week. They will ship the same day. They will upgrade your shipping for free if they see it is going to an APO military address (within reason). To me, supporting our military men and women overseas is worth the few extra dollars.
How to identify a Small/Medium Seller:
Small/Medium Seller will have high feedback with very few negatives and neutrals.
The above seller ships hundred of books per month. The Detailed Seller Ratings are top notch and they are a Top Rated Seller to boot. They have received 1 negative feedback in the last year and just a few neutrals. (Oh, is that me?)
You can tell a lot about a seller on Half & eBay from their feedback. You can see approximately how much they have sold in the last 30 days (not everyone leaves feedback), you can see what types of complaints they are getting, if any. If there's a pattern of problems such as "Slow Shipping" or "Item was NOT accurately described" you will know to steer clear. From the screen shot below you can tell the seller does not accurately describe their items and they may not have the item you ordered in stock.
A Seller shouldn't have more than a handful of negatives per 1000 transactions. If you are seeing 15 - 20 negatives and neutrals per 1000 transactions you could be setting yourself up for disappointment.
You can contact a seller on Half.com before you purchase an item. Click on their feedback, on the right hand side under Member Quick Links will be a Contact Member link.
Hints & Tips for Half.com:
- Multiple Item Shipping discounts apply when purchasing more than 1 item from the same seller
- Half.com has discount and used DVDs, Music & Video Games
- If you find the prices are more than you want to pay for an item, use the Match My Price link on the upper right hand side. You can put in your maximum price and minimum condition you want. If a seller lists a copy meeting your criteria Half.com will automatically submit your order to that seller.
Alibris has been around since 1998, it was one of the first websites to combine independent bookstores into one site, has top-tier customer service, and seeks feedback from both buyers and sellers. Alibris constantly works to improve their site. As a bookseller, I love Alibris. My sales on Alibris increase each year. They recently implemented a new search that gives better results.
- Top-Tier customer service direct from Alibris
- Discount shipping with multiple purchases from the same seller
- Discount international shipping
- Professional sellers
- Accurate book conditions
- Up to date inventories
- Easy to contact seller before and after you buy
- Easy to browse a seller's items
- Feedback is confusing (rated on fulfillment)
- Hard to determine the quality of the bookseller
- Search results not as clean as Amazon or Half
- Not as many cheap deals
How Do I Know Which Seller to Buy From on Alibris?
One fun thing about Alibris is they "push" the best online sellers to you. They show you all the 5 star sellers first sorted by lowest to highest prices, next the 4 star sellers, lowest to highest, etc. This can be a negative if you are looking only for the cheapest copy, but if you are looking for a good price from a reliable seller, they put them right up front for you.
The stars on Alibris are for Reliability, Accurate Descriptions, Shipping Time, and Packaging. Alibris recently implemented customer feedback. To see this you need to click on the sellers name, then find a link on the left hand side "Seller's Rating & Feedback." You can contact a seller by clicking on their name and finding the "e-mail this seller" button.
Hints & Tips for Alibris.com:
- Multiple Item Shipping discounts apply when purchasing more than 1 item from the same seller
- Alibris sends out coupons with every order for savings on your next purchase
- Sign up for their newsletter to receive coupons and get entered into a monthly contest where 10 winners win a $100 gift certificate
- Alibris has good international shipping rates including discounts on multiple book orders shipped overseas
When most people think of buying books online they think “Amazon.” No doubt about it, Amazon is a great place to buy books, DVDs, Music, or whatever you want. A huge percentage of Amazon sales come from their Third Party Sellers. Amazon is stricter than ebay about who they allow to sell on their site. If they suspect any kind of funny business from a seller they will ax them without allowing any recourse. You can view Amazon’s Third Party Sellers right from your search results. Those little links under New & Used open you up to a new world of sellers.
- The best search results
- Average to above average class of sellers
- Easy to size-up the seller
- Free Shipping on lots of items
- Prices are competitive
- Customer Service will push you off to the seller unless you're persistent
- No multiple item shipping discounts from purchases made from the same seller
- Hard to find contact info for sellers
- Sellers don’t always rate book conditions accurately
- Some sellers flood listings either with Multiple IDs (supposedly not allowed), listing under New & Used and using different prices
How Do I Know Which Seller to Buy From on Amazon?
There are two kinds of feedback on Amazon and sometimes buyers get confused. The first "feedback" is really a Review. This is listed next to the book. This is where people can comment on the book itself, if they loved it or hated it or what kind of information they thought was helpful.
The above highlight shows customer reviews for the book. Anyone can write a review for a book. You don’t need to purchase it on Amazon, heck, you don’t even need to read it! Don’t leave reviews about someone you bought a book from here, book reviews are there to help others decide if they should purchase this particular book for their needs.
The other kind of feedback on Amazon is for rating sellers. These stars are listed next to a seller name. You need to click on the New or Used links to see these.
One thing I have noticed about Amazon, whether it's Reviews or Seller Feedback, they always make things appear rosier than they are. A Seller with 96% positive feedback will have 5 Stars next to their name. When I see 5 Stars, I think 100%, but that is not the case on Amazon. A seller with 88% will have 4.5 stars. I always click on a seller’s feedback before buying from them. I like to see what percentage of negatives they have received in the last 30 days. You can see if there is a pattern of problems such as "Slow Shipping" or "Item Never Received.”
Buyers on Amazon leave a lot less feedback for sellers compared to Half and eBay. Mega Sellers are still pretty easy to spot. A Small/Medium seller could only have 30 – 100 feedback per month.
Below is a sample feedback from Amazon. This is a larger seller. The stars show 4.5 with a 94% positive rating. That means at least 6% of the people who buy from them are unhappy.
You can contact a seller on Amazon before you purchase by clicking on the Seller Name and finding the tiny link under Seller Help "Contact Seller."
Hints & Tips for Amazon.com:
Amazon shows you all the formats available for a title. Many times you can get a hardcover used copy in Brand New condition for less than the paperback. That is because the Hardback came out before the paperback so more used copies are in the system. Also, when a paperback comes out, the publisher "Remainders" the hardcover copies and clears them from their warehouse at cheap prices.
In the image above you get can a used Hardcover copy of this book for $1.17 or a used Paperback copy for $1.27 (plus $3.99 s/h).
Many times you can get an older edition of a book for substantially less. Sometimes the only difference between an older and newer edition is the picture on the cover, or a new prologue or epilogue. If it means saving $5, it could be worth it.
Amazon is signing up more sellers for "Fulfillment by Amazon". Using "Fulfillment by Amazon", Third Party (3P) Sellers ship their books to Amazon for storage. Once there, the books qualify for the Free Super Saving Shipping and Amazon Prime Shipping. More and more used 3P Sellers are signing up for this program.
eBay has taken a turn for the worse lately. At one point they were considered “Untouchable” but they have blown that title big time. I used to love buying and selling on eBay, now I feel like I am waiting for its eventual demise. This is not a good thing. Thousands of people that used to make a living on eBay no longer can. I feel a great loss, I have been selling on eBay since 1998, but I do not see a future in this company in its current state.
- Can find good deals from sellers dumping merchandise
- Easy to size up a seller
- Easy to contact a seller before purchasing
- Most sellers offer discounts on multiple purchases
- Easy to browse sellers other Items
- Sellers have stores where you can learn more about them and their books
- More sellers willing to sell internationally
- Easy to negotiate with sellers
- Easy to make relationships with sellers
- Easy to keep track of your favorite sellers by selecting "Add to Saved Sellers"
- Lots of bad sellers
- Lots of inexperienced sellers
- My opinion - Anyone who buys a lot on ebay will eventually get ripped off
- Hard to figure out search results and what order they are in
- Messaging System doesn’t always work, sellers don’t always get your e-mails
How Do I Know Which Sellers Are Safe on eBay?
Checking out the sellers on eBay is the same as Half.com - see the above section on Half.com. They use the same feedback system. I like sellers who add extra information in the description rather than only using the standard pre-filled info which sometimes tells you nothing, this shows me the seller took time to look at the book they are selling.
This is yet another place to buy books where sellers list their goods for all to see. There are a few "Rare & Collectable" book dealers that only list on ABE, but most sellers on ABE also list on Amazon, Alibris and Half. ABE has been selling online since 1996. I joined them as a bookseller in 1998. Back then it was a wonderful company working hard to help independent booksellers bring their inventory online. In 2008 ABE was acquired by Amazon.com. Since then, my sales on ABE have been in steady decline. ABE can be good if you are a real bibliophile, fun info throughout their site, but if you just want to buy a book, you can probably find it somewhere else cheaper.
What Condition Should I Choose?
All sites divide the condition of used books this way: Brand New, Like New, Very Good, Good, Acceptable. Although each site has specifications for each class, it is up to the seller to accurately grade them.
What do these classes mean?
- Brand New – If you want a book in Brand New condition, no flaws, no marks, and a shiny new cover. Never used, marked, or remaindered.
- Like New – This class might be in Brand New condition but have a remainder mark (see description) or the faintest of wear. It should not have any underlining, tears or stains. I would give a Like New book as a gift.
- Very Good – Sellers differ on what Very Good is. Some have tears, underlining, staining. Any defects should be listed. Some sellers will state Very Good Standard Used Condition. This can mean just about anything. If you just want a book to read, Very Good should suit your needs. I would never purchase a Very Good book online as a gift, unless it is rare or collectible.
- Good – These can get downright ugly. Ex-Library books, coffee stains, tears to the interior pages. Buyer beware.
- Acceptable – I would not buy an Acceptable book online unless I knew the seller over-grades their conditions.