Shared from the 4/5/2020 The Denver Post eEdition

Tips for buying used books online

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Looking for a used book? You have options.

Inna Luzan, iStockphoto

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A used copy of “I Am Pilgrim” arrived in a plastic envelope. It was twisted out of shape and unreadable. Dan Danbom, Special to The Denver Post

Just a few weeks ago, I was sitting around the house, looking for something to read to get my mind off of things, and I decided I wanted Terry Hayes’ “I Am Pilgrim,” a thriller from 2014 about a terrorist planning to release a horrible virus upon the United States.

The problem was that our local bookstores — including our own Printed Page — were closed following the governor’s “stay-at-home-and-read” order, so I went online to order it. (These days, you take your adventures where you find them.)

You want a real book, not an electronic one, and you want to avoid paperbacks because this is your favorite book since “Love in the Time of Cholera.”

You could start your search at Amazon, but that isn’t the only source for used books.

With brick-and-mortar stores largely shuttered, online sales are all that’s keeping some booksellers afloat. One Denver bookseller, Eric Meyer of Bluebird Books, said, “Business is slow but better than expected.” But another, Dianne Hammer of Hammerbooks, is enjoying better online sales. She’s seeing less competition in the sense that booksellers aren’t able to add to their inventory through their regular avenues of estate sales, library sales and house calls, so that’s bumping prices up.

Some other options: visit Abe-books (which is owned by Amazon). Or Biblio, where booksellers often offer more detail about books in their listings. (Check out the detailed description of the first edition of Albert Camus’ “The Plague” by Downtown Brown Books.) Ebay has an advantage of showing photos of books for sale, which gives the shopper a better idea of condition. Better yet, find a bookseller you like and visit their websites to see if they have their inventory online. Some will give you a discount if you buy directly from them.

And here’s something to watch for: On Amazon, you’ll find 18 hardback copies of “Pilgrim.” The copies range in price from $5.47 to $39.40. They are indistinguishable, except for price, and are described as “used good,” which in Amazon-speak means “shows wear from consistent use, but it remains in good condition and functions properly.”

Two more copies are listed as “used very good,” which means they may show some limited signs of wear, but could also arrive with damaged packing and missing accessories (reading glasses, I assume). The seller of the costliest copy has a 93% positive rating. The seller of the cheapest copy has a 92% rating.

Chances are, you’ll buy the cheapest copy available. Then you wait to see what shows up on your porch.

You can count on most things you buy online to meet a high standard, but buying used books can be a trickier proposition, particularly if you’re concerned about the condition of the book, and whether it’s a first edition or a cheap reprint. Ever since online bookselling started, anyone with a book and computer access could present themselves as a bookseller. Buy enough books online, and you’ll learn that one person’s “acceptable” is another’s “recycling-ready” and that what you see isn’t necessarily what you’ll get.

For most ethical online booksellers, Amazon itself is a double-edged sword. It provides a sales outlet for thousands of virtual sellers, but it also takes a hefty bite out of every sale through listing fees, referral fees and closing fees. It has also led to what booksellers call “a race to the bottom,” meaning it has forced prices down as booksellers try to provide the lowest price possible.

Plus, Publisher’s Weekly recently reported that the surge at Amazon for such items as household staples and health and medical goods has resulted in extended shipping times for other products, including books.

So where does this leave the buyer? Here are a few tips:

• Professional booksellers stick to a prescribed nomenclature when describing books. Condition is listed as “Fine” (the best), “Very Good,” and “Good.” They avoid terms like “good shape for its age” or “acceptable.” The more information a listing has about condition, the more you can trust the seller.

• If editions are important to you, avoid sellers who describe a book as “presumed first edition.” They should know, or know how to find out if a book is a first edition.

• Look for sellers who are members of trade groups. I think they have more skin in the game. Our local one is the Rocky Mountain Antiquarian Booksellers Association. (I’m a member.)

• Always make sure you can return a book if there’s something wrong with it, such as it’s not as advertised in terms of condition. I recently ordered a copy of Michael Crichton’s “The Andromeda Strain” that arrived with a large Andromeda stain.

• Bookseller Hammer urges buyers to pay attention to a seller’s feedback score. “It makes a difference in customer service, how fast your book will get shipped, the accuracy of the description and how safely it will be packed,” she said. Hammer also said that eBay could have a price advantage because many sellers have the “Make an Offer” feature. (There’s a copy of “The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time” for $7.99, but you can make an offer.) “Sellers will often accept a lower offer for their book if it’s been listed and hasn’t sold for some time,” Hammer said. “But don’t low-ball. This may just make the seller mad and the negotiation stops before it starts. Be reasonable and considerate in your offers. We’re trying to support our families with our book business, and are stressed out like everyone else right now.”

• How the book is packaged is important. Early in my career, I was taught to pack books with the expectation that they would be repeatedly drop-kicked by violent primates with steel-toed boots. It’s a lesson lost on some. My copy of “I Am Pilgrim” arrived in a plastic envelope. It was twisted out of shape and unreadable. Here I wanted something to read during the pandemic, and all I got was something that made me kind of sick.

Dan Danbom is co-owner of Printed Page Bookshop in Denver.

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