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How to Buy Used Books Online

I just spent the last weekend ordering a ton of used books from half.com (and one or two from amazon). Here are some things I learned about ordering used:

  1. Half.com charges cheaper shipping costs (2.79 as opposed to 3.50). If you buy multiple items from the same seller, that per item shipping charge goes down to $1.49.
  2. Amazon’s minimum book price is .01 (as opposed to .75 for half.com). Amazon charges $3.50 regardless of how many books you buy from one seller.
  3. Many large bookstores list their items for sale on half.com, don’t be surprised if some of the sellers list up to 10,000 or even 50,000 titles. However, you can narrow the list of titles somewhat by choosing a more detailed category (Fiction & Literature –> Literary Fiction). Unfortunately, they don’t subdivide any more than that, and lots of questionable titles (Danielle Steele, etc) fall under this category.
  4. Neither Amazon.com or half.com have figured out that consumers hate scrolling through the Page 7 of 3000. Amazon lists 25 per page, which is way too little. (half.com does the same).
  5. I use amazon.com for research, half.com for purchasing. Amazon reader comments and Lists are really useful for figuring out what to buy. I also love the way Amazon gives prominence to top 1000 reviewers. Sometimes even top 1000 reviewers like Schlock, but generally they have a track record and know what kind of information a consumer tends to find useful.
  6. Amazon.com know subscribes to Reed Business Information and Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist and other library review services. You would think these one paragraph reviews are unhelpful, but they provide an adequate summary of the writer’s history, audience appeal and and some broad editorial judgments.
  7. A large percentage of the time, the price for books are the cheapest on half.com. However, checking bookfinder.com or isbn.nu can help you sniff around the other online booksellers. Generally, though, if the book you’re looking for costs $5 or less, the cost saving by hunting other booksellers just isn’t worth the time you expend. On the other hand, if the book is retailing for $40 or more, you can save a lot of money by checking these shopbots.
  8. Most booksellers are reliable and get back with you quickly. But half.com recently increased the shipping window in which sellers are allowed to send their books up to 6 weeks. That’s a really long time. Practically speaking though, I get most of my shipments within 2 weeks.
  9. Half.com recently changed their transaction confirmation process. That’s good. Even though the majority of booksellers were legit, a lot were confirming, then cancelling parts of the order even though they clearly had the item in stock. Abebooks-half was notorious for doing that. (See my long explanation of this here). Avoid Abebooks on half.com.
  10. If you end up buying a lot of books from a particular sellers, you might want to take the time to browse their books on half.com, then buy them from their website. I did this with Bachtobooks and noticed that despite the awful database and website performance, buying directly is vastly cheaper than buying them from half.com. This is not always true though. For betterworldbooks, (One of my favorite used booksellers), shipping charges directly from their website ends up being more than if you bought them via half.com. This is especially true if you buy multiple books from the same seller.
  11. This is not happening often, but sometimes publishers are discounting books on amazon.com to the point where it makes more sense to buy the book new rather than used. For some reason $12 is the magic number that new books will be discounted to (after a period of staying at $24.99 or $18.99).
  12. Trivia Note: On half.com the books of Joyce Carol Oates are listed under Rosamond Smith (her pseudonym) and not her real name. Don’t believe me? Try it yourself. Btw, often the record is incomplete, and you may get search results on a title search or author search when an ISBN search turns up nothing. (Anirvan wrote about the limitations of relying on ISBN’s for searches.)
  13. Although half.com does better than the rest (by letting you sort the search results by Publication Date/Price/Alphabetical Order , it’s cumbersome to browse through book titles for recent cheap used books on all the sites. I would love to have a way to search through used books costing less than $5 that were translations or classics. At least Amazon.com lets you browse titles through wishlists and user-created lists, but even this doesn’t get you too far. (Btw, for what it’s worth, I find that Book Award web pages often make you aware of books you’ve never heard of better than amazon.com lists. See for example National Book Critics Circle awards. On the other hand, there are thousands of books by obscure novelists (not to mention PODs) that don’t show up easily in search results and receive no reviews or attention that might result in more traffic.

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