Buying Books Online
Used-Book Standards and Surprises,
or Ploys Pleasant and Unpleasant

Essay by
Robert Wilfred Franson
October 2013

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Reprint

In what follows, the major online booksellers' marketplace AbeBooks necessarily is used as the primary exemplar of what I've personally experienced in buying used books online. Troynovant aims to be a review-and-essay site unbiased by seen or unseen relations with publishers and dealers, so I wish to emphasize that Neither the author nor Troynovant has or ever has had any financial or other relationship, other than that of an ordinary customer, with AbeBooks. — RWF.

In my mid-teens I began ordering books from science-fiction mail-order dealers, particularly Richard Witter (the F. & S. F. Book Company), Robert A. Madle, and Pick-A-Book (the wonderful Gnome Press inventory). So early on I realized that distant specialists could provide books and old magazine issues that I had never seen in a local bookstore, or perhaps only a lone copy in tattered condition; or glimpsed at a science-fiction convention dealers' room, or admired lovingly shelved in my uncle Donald Franson's collection. It was great fun when the postman delivered at the door a new box with several out-of-print hardcover science fiction novels, often bought for $2 or $3 each in fine or new condition. New in-print books could be acquired the same way.

The electronic commerce available via the Internet and particularly the Web have made all this much easier. The giant Amazon began online in 1995 as a bookseller. Its early success allowed it to widen its range to a vast spectrum of products, its retail flood now making it the world's largest online retailer; but books and the reading of them still define the company more than anything else. Amazon sells its branded electronic reading devices (the Kindle variants) and paper-print used books as well as new ones. Individuals and dealers also buy and sell books and magazines online via eBay and many specialized platforms.

Despite the onward march of ebooks, many of us like to possess physical, bound-paper books instead of, or in addition to, electronic editions. For a few select titles I have both, liking the easy search capabilities of the ebooks, very helpful for research. And of course when the power goes out and your batteries fail, you can read the bound-paper books out in the sunshine, or by candlelight.

How do we know what we're getting with an online order? Many new- and used-book online listings are deplorably laconic or vague about the particulars of an offered item. Usually we want some simple information before making even a casual selection:

  • New or used?
  • Hardcover or mass paperback or "quality" paperback or on-demand reprint?
  • First edition or book-club edition?
  • New, like-new, fine, good, fair, or "reading" copy?
  • Ex-library, and if so, is it clean?
  • Underlining, highlighting?
  • Sun-faded cover or damp-stained or age-browned pages?
  • Part of a series, and if so, which number?
  • Original version or major revision or reprint with corrections or reprint with a new introduction?

AbeBooks began selling in 1996, and I've bought from their network for years. A critical advantage is that their member booksellers may and almost always do provide at least some physical description of the book, rating its condition according to recognized standards; and fairly often just which edition it is, occasionally in great and helpful detail, even to the point of tiny essays. If you are have a question, just send the bookseller an email.

At AbeBooks you also can select by key words, thinning and sorting according to multiple criteria — excluding, for instance, print-on-demand reprints; or perhaps any of a particular title offered for less than $4 (paperback or battered hardcover) or more than $50 (too expensive). One useful trick, though, is to run a search for a title sorted by price with most expensive at the top: because these are likely the best available copies in the hands of the more knowledgable booksellers, folks having the most incentive to sell these fine copies, so these entries usually have the most detailed and helpful information.

I've hit a few poor or bad booksellers on AbeBooks, with some unexpected ploys:

  • The dealer who cancelled my order and withdrew from sale a book I'd just ordered, and the next day re-listed it at triple the price. Oops, lucky for him that my attempted purchase drew his attention to it. I complained to AbeBooks, but they pointed out that they had no control over dealers' inventory, pricing, or policies.
  • The dealer who hadn't noticed that the pages were upside-down versus the title on the binding. I mentioned this to the bookseller, but they were indifferent. An uncommon British edition, in clean condition, so I kept it.
  • The dealer who sent a book which elicited my complaint: "What looks to you like a 'leatherette hardcover' sure looks like a regular Avon paperback to me." This was a good guy, who replied: "Sorry Robert, I made a mistake. The button for Mass Market Paperback is right beneath 'leatherette hardcover'. I will cancel the sale and refund your money."
  • The dealer who hadn't clarified that "some light pencil underlining" was a diffident hint that virtually every page of the book had massive pencil underlining. Unreadable. Hard to believe that the previous possessor actually was reading the book in the brief intervals between pencilling; maybe he was a tester for a pencil factory. This was a slip from an otherwise outstanding bookseller.
  • Plenty of dealers who can't tell a first edition from a book-club edition or other cheaper reprint (this ceased to surprise after a while). Some clues:
    1. Binding is cheap Doubleday book-club style. (Doubleday at one time owned some thirty book clubs.) There are British equivalents, with cheap binding and age-browning pages.
    2. Copyright page does NOT state First Edition.
    3. Stated date in description refers to magazine appearance.
    4. Book jacket lists no price.
    5. Book jacket states "Book Club Edition".
  • The dealer who sold me a Norton Critical Edition hardcover claiming it was a first edition, "very clean inside"; although once in hand it proved to be an obvious Chinese pirate edition with underlining and comments in Chinese, all in ink, plus some other clues:
    1. Two Chinese ideographs prominent on the front of the jacket.
    2. Two Chinese ideographs on the front free page, imperfectly whited-out.
    3. A block of Chinese printed text on the final printed page.
    4. Lack of Norton's imprint on the hardcover spine.

    ... and so on.

But most are quite good, even some of the charity stores. Members of the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America (ABAA) usually provide professionally graded descriptions in their used-books listings, and may mention features that other dealers don't notice or think worth mentioning: look for them at AbeBooks and elsewhere.

In general, AbeBooks dealers' detailed descriptions of condition and often of content are far more helpful than Amazon's independent dealers' listings (and Amazon has owned AbeBooks since 2008). But I always avoid a particular major dealer with a couple of huge brick-and-mortar stores, which invariably describes books as "Used, standard": that outfit or at least their low-level online clerks don't care about their books and won't tell you what you'd like to know. As with Amazon itself, almost all AbeBooks booksellers that I've had to put to the test are honest and willing to accept returns for refunds. This is important because AbeBooks as a kind of co-op has limited oversight and policing authority, so without honest individual booksellers you have limited recourse — just as with your hometown brick-and-mortar stores. The Los Angeles seller of the Chinese pirate reprint mentioned above was a rare exception, being fraudulent in description and refusing to allow a return.

Remembering which booksellers deliver copies in a condition as good or better than expected, and safely packaged, should guide your future choices when there are several offerings of a desired title. You may feel it's worth a couple of bucks more to order from a dealer you've happily dealt with before. Similarly, avoid dealers who didn't measure up previously.

I'd also like to note that AbeBooks and its rivals are helping keep many old-fashioned books-and-mortar stores in business, with their Web customers valuably supplementing local walk-ins.

[The King of Navarre's park: outside the gates of the King's court.]

Princess of France:

Good wits will be jangling; but, gentles, agree.
This civil war of wits were much better used
On Navarre and his bookmen; for here 'tis abused.
William Shakespeare
Love's Labour's Lost, 2.1.224-226


© 2013 Robert Wilfred Franson

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A memoir of when science fiction meant magazines,
with little SF in books besides Verne & Wells & Burroughs:
A Personal Sense of Wonder (1933-1947)
by Robert A. Madle
in Mimosa

Many older titles are becoming available
free via Amazon's Kindle or Apple's iBooks,
often picked from the multiple formats
available at Project Gutenberg

R. W. Franson on
Reviewing versus Bookselling
or, Not Selling Books Here


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