I’ve bought enough old books online at this point to understand the process from both buyer’s and seller’s perspective. (That’s in addition to having sold several tens of thousands online over the past decade, to customers all over the world.) The chaotic variety of search results you get, including nutty high and low prices, are thanks to the amateurs & automators who flood the market. Many of these listings are automated by the use of upc scanners. When you see phrases like “may have markings,” it’s because no one examined and described that book for you. It might be a library discard; it might have a broken binding or lots of highlighting; it might be mailed to you in a thin envelope with no padding or protection. Some of these sellers purport to be non-profit. Unfortunately, they have not made the book world better.
If you’re buying a collectible, an expensive book, or a gift, or if you’re just picky, you should expect the seller to provide photos and answer any questions you have. I’ve found, and I’ve heard the same from other dealers, that the majority of online sellers do not answer inquiries. It’s hard to take seriously a seller who has priced a book at $100 but doesn’t provide a photo. If you would like to support bookstores like Duttenhofer’s (a vanishing species), take a moment to Google the seller you are considering. Bookstores like ours depend on online sales to connect books with buyers.
Last week, I purchased a book which turned out to be a book club edition with a broken hinge and no dust jacket– all contrary to the description that had been provided. The refund for the return was prompt and apologetic. The amateur seller really didn’t understand the terms she was using. Some say this sort of thing is a deliberate gamble that the buyer won’t bother with a return. Today, I received a book that was badly broken, sent in a paper envelope.
I’m a customer, too, and I understand the appeal of a large searchable marketplace from which you can buy with one click. Not to name names, but the A-word, with the happy arrow on the box….. Its vast customer base makes it a necessary evil for real booksellers trying to survive. It operates without professional standards of bookselling, treating books like any other object with a upc code. Unlike other major old-book selling sites (Abebooks etc), it re-states and misrepresents professional bibliographic specifics real booksellers use in their databases. (“Acceptable” condition? Acceptable to whom?)
The internet helps make all the books out there into one vast treasure trove for bibliophiles. That’s a great good thing, on the whole, especially if we use it thoughtfully.