Bookselling in the 21st Century

by Craig Stark

31 August 2009

Part II: Before Looking Ahead, Look Back to Make Sure the Ship Isn't Sinking

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Before I look ahead at the future of bookselling, I'd like to share an experience I had last week purchasing four textbooks for my son's classes this coming semester - well, I'll tell you about the first book I ordered, then invite you to extrapolate similar experiences to the other three.

The first book on my list retailed for a whopping $174.95, and Amazon was offering it new for $130.53. Additionally, there were 84 copies offered by third-party sellers, 16 new from $110 and 66 used from $60. On the lookout for a bargain, I clicked into used copies first. There was indeed a copy listed as acceptable for $60 - "It is highlighted and written in, and outer shelf is a bit worn" - but it was offered by a just-launched seller with no feedback whatsoever. Since my son needed the book inside of a week, I couldn't take a chance.

The next available book was listed as good at $109.26 by a 94% positive seller. What this huge price gap suggested to me was that many other buyers weren't willing to take a chance with the $60 copy either; otherwise, it would've been long gone - and when I looked a week later, it was still there!

SUGGESTION: If you're a new seller with no feedback, I urge you to do something about it ASAP. If you don't know how to get this done, you can "buy" some pretty quickly by following the procedure here (which applies equally to Amazon, eBay, etc.).

Okay, back to the second copy listed. Take a look at this description: "Since we sell hundreds of books a week I cannot guarantee that your book will be free of highlighting, will not have bent corners and will have CD. However, we do try our best to catagorize [sp] inventory properly. Our books may have bent corners and minor highlighting. Most do not but some do. We will try our best to make sure you get a good quality book but sometimes a bad one does sneak through."

I'm going to take a wild guess here and assume that what I did at this point goes without saying.

The next copy, also listed as good at $109.26 from a 96% positive seller, had this description appended to it: "PROMPT SHIPPING (USPS TRACKING)/ GREAT VALUE!! - Hardcover slightly worn, but text area in great shape"

Do you want to take this one apart, or do you want me to? Okay, I will, and I'll try to be fair. "PROMPT SHIPPING (USPS TRACKING)" - mildly reassuring, I'll concede, that this was mentioned, but ALL CAPS always gives me pause with a seller (probably my aversion to being hustled), and noting that GREAT VALUE!! followed fast on its heels brought this thought to mind: "I'll be the judge of that!" "Hardcover slightly worn" isn't the worst description I've ever seen, but "text area in great shape" means ... what?

Well, since the seller did seem to have the book in possession, I clicked to investigate feedback. Unfortunately, almost all of this seller's sub-5 feedbacks mentioned receiving a book whose condition was worse than expected. Suddenly, "slightly worn" didn't look so slight anymore, and "great shape" could've meant, I don't know, "in one piece"?


$109.27 with this description: "Inventory subject to prior sale. Used items have varying degrees of wear, highlighting, etc. and may not include supplements such as infotrac or other web access codes."

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Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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