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A guide to buying used books online

Picture of a stack of classic books i.e. in the name of the rose

Buying used books online is great way to save money, especially if you are an avid reader who gets through a lot of literature. The Internet also provides access to millions of copies of out-of-print books and the opportunity to support independent booksellers. We always recommend comparing prices on books to find the best deal for you. This guide offers tips and guidance to make the shopping process as easy as possible.

Search tips

Save time by double-checking the book information before searching shopping sites. It's easy to be wrong about an author name - think of McDonald, MacDonald, Meyer, Mayer. Small variations like cookbook and cook book may influence your search results.

When you start to search, if the book title includes extended copy after a colon (such as Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany), just use the main title text preceding the colon. If buying a textbook, you may need an exact edition - search by ISBN if that's the case. Tutors should be able to provide ISBNs.

Consider what you want

Hardcover or a paperback? A particular cover design? A pristine copy or a used book with some general wear? A first edition or a signed copy?

Consider the shopping websites

Book marketplaces - AbeBooks (owned by Amazon), Alibris and Biblio are three major online marketplaces based in North America that specialize in used books. Used bookshops and booksellers from around the world list books for sale on these sites. It is possible to support independent sellers by using these websites, but the marketplaces also earn revenue from your purchases. Some sellers list on all three sites. Avoid sellers with low ratings or negative reviews. If you can't find feedback on a particular seller on a marketplace, use Google to find reviews elsewhere. Used book marketplaces are ideal if you want to browse through listings and find the copy that suits your needs.

General online marketplaces - Amazon and eBay sell everything, including used books. eBay is a pure marketplace and all its products come from third-party sellers. Amazon operates a marketplace for new and used items, which are merchandised alongside products from its own warehouses. Both websites insist on high standards from sellers.

Specialist used book retailers - Thriftbooks and Better World Books are specialist online used book retailers. They have large operations to find and sell used books at cheap prices. Aside from their own websites, their books are also listed on the major online marketplaces. These retailers specialize in cheap used books, but also offer numerous out-of-print books.

Independent bookstores - Powell's in Portland, Oregon, and The Strand in New York are two of the biggest independent bookshops in the United States. There are thousands more that offer new or used books, or both like Powell's and The Strand. We recommend supporting independent bookstores because they play an important role in local communities and provide personal service.

In the US, there is IndieBound, which promotes a network of independent bookstores. Bookshop.org is another shopping website (it offers new books sourced from a distributor) that supports independent bookstores - you select a bookstore to support, and they receive a portion of the purchase price.

stack of books e.g. little women
Used books selection

Consider condition

Condition is vital when buying used books on the Internet. You can't pick up the book and inspect it. It's important to read the seller's listing description. Age and use impact the condition of a book. Ideally, there will be a photograph(s) of the item, but this is not always the case as many websites show stock photography on product listings.

Sellers assign a condition grade (as new, fine, very good, fair etc) to the book. They should, ideally, list any flaws or defects. High-volume used booksellers usually do not go into this level of detail. If a seller uses generic wording like “may contain highlighting” then you may not receive a book in mint condition. Dust jackets are particularly susceptible to wear. Watch out for older books with torn or chipped jackets.

You will see used books with price-clipped dust jackets where the price has been snipped off because the book was a gift. The used book market also includes millions of “ex-library books” discarded from public libraries. Some of these copies can be worn. They will usually have library stickers and stamps indicating they have been discarded. Ex-library books offer great value for money if you don't mind some wear.

Consider price

Prices for used books vary massively, but there's usually a bargain to be found. Marketplaces provide search results that allow you to compare prices from multiple sellers. Many large sellers use pricing tools to regularly update prices to stay competitive and they have different pricing strategies on different online marketplaces. The same copy of a book, offered by one seller, can be available on three different websites and have three different prices. Automated pricing tools drive up prices when there is strong demand for a book.

Used book prices are influenced by condition, demand and supply. Shop around if you have time. The cheapest copy might be the one in the worst condition. It may be worth considering books at a higher price.

BookBuzz is a price comparison website (also known as a meta-search website or an aggregator) for books where you compare prices for a book across multiple websites simultaneously. Because the used book market is spread across numerous websites, we help you sort through millions of copies to find the deal that's right for you.

Consider availability

It takes time for used copies of a just-published book to reach the used book market and when they do, they will still be priced relatively highly. After a bestselling book has gone into paperback, there will be ample supply at lower prices.

Consider shipping

Shipping prices vary. Large used book sellers - like Thriftbooks and Better World - have deals with shipping firms that allow them to offer cheaper shipping rates than smaller sellers. If a book will be shipped across an international border, then rates increase. Be aware of the seller's location. If you want a book that's not published in your country, you may need to purchase from a seller abroad. You will see some used books offered with free shipping. Use caution - free shipping may not be the great deal it initially seems. The seller sometimes simply shifts the shipping costs to the item price.

Consider refund policies

If you receive a used book that is not as described, you are eligible for a refund. This policy is found on all used book websites. It protects you in case the book is falling apart or has more wear than described in the listing. You usually have a time limit on when you can apply for a refund. You may be required to return the book to the seller. However, large-scale used book retailers often prefer to simply refund an unhappy customer and let them keep the book. It pays to become familiar with refund policies.

Your values

It's possible to find a used book business that aligns with your personal values - a small bookshop serving its local community, bookshop.org, a large-scale used bookseller with cheap books or an independent seller dedicated to rare books. Amazon does many things well and offers superb customer service, but there are alternatives.

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