Buying used books online

Note: this 2007 post got a facelift in 2013 here. I’d start with that later post and then, if necessary, return here.

It may not be a Web 2.0 activity, but finding and buying used books is still the best thing on the Internet – a little better than blogging, and way better than email.  You can find most any book on the Net and buy it for cheap, sometimes for pennies (plus $3.99 shipping).  This phenomenon doesn’t even destroy the small bookseller, since she probably has set up shop at two or three giant used book sites:,,, and  She can’t beat them, and either can you.

The Internet offers effective tools for learning about what’s been published on your topic or by your author, for locating the right edition and binding of the used book you’ve found, and for finding the best price for the book.  My strategy is to find out what Amazon can tell me, and then to shop Amazon’s price on  I’ll demonstrate some of the specifics through my immersion this summer into Robert Bly’s poetry.

Learning about what’s been published

A poetry anthology introduced me to Robert Bly this summer, and now I own six of his books, all used.  The anthology (Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems) contains four of Bly’s poems and a decent blurb on him in the back.  I also learned some about Bly’s work on Wikipedia and on Bly’s own, informative web site, but I learned the most about it on Amazon.

Find any book by Bly on Amazon, click Bly’s name, and you get every book Amazon can sell to you by or about him.  (You also get every book by Robert W. Bly, another author who apparently teaches business writing, so you have to be discerning.  Other sites can tell you what Bly wrote; just bring the list to Amazon.)  Amazon has fair-sized excerpts of Publisher’s Weekly reviews, and Amazon often has its own reviews, which aren’t always complete puff pieces.

Amazon has way more customer book reviews than anyone else.  Though there’s a lot of chaff in all of that wheat, many of the customer reviews are worth more to me than the professional reviews and the excerpts from the publisher.  Also, if the thumbnail of the book’s cover is marked “Look Inside,” the publisher has permitted Amazon to show specific pages in the book, including the back cover, a random page, and most of the front matter.

You get far more information if the cover’s thumbnail is marked, “Search Inside!”  You find links to pages in other books that cite the book, and, best of all, you can search the book.  If you’d like to see more than one sample page in a book, search a common word (e.g., “then,” “what”).  You get only a few pages per book per visit to the site, but poking about in this way generally gives you a good sense of the book.

(“Search Inside!” is also a helpful research tool since you can find quotes you didn’t think to jot down before you returned the book to the library.  You can also find the quote’s context and page number.  You can’t copy and paste from Amazon’s Online Reader, which is where they send you to see the pages, however.)

Most of the other information that you can get on “Search Inside!” is both amazing and silly.  You’ll find three indices of “readability,” for instance, and you’ll find the book’s average syllable count per word.

Typical of poetry books, Bly’s books have no “Search Inside!” permissions, but one book, The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart, an anthology Bly edited in part, does have the “Look Inside” feature.  Neither of these features helped me with Bly’s books, I admit.

Locating the right edition

You’ve found your book (or books).  Don’t order it yet.  For one thing, if you’re not sure you want to buy it or if you’re waiting for funding (often my situation), it’s just as easy to click “Add to Wish List” in the right column.  (The only painful part of the list is how long it takes to delete books from it.  You must delete them one at a time, and it seems to take the server more than the average amount of time to delete each page.  Still, I always have over a hundred books on the list, so I have to delete for a while sometimes to make the list manageable.)

A book may have several editions, of course, and Amazon has a separate link to a list of used books for sale for each edition.  Amazon lets you know the difference in price and years among the editions, and it usually also provides enough information on its pages for you to know what the difference between the editions is between the covers.  You may decide that the change(s) that went into the latest edition are not worth the greater price.

Subsequent printings of the book are not subsequent editions – that is, nothing inside the book changes to a book when it is only reprinted – so you can generally ignore information on the printings.

You also haven’t examined all of your options if you haven’t compared paperback and hardcover prices.  Believe it or not, the hardcovers are often cheaper than the paperbacks for the same edition of the book. I prefer hardcovers because the paper is less likely to fade over the years and the binding is generally stronger.  Amazon will tell you the lowest price for every edition of the book and for every form the book comes in (hardbound, paperback, CD-ROM, etc.) on the main page for every edition of the book it sells.

As I’m writing, a used paperback of Bly’s My Sentence Was a Thousand Years of Joy sells for as little as $2.22 on Amazon, but the hardcover of the same book sells for $1.55 there.  So I got the hardcover (though I got it at Alibris – more on that in a moment).

(By the way, some great books go for pennies, plus shipping.  Sometimes, if Amazon itself stocks the used book, they’ll pay you to take it.  (In other words, they’ll give you a break on the shipping.))

Once you arrive at the edition and binding (hardcover or paperback) you’d like, copy the book’s ISBN number (the ten-digit version will do) into your computer’s short-term memory.  You’ll use the number to shop Amazon’s price.  The ISBN number travels well because a publisher must use a separate ISBN number for every edition of the book and every type of binding.  (A subsequent printing does not entail a new ISBN number.)

Finding the best price

The best place to find the best price on the Internet for used books in English is  BookFinder keeps tabs on over 125,000,000 books.  (I didn’t know about this site for the first few hours after I had this post up.  My thanks to Dave at Via Negativa for pointing it out to me in a comment to the post.)  If you’re settled on the edition and binding you’d like, click “Show more options . . .” in the search window and type in the ISBN number.  If you would like to see the possibilities in both hardcover and paperback, enter the book’s name instead.

BookFinder’s search results are laid out in two columns: the new books on the left and the used books on the right.  Sometimes the new books are as cheap or cheaper than the used books, so don’t look only in the right column unless you must have a used book. BookFinder also saves links to your last five searches on its home page, which can be handy if you don’t buy right away.

One of the coolest things about BookFinder is that all of the prices include the cheapest shipping.  That way, you’re comparing what you would actually pay for each copy of the book.  If you’d prefer to compare the books without the shipping charge, you can do that, too.  You can also compare the shipping charges for faster delivery by clicking through to the online sites where the books are sold.

Perusing the left column of your BookFinder, see if Amazon’s or’s price for a new book is even close to the winning bid.  If it is, and if you’re going to order at least $25.00 in books, check to see if Amazon or Books-a-Million (a.k.a. is competitive with the other books, too.  Why?  Because Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books-a-Million all offer free shipping if you order at least $25.00 of most new books.  (Be careful at the shipping page of the checkout, though, to keep the free shipping selected.)  (Barnes and Noble’s web store ( also offers free shipping on orders of $25.00 or more, but its prices are rarely competitive.  Their bargain books are worth browsing in, however, just as they are in their bricks-and-mortar stores.)

The free shipping on these three sites takes a little longer than the standard shipping, generally, and Amazon generally now sticks to its free-shipping warning that it won’t ship until all of the books in your order are in stock.  (I have found that will ship my books separately as it receives them even when I select the free shipping method.)

Many used booksellers that use Amazon also use one or more of three other websites:,, and  Booksellers use different names on each site they use, but it’s not hard to see who’s who by using the information the sellers give, if you ever need to when comparing prices.  When a bookseller sells a book on two or three of these sites, his prices on the various sites are generally within a couple of dollars of one another.  Sometimes, though, you can find a great deal on one of these four sites that you can’t on the other three.  Most often, seems to be the least expensive of the four.

All of the sites offer information from their booksellers about the condition of each book sold.  I have probably purchased over fifty books online through these three sites, and I have found the descriptions to be almost always accurate.  The sites email you after the shipment and ask you to rate the booksellers, and the booksellers want a high customer rating.  So the sellers are reliable.

The sellers will usually bend over backwards for you, too.  Last year, a seller mailed me the paperback version of a hardcover I had ordered.  When I emailed him and complained, he mailed the hardcover and did not ask me to return the paperback.  (Good thing, too, since I was not going to take the time and effort to do it.)

I usually order the cheapest book that’s in good or very good shape.  I’ll pay a few pennies more for a slightly higher rating or for a closer seller (figuring that I’ll get the book faster).  I don’t mind a few marks – I actually like it on many books – but spine problems are, of course, trouble.

Amazon generally gives more information about the reliability of the sellers, making good use of Amazon’s advantage in soliciting customers’ feedback.  All four of the sites navigate well.


Alibris gives a significant cut on the shipping if you buy more than one book from the same seller in the same order.  Alibris and Amazon encourage their used booksellers to set up storefronts on their respective sites, and these storefronts are searchable. When I bought My Sentence Was a Thousand Years of Joy, I wondered if the seller – Kudzu Book Traders – also had Bly’s The Winged Energy of Delight.  It did!  I got both books in hardback for a total of $10.69 delivered. Amazon does not offer anything similar. They charge $3.99 for standard shipping per used book: no exceptions.  (Shipping sometimes is a little higher on AbeBooks.)

Sometimes the price of a used book goes down after delivery.  I discovered a dollar bill in one of my used books today, apparently left by a previous owner as a bookmark.  How often does that happen with a new book?