Independent Book Sellers Need Not Apply: A Rant

I’m fed up with buying books online from independent sellers. The problem: damage in transit. Independent book sellers seem to think that the postal system uses a magical system of air tubes that swooshes books to their destination without coming into contact with solid surfaces. I have news for them.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve received mashed or even pierced boxes, with a traumatized and gravely injured book quivering inside. It’s a terrible waste, and completely preventable. The worst (and most common) situation is when a book is packed loose in a box, with some crumpled paper on top. This pretty much guarantees that the corners will get bumped, or, like my last purchase, the spine will actually be broken. I mean literally smashed. [Correction: The worst situation is the bubble envelope. Those book sellers should just be slapped with their mangled book.]

Shall I name names? They really are too numerous to mention, but I’ll mention two big ones. Both Powell’s and Caiman (the latter being more of a liquidator) have been guilty of packing books loose. Powell’s will pay for return shipping, but, as I just found out to my displeasure, Caiman (like all Amazon Marketplace sellers) does not. AbeBooks does have a policy that merchants must pay return shipping on damaged items, but the merchants don’t always know this and can put up quite a fight. They should maybe ask themselves why the book got damaged instead of making their (soon to be ex-)customer pay the penalty for the bad packing job.

Amazon, on the other hand, knows how to ship a book. Their books are gripped firmly by their cardboard wraps, which project beyond the edges of the book to protect all 8 corners. Books sent in boxes are not immobilized but usually jammed in pretty tightly with air bags. I think I’ve only had to return one book (I won’t say out of how many!) to Amazon because of damage. (I’ve had two other books damaged, but they just sent new copies rather than pay for the return shipping. Who can beat that level of customer service?) That’s a pretty remarkable track record compared to independents, who, by my experience, have a greater than 50% damage rate. Keep in mind that I tend to buy heavy books (the bigger they are, the harder they fall) from the US (two postal systems plus Customs get a crack at them); it’s probably not as bad with domestic ordering, but the online used book market in Canada rarely has what I want.

So, I’m done with the independents. Unless I can contact the shipper personally and specify exactly how the book should be packed (as I did with my Complete Greek Tragedies, which arrived in perfect condition), I will take all my business to Amazon. And if there are any independents out there who actually care what condition their books arrive in, please read this post about how to properly pack a book for delivery through the mail. A little bubble wrap will go a long way to keeping your customers.


19 comments on “Independent Book Sellers Need Not Apply: A Rant

  1. Andrew says:

    75% of my books are from Amazon, and as a rule I'm happy (a couple of Everyman's Library were soiled with some kind of dust smudging, out of the approx 50 books I ordered from them last year).
    The few Franklin Library I've received from various Abebook retailers in Canada have all been perfect, still as new/fine quality as specified.
    I agree though, Amazon do pack well.

  2. Dorothy W. says:

    Now that's really too bad — it seems like a fairly easy problem to fix so these booksellers should get their act together so people can buy from them more easily!

  3. I am sorry for the trouble you have had receiving your books in the past. Shipping books is not rocket science, but it does require some attention to be done right.
    It is the most visible part of a mail order operation. It does amaze me that a bookseller will spend hundreds of dollars on a new computer or a new chair the client will never see, but not be willing to spend $.50 on a box and some bubblewrap.
    Thanks for the link, by the way. I am off to read more of your blog!

  4. Wil Cone says:

    Thankfully, my book orders have made it through the USPS relatively unscathed. They've almost all been small-to-mid-size paperbacks – maybe that helps.
    But I did have a book lost in the postal system for a month or more. It finally arrived, but not before I'd requested and received a second copy.

  5. Sylvia says:

    Thanks, Hugh. Your posts on the subject were great, and I appreciate any book seller who understands what a beating parcels take in the postal system, especially cross-border.

  6. Danielle says:

    Sorry to hear about the books! I hate it when people can't package books correctly!! The worst is a few books left loose in a box with not much packing on top!! Amazon is usually very good, but they have sent a few packages to, like that. I think it must be non-readers packing those boxes as surely anyone who loves books would not throw them in a box like that!!

  7. Imani says:

    So sorry to hear about your damaged books. It's such an annoyance too because I think some books really aren't being made that well to begin with–*cough* Penguin Classics *cough*–as even in the store you notice worn spines, dog ears and fading colour. Ugh.
    I don't order a lot of heavy books and I think you're buying a lot more academic material but for regular fiction I can vouch for Serpent's Tail and The Book Depository. And it's free! I've never had a problem with as far as shipping goes, but I stopped accepting anything from as DHL started adding some ridiculous extra handling fee earlier this year. Chapters is so-so.

  8. Sylvia says:

    Penguin Classics–indeed. If civilization collapses we won't run out of toilet paper material for quite a while…
    Don't get me started on the couriers! They've got quite a racket going. If a package crosses the border by truck they get to charge any amount they want for “customs brokerage.” So much for free trade.

  9. Julie says:

    YET ANOTHER reason why I am so grateful to have a locally-owned independent bookseller in my neighborhood. If she doesn't stock it, she orders it, and two days later I have it in hand. πŸ™‚

  10. Imani says:

    Aaahahahahahahah poor Penguin Classics, dismissed as toilet paper. I admit I am partial to them because I think the designs are lovely and I find the introductions and footnotes useful. But practically speaking I don't know how long they'll actually last…
    (Have you seen the new “Premiere” Classics line released by Random via Knopf this month?)

  11. Sylvia says:

    Andrew told me about the Premier Classics but I haven't seen anything about them online. I wonder how they stack up against the others?

  12. Imani says:

    The Premier seems to be competing against Modern Library–not Penguin classics as some Random rep professed in the Guardian. There is no academic introduction and no footnotes. The most I saw in its edition of “Far From the Maddening Crowd” was a preface by Hardy and a chronology. I guess the cover photo was pretty enough.
    I'm not sure why Random bothered. Well, I know why but the effort in book form is decidedly lacklustre. Customers will forget about it once Random stops paying for primo placing spots.

  13. Sylvia says:

    Someone ought to write a book about how dead authors feel about having their great works turned into pulp and profits.

  14. Andrew says:

    Hmm, I haven't seen any ads for the Premier Classics line, but I DO have a rather insular existence.
    You say they are competing against the Modern Library? Surely not – ML is HB, has the notes, forwards etc, and is in a different price bracket. To me, they are a mixture of Hesperus (the pics on the front) and Penguin Classics (one step above in terms of paper quality, size etc), but I'm no expert.
    Libarything STILL has no record of the ISBNs for the 6 Premier Classics I bought a couple of weeks ago. (checked against the amazon's, libaries etc)

  15. Sylvia says:

    Modern Library does have a line of paperbacks as well. There's a picture and description here.

  16. Andrew says:

    Ah, I didn't know that. Thanks.

  17. Andrew says:

    After only a couple of months, these Premier Classics are starting to wilt. The paper is beginning to 'ruffle' – when they look like they've been wetted slightly. Obviously no other books of mine are doing this, or I wouldn't've mentioned it.
    My 'rating' on them has therefore been reduced a couple of notches. Style but not substance it seems 😦

  18. Imani says:

    That's too bad Andrew! And only after a few months.
    I don't know anything about Hesperus and, considering that ML do have introductions and so on maybe it would be better to compare to them to the Barnes and Nobles Classics. I've never picked one up but they're so tiny I can't imagine them having any extra material like introductions and footnotes.
    I have not seen any ads for the Premier Classics either, beyond the promotional placing in Chapters. Like you also said there is no trace of their ISBNs on any of the merchant websites (except Chapters). And even on Chapters publisher information is not listed. RH doesn't even have a website up for them. I don't quite understand the point of all this secrecy.

  19. Sylvia says:

    Yes, that's unfortunate. A terrible waste of trees!

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