Select one of the keywords
Editorial March 2001
Buying Books Online

By Hilary Williamson

I have been casually purchasing books on the Internet for the last couple of years, but I appear to be in a minority amongst friends and acquaintances. I wondered why this was so. I had heard that books were less expensive online, so compared prices for a few to see if that was indeed the case - if it were, it would be even more surprising that online buying of books is not common.

In the U.S., it appears that books ordered online cost systematically from 10 - 20% less than those bought at a local bookstore, though the large chains might be closer to the online cost (thanks to Sharon for checking local prices there for me). In Canada, the large booksellers charge almost exactly the same whether the book is purchased online or at a brick and mortar store. This makes it cost more overall to get the book as minimal shipping charges add on at least 20 % again, and even in the U.S. the average discount would not pay for shipping.

This does not seem reasonable. Surely it costs a bookseller more in building maintenance and labor costs to sell from a store in a prime location in a city. Why are the cost savings inherent in online purchase not passed on to the consumer to make up for shipping charges, and to lower barriers to acceptance of a new way of shopping? I, for one, would switch over and buy most of my books online for the convenience of it, if I did not have to pay more to get them in my hands.

Aside from cost, what are the pros and cons in using E-commerce for books? Some people are concerned with Internet security of financial transactions. Many people who cheerfully hand out a credit card number over the telephone, are still nervous about providing it online. Amazon, for one, provides an explanation and guarantee of payment security to ease these concerns, but it will probably take time and experience to build consumer confidence.

The main impetus for me to buy books online has been availability, which has occasionally made me pay more to get a highly anticipated read early. Often I find books in the online and not in the local store (or vice versa). I am more likely to find older titles through the net. This helps when discovering a new series in the middle of its publication history (I prefer to start reading at the beginning and the older books are usually not on local shelves). Also, online bookstores are cleverly using hyperlinks to indicate titles and authors similar to one selected, and this is a useful way to find new reading material.

Another reason for online purchase is that books are often released earlier in some countries than others (typically the U.K. or U.S.) or at different costs (there is often a big price difference in classics, for example) which makes it worthwhile to brave foreign orders. However watch out for surprising extra charges at the border - a friend of mine had a recent order to the U.S. surcharged not only with Canadian taxes of about $4 but with an additional $5 administration fee ... for collection of the $4 tax.

So the current motivator for many in buying books online is to find something not available elsewhere - an older title or an earlier release. Prices are still designed to keep the barriers high. I am curious as to why this is the case, as lower charges would encourage a significantly higher proportion of online book buying - just discount enough so that the cost (with shipping included) stays below the purchase price at a local store.

I hope that online prices will change and look forward to the convenience of a time when they are low enough that I can buy all my books on the web, but perhaps this will only happen with widespread use of e-books, which incur no shipping charges.
Note: Opinions expressed in reviews and articles on this site are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of BookLoons.