I’ve said before that a reading habit, for individuals and families with far-stretched budgets, can be both expensive and difficult to maintain. In that post, I did not address the all-too-common predicament of low-income college students, who must, when their financial aid runs out, choose between exorbitant out-of-pocket spending and the risk of academic failure. For those individuals who want to read for pleasure, but cannot because of economic situations, the limitations of income are mere inconveniences. To the already indebted college student pursuing a degree, however, a lack of book funds constitutes dire straits. Neither of these problems is new, but both are persistent.
Many readers who complain about the high cost of print materials fail to consider buying used. I don’t see why not. It is as an economically-friendly alternative, one of the few in which you can get the same product for 90% off retail. Still, many people seem to view buying used books as akin to wearing a pair of used underwear found in the garbage. If you’re one of these people, don’t panic: the following sellers do not truck in garbage.
Abe’s a weird little gem where booksellers—who often have their own websites and spaces on other marketplaces—from around the world create searchable profiles and indexes of their wares. Each seller carries a star rating (0 to 5) based on the percentage of satisfied customers, here defined as those who do not return or exchange their purchases. Those specializing in particular genres or fields of study—Sagebrush Western, New Age, WWII History, etc.—advertise their interests, so finding the right seller to browse is a breeze.
Users aren’t limited to searching by seller, however. A search for one book, author, or ISBN will show listings from all booksellers, complete with details on item condition, vendor rating, and shipping charges. But the most fun searches on Abe are for those who aren’t looking for anything in particular. If you’re lo0king for something interesting, or just want something new and strange to talk about with your friends and coworkers, check out Abe’s most expensive recent sales and the Weird Book Room; you won’t be disappointed.
Like Abe, Alibris functions as a marketplace where independent used book dealers gather to sell. Alibris places a heavier focus on textbooks, however, allowing users to rent or buy directly from the site, without using a middleman bookseller. Their terms are fair, but most students will find that purchasing and reselling textbooks is the cheaper way to go.
Alibris’ discount books come as low as $0.99, so readers looking for good quality paperbacks at yard sale prices will be happy here. While this is great, I take issue with Alibris’ habit of hiding shipping costs from customers until the last minute. Shipping rates won’t be calculated until after you have filled your cart, proceeded to checkout, and then either made a new account or logged into an existing one. For those of us with little time on our hands, this becomes less of an irritation and more of a dealbreaker.
I’m not in a position to be incredibly choosy about the companies with whom I do business; I hate everything Wal-Mart stands for, but sometimes one-stop shopping is too convenient to pass up. When the chance to support great causes without breaking my own bank comes along, I get excited. Better World Books is one of these golden opportunities. For every book you buy from them, another is donated to a child in need through one of several supported charities. Large portions of the profits from Better World Books go to fund literacy programs around the world. By gathering library discards to resell and recycle, Better World Books prevents tons of reading material from wasting away in landfills.
The best thing about this company, in my opinion, is their eDelivery system. Here’s how it works: when you purchase a book and select eDelivery as your shipping option, Better World Books selects a copy and slices the cover and pages to make a unique .PDF file; all the remaining materials are recycled, and you get a quick and convenient reading fix. Plus, since comparatively little fuel is used to eDeliver a book, you’re trimming your carbon footprint by just that much more.
Perfect for students looking to grab the best textbook deals, BIGWORDS is a site dedicated to finding the lowest possible price + shipping costs for customers. Although course texts are their main focus, the site also allows users to search for clothing, electronics, and foodstuffs. After compiling a cart of goodies for price comparison, BIGWORDS users are taken to a screen full of jokes while the system finds the best prices, overall or from a single seller. Unlike some similar services, this site also takes your personal accounts—Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc.—and outside deals into consideration.
In addition to being fabulous and funny, BIGWORDS offers users the opportunity to promote their services in order to get free swag and cash.* Referring friends via email earns you TAF credits, which can be redeemed for T-shirts and other merchandise. Joining or creating an on-campus promotional team allows you to earn real money and build your skill set by participating in fun marketing campaigns. If you aren’t interested in doing that much work, but like BIGWORDS anyway, free stickers, posters, and comic strips are also available.
Similar to Abe and Alibris, Biblio is a searchable marketplace of sellers. While it offers the same book-buying options as its contemporaries, its collection of ephemera and accessories sets it apart. On Biblio, collectors can find classic zines, posters, and literary publications. Users can also snag great gifts for fellow bookish types, including literature-themed games, toys, and miscellany.
The other great thing about Biblio is its bookseller specialty cloud. Clicking on a subject keyword takes users to a list of all affiliated sellers. If a particular vendor doesn’t have any books in a chosen category currently stocked, Biblio offers users the opportunity to receive email alerts whenever new books are added. Although it isn’t very far removed from its competitors, Biblio is truly designed for avid readers.
An Internet favorite with six bricks-and-mortar locations—five in Portland, OR alone—Powell’s has a longstanding reputation as a reliable used book dealer. This site is an easy one-stop shop for those who want to find great deals, but don’t have the time to slog through searches for rock-bottom prices. The shipping rates—free on orders over $50 or $3.99 flat-rate for all others—are just gravy.
What really makes Powell’s a great place to shop is their systematic breakdown of literary genre. All book-lovers have been there: you’re looking for an urban fairy fantasy, but have to scroll through endless aliens, dragons, vampires, and wizards to find it. Those vendors don’t get you, but Powell’s does. Here, Science Fiction and Fantasy branches off into Classics, Dragonlance, Steampunk, and Video Game Tie-In categories, Poetry splits to reveal Epic, Haiku and Tanka, and Native American. Really, I’m just scratching the surface here, so be sure to swing by to check it out for yourself.
Even though this is yet another martketplace, a network of warehouses allows Thrift Books to offer great bundles and deals. U.S. customers receive free standard shipping on all orders. At the time of this writing, users can pick up paperbacks, three for $7.99; juvenile, YA, and adult fiction, and non-fiction, are all featured. The bargain-priced books here are around $1.00 cheaper than at competitors.
Like Better World Books, Thrift Books also collects library discards to resell. Unfortunately, they are too focused on gathering additional bulk shipments from affiliated organizations to provide users much information on how or where their charity efforts are focused.
*I am not currently attempting to refer anyone to BIGWORDS. Outgoing links from my site to theirs are here for your convenience only, and do not benefit me commercially.
Do you have a favorite online bookstore? Let me know in the comments!