What’s up with book prices? I was looking for a certain few titles at Amazon.com… a few from my own wishlist and a few for my wife. Those of us in Canada are well-aware of the “Canadian pricing” that appears on books printed in the USA. For example, if I reach out beside me and pick up the library copy I have of William McKeen’s Highway 61: A Father-and-Son Journey through the Middle of America, the price is listed at $24.95, which sounds about right for a 280-page hardcover book. But wait — below that it says the price in Canada is $35.99. Huh? That’s an exchange rate of $1.44, which we haven’t seen in quite a while now. Back around Christmas time, Canadian book retailers were repricing their books at par, basically selling for the US price. Made sense, with the way that the exchange rate is so close right now.
A couple of weeks ago I was looking at PHP in a Nutshell in a bricks-and-mortar store, and didn’t see any signs about the pricing. I asked a clerk if they were re-pricing at par, and he replied in the negative: the Canadian price would apply… $41.95 instead of $29.95. That’s an exchange rate of $1.40 between currencies that are presently near par with each other. I wanted the book, but not that bad — I figured fine, I’d just order online. The online pricing is similar between Canadian/American sites, discounted in the usual way for online sales, of course.
So I placed my order for 7 books through Amazon.com. I placed my last online order through the American site for Amazon as well, and saved a decent amount of money even after paying for shipping. Around the same time, I also ordered some books through Abe Books. The titles I was after at the time were available from multiple used book vendors, so rather than by price alone, I ordered the titles that were being shipped by the same vendor. I figured I would save money on shipping, and I was right. I was happy with both orders.
So browsing the various titles for the present order, I found four of them available at significant discounts through the used and discount link, so I took a look at who was fulfilling the orders. Looking to see if there was a single book seller that had all or most of them, I came up with Thrift Books, who had three of them. Alright, four from Amazon and three from Thrift Books.
Then comes the WTF-moment.
Turns out that Amazon processes the order without telling you what the shipping cost will be — the first indication of that is in the confirmation email. Amazon charges a flat rate per shipment plus $3.99 per book. I misread the shipping rates on their site and thought that the flat rate was the minimum charge per shipment… not the case. Turns out I paid the equivalent of shipping five books when I only shipped four. Sigh. Well, it’s only $5, still a good discount over paying the Canadian price.
And then there’s Thrift Books, who for some reason was charging $12.95 per item for shipping. I fired back an email saying that $37 and change seemed a bit exorbitant for shipping. Customer support replies to tell me that the rates are controlled by the shipping companies, and they don’t have any control over them. Uh, sure. I’m not buying… I routinely get books shipped from the USA that seem to cost about $4-5 by post. I don’t want them FedExed overnight. I checked the shipping rates posted on their website to find they charge $6 for the first item and $5 for each additional. $16, right? Clearly I was overcharged by mistake. No, the customer support person tells me that in order to get the “discount” shipping rate, I have to order directly from their site, not through a third-party site. WTF?? Apparently it costs more to ship your order if you order through a third party. And here I thought the rate was set by the shipping company. Despite my request to confirm the shipping rate before actually shipping the books, in the midst of the back-and-forth emails, I get a notice saying the order has shipped. So much for my backup plan to save shipping by diverting the books to a US address where I could pick them up when I’m there in a couple of weeks.
Not sure what this racket is all about, but the moral of the story seems to be that if you’re going to buy used books online, Amazon is not a good source, try AbeBooks. And definitely avoid Thrift Books. At least that’s the lesson I’m drawing from all this. Has anyone else had good or bad online purchasing experiences? Any tips or recommendations for online purchases (particularly books)?
I think the on-line bubble might be about to bust with the prices of gas and all … I haven’t ordered from amazon recently so I don’t know what the US experience is. But the last time I did, I got the shipping price before I got the confirmation e-mail. Detailing the shipping costs was part of the purchasing process. And that was only maybe 6 weeks ago at best.
I used to import books from the US to Canada on a weekly basis when I lived in Vancouver. Even though I would cross the border to pick them up in the US (saving a cross-border shipping fee), the duty on importing was often huge. The trick is where the book is actually printed. So exchange plays a big part, but not the whole chunk. In fact, the only reason Canadian booksellers could afford to price books at par for a time was because the industry was doing so well. They likely took a loss on many titles (or at least made very little on many).
As my folks live on a border town (and thus have a US mailbox), I have saved a great deal of money ordering books from the States shipped to the Minnesota address. I visit frequently enough that the books don’t get that delayed. It is also cheaper for me to ship a box of books from Minnesota to, say, Vancouver than it is for me to ship the same books from Winnipeg. Significantly cheaper. And Canada Post wonders why they suffer so…
Anyway, thanks for getting me all worked up this morning.
Ohhh, my pet peeve! Living in the woods I depend on mail order to supply my book habit. I’ve been stung by sellers who ship by courier. Many couriers have blanket customs brokerage deals where every piece they ship get’s GST’d and handling fees are collected to cover duty whether that particular item is dutiable or not. My worst experience was a book with “surprise” shipping, handling, tax and duty that was almost double the cost of the book. Insist on shipping by mail – US Post does a fine job, after the border it is in the tender care of Canada Post and it seems to be a lottery whether Customs decides to pull it aside and levy GST. So far never with Amazon.com but sometimes with independent booksellers. I can’t figure out what exactly flags an item to be taxed.
Book distributors in Canada were pretty much forced into the par pricing deal once Walmart and company decided to go that route. The impact from those drastic fluctuations has been felt to the very core and likely it will take years to fully recover, if we recover at all. For many small chains and independents this has been a final nail.
those shipping shenanigans are just nutty and pretty obscene, brother. But for the most part, the end buyer has been the least wounded by this recent craziness. Many many people in the industry have lost their jobs. And the relationship between physical store, online store, and distributor has become even more strained.
Dear Brother Maynard:
Buy Canadian. Buy from Canadian stores that support Canadian authors as well as the Canadian book publishing industry. BUT buy from the little guy who gives the monopolies the finger by offsetting Canadian prices with deep discounts and selling at US cover prices. Think Collected Works in Ottawa, think Audrey’s Books in Edmonton. Think little guy. You’ll save more money buying more books shipped at bulk prices. And you’ll have the satisfaction of saying “na na na na na” at Amazon’s expense. OR buy from publishers that don’t print prices on covers. Think OFFO. It gives booksellers a fighting chance.
Kathleen Molloy,author – Dining with Death