Some perils of buying used books online
– November 20, 2007
For anyone seeking to enhance his or her personal study and reference library of astrological literature with out-of-print titles, there are a few potential pitfalls that can arise, and it would be well to be aware that problems can and sometimes do occur. This is especially so with international orders in which the costs of returning books are much higher. In my experience those orders executed by professional sellers with listings on sites like Abebooks are only slightly less likely to be trouble-free than amateur listings on sites like ebay, but there is a lot of variation within the ranks of professionals in quality of service and accuracy of description, with some, typically those with specialist knowledge of astrological and occult literature or who specialise in rare books, being stellar in their attention to detail, and others, typically those who sell a great mass of literature of all kinds and have no particular fondness for astrological books, often being relatively shoddy and very often overcharging in their list prices, which can be especially annoying when the book is a scarce one that you want but you know almost nobody else will.
Here I am putting together a shortlist from experience of some of the problems for which collectors of second-hand astrology books should be well-prepared before they embark on a costly and sometimes problem-fraught journey.
1. Delays in transit are a curse for which booksellers are often unfairly blamed. Until recently, international orders handled from the US were often sent by surface mail or surface M-bag, and could take three to four months to reach destinations in the UK and western Europe despite the claims of websites like Abebooks that they would take only four to six weeks. For example, a parcel of books dispatched to me by surface mail by those very nice folks at Astrology et al in Washington State late in 2004 took thirteen and a half weeks to be delivered to Bristol in England. Surface mail now having been abolished, these kinds of problems should lie in the past, but there might still be occasional delays in the system even with the new all-airmail USPS service.
2. Another problem that sometimes arises, again through no fault of booksellers themselves, is fees levied on the delivery of international book shipments. This never seemed to apply when I was in Britain, but it happens as a matter of course here in Sweden, and is not restricted to (though it is justified by reference to) the mandatory 6% VAT that Sweden charges on the sales of all books, new and second-hand. In addition to charging this VAT on the declared value of the contents of any parcel or padded envelope said to contain books, the tax office charges a further 6% VAT on the cost of the shipping method used to transport the books to you, which is likely to have been a significant part of the overall price you originally paid when you purchased the books. But as though all this VAT was not enough, the extra charges to pay on delivery don’t stop with VAT: on top of this, a fixed administration fee of typically 100 SEK (11 Euros / approx. £8 ) is levied by the Swedish post office per parcel for the privilege of collecting the VAT from you, the buyer, and sending it on to the tax office. In many cases this collection fee will approximately double the effective total surcharge on the cost of books and shipping levied at the point of delivery from 6% to 10-15% or more; sometimes it may multiply it by three or four times even.
Another quirk of the Swedish system is that when books are over a hundred years old, they might not be considered books at all by the Swedish government for tax purposes, but rather as antiques, in which case it reserves the right to charge 12% VAT instead of 6%. In practice, this won’t happen unless the bookseller declares the age of the book on the paperwork or customs decides to inspect the contents, and the 6% rate is almost always charged as a result. However, if you buy from an auction house the age of what you buy is much more likely to be indicated, prompting the higher rate to be charged. I do not know if Sweden is unique within Europe in this two-tier tax treatment of used books imported from outside the EU, but it certainly makes any books older than 1907 very expensive if the 12% rate of VAT is charged on them (not forgetting the fixed tax collection fee on top of this too), putting Swedish residents at an enormous cost disadvantage compared to collectors of older books resident in other countries within the European Union such as the United Kingdom.
Generally, these fees are as stated above here in Sweden when books are sent using the USPS from the United States of America, but when instead a private delivery company such as UPS is charged with shipping, the administration fees tend to be higher, with UPS notably charging around 135 SEK instead of 100 SEK for collecting the VAT. I presume that this difference in charge is not unique to Sweden, and that UPS charges higher tax collection fees than the national post office does in virtually every country, in order to make as much extra profit as possible, or possibly to offset greater running costs compared with the national post office if its costs of business are in some way subsidised, but the latter strikes me as the more doubtful of the two explanatory possibilities in our era of the open competition ethos between public and private companies.
Whatever the justification, this means in practice that if you live in a country that charges VAT on used book imports from the United States then you should avoid deliveries by UPS where they are offered, and insist on the USPS. This is not always an option, however, with some American booksellers and auction houses insisting on using UPS even though both the nominal shipping charges for a given weight at the point of dispatch and the additional tax collection administration fees charged as cash on delivery are inordinately higher where UPS is used compared with similarly fast USPS options. Another reason for avoiding shipments by UPS is that unless you work from home and keep regular business hours thus, staying in the whole time, you are likely to miss their attempts at delivery, and it can be very inconvenient to rearrange them, whereas the national postal service (both in the UK, as I remember, and in Sweden) tends to allow you to pick up your parcels from a depot whenever it suits you, saving you from waiting in on a delivery by a courier company.
3. Very occasionally (perhaps one time in two hundred) a book does not arrive at all. This is probably because the bookseller forgot to send it but it might be because it was lost in the post, though this is rare. By the time you’ve waited a few months without reporting the non-delivery, the bookseller will (especially if an amateur ebay lister) possibly believe you are lying when you state that it has not arrived, which can make for very awkward communications. In some such cases, the book will still turn up very late, but not always. It’s important to keep very good records of books you’re waiting for so that you advise of non-receipt in good time. If you did not pay for insured delivery with your order and did not purchase through a website that offers a guarantee of delivery or your money back, then you might have to take the loss when the book does not turn up if the bookseller states that he or she sent it to you.
4. By far the most common problem, however, is that books are not always as described. They may be later reprints misdated and misstated as first editions; the binding may be falling apart internally without the bookseller having noticed because the cover looks in a fine state still; there may be serious bumps, serious warping to the boards, mottling and waviness to the paper resulting from a past exposure to damp (which aside from the mere cosmetic annoyance it poses will in severe cases make the pages physically awkward to turn, rendering the book difficult to read), ink underlinings, marginal notes and highlightings, missing plates and tables, and even missing text pages, that the bookseller has failed to spot or report.
This of course is grossly irresponsible on the part of booksellers when it happens, as it is their duty to list all faults, but some simply don’t look closely enough and hope for the best, perhaps because it takes a long time to catalogue books if you inspect every page as well as the binding. These booksellers almost invariably are well-meaning people who get things right most of the time, but in view of the fact that the details of condition and edition can really matter when it comes to your choice of a copy to buy and the price that is fair for it, it really is inexcusable when gross misdescriptions happen, and you should immediately report the faults and, if you are not satisfied in the circumstances that the book was worth the price you paid for it, request a partial refund (which, strangely, booksellers seem very rarely to offer, preferring an outright return) if it’s so rare that you’re unlikely to get another copy in any condition any year soon, or demand to be allowed to return it at the bookseller’s expense. It can be heartbreaking to have to inform a decent bookseller who is scraping a living from his wares that a major fault was missed, but when it happens, you are only going to be wasting money if you do nothing about it. It can be a good idea to have a scanner or digital camera handy in order to prove that pages are missing or otherwise damaged so that the bookseller knows to distinguish you from a crook and is not forced to take you at your word if you are not a past-time regular customer of his or hers that he or she has good reasons to trust already.
(And it’s as well to note that it can be well worth building up good customer relationships with reliable dealers who specialise in used astrological books since they tend to remember their customers from one sale to the next, but on the other hand the scarcer out of print astrological books are unlikely always to be available from your personal pick of dealer, and you might therefore have to take risks on unknown sellers of unknown repute rather often as a result or else forfeit the opportunity to advance your collection.)
Overall, I have found that about eight to nine books in ten are correctly described and the rest have failed to notify some faults – usually cosmetic ones such as some ink notes or underlining missed, though even these devalue books significantly; more rarely, major internal structural faults such as missing pages or serious weaknesses to the binding.
To conclude, while it can be very rewarding to build up a collection of out-of-print astrological literature, it can also be fraught with problems along the way, and these will take time and a certain amount of inner steel to stand any chance of being resolved satisfactorily, while from time to time you will just be unlucky and end up paying for a book that never reaches you or paying too much for a book that has not been accurately described with all important faults noted. The true cost of collecting books from a distance thus almost inevitably exceeds (in both time and money) the value of the books themselves, and taking unfair pecuniary losses from time to time is unfortunately part and parcel of the journey unless you are exceptionally lucky.