The majority of booksellers on the net are honest and care about their reputation for providing customer satisfaction. However, it is often worrying to buy a book that you've never seen from a seller you've never met. And occasionally these purchases can be a disappointment. Perhaps the seller doesn't know enough, or doesn't care enough about the customer, or perhaps the buyer misunderstood something in the description or the terms of sale.
How can you protect yourself from these problems? There are some simple clues that will help you to spot trouble before you buy. The first thing to remember is that fundamentally, ecommerce is just plain old mail-order. The catalogue is being delivered electronically, but it's still a mail-order catalogue for all that. All the same laws apply in ecommerce as do in mail-order.
If you always buy the cheapest copy, you are going to increase your chances of being disappointed. There's usually a reason that a book is underpriced. If you're lucky, it's because the seller doesn't know any better, is trying to clear out old stock, or wants to sell in volume. Then you may just say you are 'lucky'. If you're unlucky, the book may be in very poor condition, or the seller may be having problems. In general, I find that the cheapest sellers are among the slowest to answer queries, and to ship. Try looking instead for the best value for your money - a copy that's reasonably priced, in nice condition, and from a reputable-sounding dealer. I for example never by any Tolkien books who are lacking dustjackets any more. And always like to see condition F/F in the description. It might cost a little more, but then i am sure i get the books in a fine condition.
So first read the book description very carefully. Some phrases should tip you off to a less knowledgeable bookseller... pretty good for its age, or waterstained but else fine, or has that old book smell are all signs of a bookseller who means well, but has no idea what they are doing. Pretty good for its age is always wrong. A book is graded strictly according to it's condition, and not at all according to its age. This means that really old books will almost never be in Fine condition. See the article on grading condition for a more detailed explanation. Else fine is a term that should be used with real caution. It usually only applies to a nearly invisible flaw on an otherwise perfect copy. That old book smell is usually mildew, and is a serious problem as it can spread to the rest of your library. Look for longer, more detailed descriptions. Do not be turned off by a minutely detailed listing of flaws. These are usually in better condition than the items with a general condition grade and no details. While it may appear the the book with a detailed description of a 1 inch dampstain to the lower corner of the last 2 pages is worse than a book listed as being in Good condition, it's likely the other way around.
Ask questions. If you're concerned that a book may not really be a first edition as the seller has stated, then ask them how they identified it as a first. If they know, they should be able to answer the question easily and in detail. If you're afraid that the book may not really be in the condition described, then ask the seller to doublecheck and see if anything was missed in the original description. If there is anything at all in the description that you don't understand, ask. Booksellers often use trade-specific terms. They are not being deliberately obscure, they are just used to the words, and don't even consider that someone might not understand. If they don't have the time or courtesy to answer your questions, then you shouldn't be buying from them.
Look at photos of the item (especially when buying expensive first editions or rare copies of Tolkien's work). In an auction, you probably should never bid on items without a photograph. On the databases, photos are much less common. But if it's an expensive book, or you are concerned, ask the seller to scan the book. Many sellers have a scanner or a digital camera and will scan the book on request.
Hardcover books always take more abuse in the mail than paperbacks. It's easy to bump corners and spine. They need additional protection. If you're at all concerned about what may happen to your book in the mail, ask for a box rather than a padded or bubble mailer. I always ask this, since i am especially looking for hardcovers (before i look at the softcovers) of Tolkien, and never had negative replies to my request.
Read the contact information. Make sure they have a telephone number and a postal mailing address listed in case there is a problem. Keep track of your orders (print them out and mark them once delivered).
Read the bookseller's terms of sale. They should tell you what forms of payment are accepted, what the return policy is, and what forms of shipping are available. Look for a generous return policy. Return within 7 days if book is not as described should be the minimum you will accept. Some dealers will offer up to 30 days (or more) for any reason. As a general rule of thumb, most dealers will accept returns for any reason, but will not pay return postage if you have just changed your mind for some reason. They will pay return postage if there is an undescribed flaw in the book (such as damage, or incorrect edition statement).
Look out for sellers who have an unnecessarily aggressive attitude in their terms. We are not responsible for items lost in the mail. If you don't buy insurance that's your problem is not the voice of a friendly, service-oriented bookseller.
Some sites allow buyers (and sellers) to leave feedback about each transaction. Usually these are auctions sites such as eBay, Yahoo! Auctions, or Amazon Auctions. But Half.com and Amazon zShops also allow buyer feedback. You should read through it to see if there are any patterns of poor service. However, keep in mind that these types of feedback are rather unreliable. Some people will leave much more positive feedback than is really deserved, as they are afraid of retaliatory feedback. And sometimes negative feedback is left for problems that are not the seller's fault. Recently when Amazon zShops had a series of technical problems, a number of dealers were given bad feedback over the performance of the Amazon site.
Trade association members are normally required to follow a code of ethics. This is, for the most part, a pretty general code. Basically, it requires that sellers follow the law, and agree to describe books correctly. It doesn't guarantee that the bookseller will do everything right. But it does tell you that they probably have behaved well in the past. It also tells you that they are serious about the business (they pay substantial yearly membership fees), and likely know what they are doing. Another advantage to buying from a member of a trade association is that you then have someone to complain to if things go wrong. There are many booksellers trade associations around the world. Most fall under the umbrella of the ILAB (International League of Antiquarian Booksellers), except IOBA, which is strictly for internet booksellers.
As mentioned above, make sure you save all email regarding the purchase until you know you're satisfied. Create a special folder in your email program to store all your book purchase messages. That way you can go back through them if you need to remember a date or a name.
Pay by credit card. Many people are afraid to use their credit cards for internet transactions. However, if you do have a problem, you can dispute the charge through your credit card company. And to be quite frank, you'll usually win. Consumers have a lot more rights in a mail-order or internet transaction (where there is no signature) than merchants do. So you have an advantage going in. Try disputing a cashed cheque and see where it gets you... secondly you can keep your credit limit low on your card so you are unable to exceed it. This can in come handy... buying Tolkien books is highly addictive, and very expensive!
If things do go wrong, go back and read the original description of the book and/or the dealer's terms to make sure you didn't misunderstand. Then email the seller with your complaint. Keep in mind that you are not dealing with a faceless corporation. Your email will probably be read by the person who is responsible for the error (it's wonderful to have your own business...). So try the friendly approach first. Give them an out... I expect it would be easy to miss, but I discovered that page 93 has been scribbled with crayon. Would it be possible to return the book? will probably do more good than You lousy crook! You tried to cheat me by selling this book as fine when it has crayon scribbles all over it!.
If that doesn't work, try calling them. Call or email the database or auction which carried the listing. Most of them will try to help. There are instructions on most of the sites that explain how to contact them. Contact any trade associations that the seller belongs to. If the actions of the seller appear to be criminal (they took your money and sent nothing for example), then you can contact the police in the seller's town. Just call information to get the number. In the US, you can report mail fraud to the Postmaster General. Check with your local post office for details.
And please... do report problems. Do make a fuss. It's important to the majority of honest, responsible booksellers out there whose reputations all suffer from these isolated incidents.
Most booksellers really do want you to be happy with your purchase, and most problems are misunderstandings. If you ask questions, and make sure that what you are ordering is really what you want, you'll rarely have a problem at all.