01 September, 2010

How to Buy a Book

It's that time again. School is starting, and everyone's trooping to the bookstore for required reading titles, textbooks, and, oh, what was it called again? I can't remember. It's like, pre-algebra something and it's blue. I needed it yesterday.

Look, there's an easier way. I swear. Just follow my guide on How to Buy a Book and you'll be ok.  

1) Know what you need.

Do you at least have the title and author? Good. But there are a lot of other things that can trip you up when you get to the store.

Editions & Translations. Do you need William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet in the Folger's, Signet, or No Fear Shakespeare edition? Do you need the Fagles or the Fitzgerald translation of The Odyssey? Do you need Introduction to Language by Victoria Fromkin in the 9th or the 10th edition? Find out before you go looking for the book. Most teachers won't mind if you ask (unless they already wrote it in the syllabus, which you were supposed to read, and didn't); some will tell you it's okay to have an older or different version of the book. Others will tell you that due to page-number differences or significant changes to the text, you'll have a harder time following along in class if you don't have the same book as everyone else.

Availability. So, there's 40 kids in your class, and your teacher teaches 2 sections of Sophomore English, as do another 2 teachers at your school, who have all decided to teach Romeo & Juliet for their Shakespearean unit. Can you do the math? (40 x 2) (1 + 2) = 240 students. How many copies are available within a 30-minute drive of your school? (Answer: not enough.) It takes about a week to order any book, unless you've shelled out $79 a year for Amazon Prime, which still takes about two days, longer if it's over the weekend. And mom or dad gets cranky by about the 2nd bookstore you hit that has run out of the book. We've all had to live through this. My point is, why must we?

  • Ask your teacher to tell your class at least one week in advance if you will be needing a personal reading copy of any assigned book. If they don't respond to you personally, have your mom or dad write them a note. If they don't respond to that, have your parent(s) write to the principal. (On a side note, I don't know why US schools have such a problem with this. When I went to elementary school in the Philippines, we got our next year's book list almost as soon as your previous grade ended, so if you had three months to get all your books together, there's no excuse for not being ready at the start of the school year.)
  • Ask if the teacher (or someone, it could be you) can call up a few of the local bookstores and just give them a heads-up that a lot of kids will be coming to get a particular book. Again, they need about 1 week's notice to place an order. You can skip stores that only carry used books. Most stores will agree to order them in if you give them a ballpark number of students who will be shopping for a title, the name of your school, and the teacher's name. Even if it's not a guaranteed sale for the store, it decreases the number of angry, frustrated parents road-raging around town.

2) Get an ISBN.

ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number. Every book has one. If your teacher requires you to have a specific book, this, plus the author's name (spelled correctly!) and the title, will help you find the right book. You don't need the dashes, just the numbers, and any X's. The dashes just make it easier to read.

There is now an ISBN-13 in addition to the old ISBN-10. Get both if you can. They're usually right on top of each other, on the back of any book.

Some books have the ISBN printed in the front cover. That's mostly small paperbacks.

And if it's in neither of those places, it should be on the back of the title page.

If you can't find it in any of those places, guess what--that's not a book.

3) Bring a note with you to the store. 

Seriously, unless you're a book-buying pro like me, you're going to forget. As a bookseller, I'm trained to not roll my eyes every time someone wanders in and goes, "I need this book! I don't know the title or the author. I think it's fiction." Well, I try not to roll my eyes.

Bring a note, or you'll forget.

If you have just one book you need, it's good to call the bookstore first. If it's a good bookstore, someone will look for it on the shelf and put it on hold for you.

If you have three or more books you need, put down the phone! Bookstore people have to deal with the people in the store first, then people on the phone. You'll end up holding for a long, long time. You can very easily get information on a lot of books by going to a physical store's website. Most of them have a place where you can type in your zip code to see if the item is available for in-store pickup. You'll either find out that the book is not in stock (instant info) or have to send an email to see if you can reserve the book (a bit of a wait usually) but at least you won't waste your whole day driving or walking from store to store.

4) $$$

Most bookstores have a free coupon program you can use to get discounts or rebates on books. So sign up, and bring your coupons! If you're shopping at an indie, find out if they accept store coupons. Some do.

If you're spending at least $25 and there are no physical (or brick-and-mortar, as they are called) stores nearby, then online ordering might be better for you.

Just keep in mind that if you only need a $5 copy of A Tale of Two Cities, it's probably not cheaper to get it online--you'll end up paying between $4-6 for shipping, and even more if you're in a hurry.

Used book websites are usually the best way to buy a textbook. Most brick-and-mortars don't carry these, as they are expensive, low-profit, bulky books; and the editions change so often. Check your school bookstore first, then a used book website. I like to Google the prices--that way I can see the prices on many websites at once.

Random tips for Better Book Buying:
  • Chain bookstores don't keep used books in the store. OK, some of the books look like they've been used, but that's just someone being slobby with the store's property.
  • SparkNotes is a Barnes & Noble brand. You won't find it at another kind of store, unless it's used.  Competitors will typically carry it in their online stores, but not in their brick-and-mortar stores.
  • When buying a used book, pay attention to the Condition of the book and the Reliability of the seller. A high Reliability rating means that seller has been pretty truthful in describing the condition of their products, and that many or all of their customers have received their items in a timely manner.
Well, I hope that this guide to book buying saves you a little bit of headache this school year. If you have further questions, leave a comment or email me at frootjoos at gmail dot com.

Happy book-buying!


  1. Oh this was great...and funny too. As for public schools, we can't ask the students to buy books...we must provide them. Hence we tend not to read anything too new or popular.

  2. What? I always bought my books in high school. Is this new? I went to Hoover. We didn't have to buy textbooks, but Julius Caesar, The Awakening, etc... There would be a limited number available for the class to borrow, but unless it was a play I bought all my books.

  3. Well I know we can't...so maybe it depends on the school district? But really....how can we expect students to buy the books when we have 70 or 80% free and reduced lunch?

  4. I don't know. We (my cousins and I) had reduced lunch passes the first two years I was in HS, then after that we didn't qualify. I'm pretty sure I was not *forced* to buy a copy, but buying your own was encouraged. Also then you didn't have to be SO careful with your book, though the ones you could borrow were always the library-covered ones (turtleback or whatever they're called) so they were pretty sturdy.

  5. very nice work alethea, per usual.