Book Sellers, Do You Trade Fairly?

Buyers and sellers have a complicated relationship, we sell and they buy which sounds simple but in Australia the buyer is protected by the Trade Practices Act 1974, yes it’s old but it still applies. There’s also the Sale of Goods Act and the Fair Trading Act and if there are problems and the buyer is not getting satisfaction from the seller there’s always an Ombudsman to complain to. The Trade Practices Act regulates areas such as:

* a system of fair trading, as opposed to misleading or deceptive conduct in the marketplace
* accurate and reliable information, as opposed to false and misleading information
* sales techniques – to ensure they are fair and not misleading or one-sided
* product standards for a wide variety of goods, together with information on those goods and their safety standards
* remedies for both retailers and consumers for breaches of the Fair Trading Act
* implied conditions and warranties that are available to the consumer
* the enforcement of a fair and equitable system in areas such as credit, lay-by sales, and so on.

With thanks to the New Enterprise Incentive Scheme for this information.

Basically, what this says is that the seller must give the buyer full disclosure of information and be totally fair and above board and ensure they honour any implied conditions and warranties associated with the product they’ve bought. Fabulous, now let’s apply that to online selling of pre-loved books.

A system of fair trading
This is a hard one but you have to give the appearance of having fair trading. Everything is in the seller’s court here as we have the ability to take the customer’s money and just run. In order to look fair we have to be open about everything. Have a guarantee that looks totally fair and above board. Have all of your policies documented on your website and make sure they are fair, both to you and to the customer.
Accurate and reliable information
This one is easy. Pre-loved books are often in less than perfect condition and it is incumbent upon the seller to describe the book ‘s faults accurately, if you don’t then the buyer has every right to return the book and expect a refund. When I’m buying pre-loved books through an online auction site or from a website I expect the book to look the same as the description. If the description says brand new or almost new then I’d expect to receive it with very little wear. Make sure the picture matches the description. I’ve seen some pictures showing a book with quite a lot of obvious damage and the description stating it is almost new and sometimes unopened despite being so old. The customer would have every right to return the book as there is a great deal of misinformation there, that description is quite misleading.

Sales techniques
This means using words that don’t have double meanings, being online we are reliant on the photos we provide and the words we use. I’ve found that the pages that don’t do well are those that have very heavy handed sales techniques while the ones that do better are those that are very straightforward and just state the facts in very calm and straightforward language. I also feel that it means we should describe our books using everyday language. I’ve been considering applying to join the Independent Online Booksellers Association and totally disagree with their Code of Ethics. Point 3 states “Members will be familiar with the correct usage of the generally accepted terms of the book trade and will apply them accurately in the conduct of their business” which is fine if you’re selling to people who know those terms but most of my buyers wouldn’t know their foxing from their buckram so I don’t see the point of putting those terms in my descriptions. I like to put in everyday words to ensure my buyers know what it is they’re buying. Somehow I don’t think I’m going to be able to join the IOBA.

Product standards
If we were talking about new products then I’d be able to rabbit on about how the product should be fit for the intended use with no flaws, dangerous or otherwise, but because we’re talking about pre-loved books I can only talk about how it is fit for the intended use i.e. reading or collecting. I’d suggest this means all the pages must be there and in fit condition for reading, if it has some reading creases or other marks these should be mentioned (see Accurate and reliable information, above). If it’s a collectable then the rules change a little. Some books are collectable despite falling apart, I once sold a book on eBay where the cover actually fell off as I was typing up the description so I put that information in the listing and the book reached almost $50, not bad for a book I was going to throw out and only started at 99c as I felt 30c was a small amount to throw away if it got no bids. The point I’m making here is that you need to make sure you put any problems in the description, if I hadn’t put that in the description the auction would have gone much higher and the buyer would have had a case against me if he/she had been upset. You all know that collectable books reach a higher price when they’re in good condition than they do in bad condition.

Remedies for breaches of the Fair Trading Act
If you’ve breached the Fair Trading Act then the buyer has the right to do something about that. The first thing they can do is to complain to you, if they feel they’ve not been listened to and have not had their complaint addressed then they have other options. There are various legal remedies but if the buyer has any online nouse then they will complain directly to Paypal or to their credit card provider who will follow their procedures. The legal remedies will change depending on which state both the buyer and seller are in and I think that’s probably a whole other article by someone who has the training.

Implied Conditions and Warranties
There are certain implied conditions and warranties that are standard across the board in Australia. I did a bit of googling about Implied Conditions and Warranties and came across the Fitzroy Legal Service Inc, they’re a fabulous place who help people with a legal problem, this is the specific page I recommend people look at, it’s about E-Commerce: Online Shopping and contains a lot of information as well as having links to other parts of the Law Handbook. It’s a useful and fascinating read.

Enforcement of a fair and equitable system in areas such as credit etc
Having a returns policy and honouring that policy. Ensure you give the buyers several secure methods of paying you. Not everyone has a credit card and therefore not everyone is able to open a Paypal account. Some people don’t trust internet banking. If you’re accepting payment by bank deposit or money order then you need to have good clear policies dealing with these and follow them to the letter. Should you accept credit then you need to be very careful to create a contract for this, including when you will expect payments and what you will do it you don’t receive payments in time then follow it to the letter. I rarely extend terms of credit and when I do it is only to very select people who I know won’t abuse it (or if they do it’s because they’re friends and I know where they live!). I have on even rarer occasions extended the option of layby but only under very strict conditions and on one occasion I regretted it as the person was not a good payer, I did get my money in the end.

Suzie Eisfelder
Suz’s Space
Your online home for pre-loved books and part-work magazines
Twitter: @SuzsSpace
0407 829 777

1 thought on “Book Sellers, Do You Trade Fairly?”

  1. Hi, Suzie – I applaud your encouragement of fair trading in used books.

    As the President of IOBA, I wanted to post a comment to correct a misunderstanding about what sort of descriptive language we expect from booksellers. We certainly do not encourage the use of ‘bookseller jargon’ to obfuscate meaning, but we do believe that the professional bookseller should be conversant with the traditional terms of the trade and apply them appropriately. And of course, different sorts of books require the use of different terminology – An 18th Century book is not the same as a twentieth century one. An excellent resource is John Carter’s ABC for Booksellers, available as a free PDF download from the ILAB website: 

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    Why not take a look at our Mission Statement and see if your online bookselling business is compatible? 

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    If it is, then please consider filling out a membership application:

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    (This is an open invitation to any online booksellers reading this blog.)

    Karin Isgur Bergsagel
    President, IOBA
    Independent Online Booksellers Association

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