Monday, March 5, 2012

Don't Buy From Amazon (Before you Browse Around)

Kanda, Tokyo

I've come to realize, recently, that Amazon is not always the best place to buy books. Not because I've had any problem dealing with Amazon and not because I'm concerned about their business practices (though there may be reason to be), but simply because they often don't give you the best deal on the books they sell.

A few months ago I bought "A Practitioner's Guide to GNU Autoconf, Automake, and Libtool", which, by the way, is an excellent primer on the very underrated Autotools — if you know what Autotools is, you need this book. I bought it from Amazon as usual, but discovered later that if I had bought it directly from the publisher, I could have received the ebook along with the physical book for just a little more money than the physical book alone. An searchable ebook version would be very useful for a reference work like this. In fact, No Starch Press (linked above) seems to give you that deal for every book they publish.

And last month I bought "Liars and Outliers" by Bruce Schneier as an Amazon ebook (it's a good read so far). Ebooks from Amazon are locked; you can't copy the book or make backups, and you can only read them using Amazons own Kindle software. Amazon have on occasion removed access to books from people who have paid for them. You don't really own the book when you "buy" from Amazon in other words, and I don't get important books as ebooks from them as a result. This book is the kind you only read once, though, so it didn't really matter to me.
But again, soon after getting the ebook I discover that I should have looked elsewhere first. O'Reilly (see the link above) offers the book for about the same price and completely unlocked. Had I bought it there I would now own it outright, not just rent it from Amazon, and I'd be able to use my favourite ebook reader, not the one Amazon forces me to use. And O'Reilly also gives you a deal like the No Starch Press above for many of their books, with a paper book and ebook combination for much less than buying each separately.

The take-home message? Browse on Amazon by all means — their site is great for finding things and checking reviews — but don't blindly click that "Buy" button until you have looked around a bit:

  • Check the other major online stores, both the big international ones like Barnes and Noble and the local stores in your country. When you add postage, exchange rates and payment fees it may well be cheaper to buy elsewhere.

  • Check the publishers' own websites. The price may not be lower, but the product you get — book and ebook together; unlocked ebook; choice of formats; buy three books and get one free — may be vastly better than what you get from Amazon.

  • For recently published books, take a look at the authors own website (yes, they all have one nowadays). They will have links to all the places you can buy their books. They may also have links to all special deals, and they may offer an extra discount through their site as well.

Amazon may have been the best book deal around when they started. But the publishers and other stores have caught up and sometimes surpass them today. Don't be lazy; it's worth looking around.


  1. I tend to agree. I routinely purchase technical content for my work related studies, and tend to purchase directly from the publishers as it tends to be a much better deal than buying from amazon.

    For anything O'Reilly, Manning or No Starch publish, I definitely buy directly. O'Reilly's 5$ electronic upgrade for print titles is a great deal. They clearly understand that it's desirable to make it easy and cheap for their customers to get access to their ebooks.

    I wish I could say this extends much outside of Comp Sci or IT-related publications.

    I would be curious to hear if you have had much luck buying other types of publications directly (ie. fiction or history)

  2. Most of my shopping is technical and scientific, so that's where I have this experience.

    A quick search on Tor, for instance, shows that they do sell ebooks for about the same price as Amazon but no word on if they're DRMed or not.

    And actually, a lot of my fiction buys are impulse buys while I'm browsing a book store, or I get stuff used at Book-Off. ebooks don't really work for that kind of case.

  3. Ah. I hadn't thought of looking at Tor's site. Thanks, that will help cut down a bit on my SF purchases.


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