Is Importing Books Always The Cheapest Option?

Is Importing Books Always The Cheapest Option?

Buying books online offers a much wider range of choices, and it frequently seems that buying from overseas sites gets you a better price than from local stores. But is that really always the case?

My own practice in recent years has generally been to order books from overseas sites — partly because there are titles I want that I know will never get published locally, and partly because the price difference often seems to be much greater, even after paying for extra costs to ship the books in from overseas. That experience seems to get confirmed by previously-mentioned comparison site Booko, which provides prices for popular titles from a range of local and overseas suppliers. On a sample of recent global titles, I couldn’t find many that weren’t cheaper to order from overseas.

There is, of course, one notable exception: books which originate in Australia, which almost invariably end up cheaper from local suppliers than from Amazon and their ilk. Industry figures suggest than 60% of books sold in Australia are local titles, so this potentially represents a large possible pool of savings.

Publishers, of course, would argue that they need the funding from selling global titles in order to ensure that there is funding to commission new local titles. While that might sound worthy, I suspect that in a market where people are happy to download copyrighted material for free by the gigabyte that most consumers are not going to feel very compelled to do something for ethical rather than financial reasons.

If you’re serious about saving money (and reducing clutter), then cutting down on the number of books you buy is a sensible strategy. We’ve discussed tactics to cut down on book hoarding before, and there are useful online applications like BookCrossing to share your books around.

If you do plan to continue buying books online, the verdict seems mixed on which approach will save the most money — and you’ll probably still need to research on a title-by-title basis. With that said, going for second-hand titles will always be cheaper than new purchases — assuming you have the patience to wait.

Lifehacker’s weekly Loaded column looks at better ways to manage (and stop worrying about) your money.


  • At present I buy a lot of books from because the US dollar is currently expensive (making Amazon US etc expensive), while the UK pound is currently cheap.

    One important thing to watch is that the first edition of US books is almost always a hardback edition, and it takes a long time (if at all) before they release a US paperback edition. Often they release an international paperback edition much earlier, so you can often buy the paperback cheaper in Australia than buying the hardback from the US.

    I usually wait until I get a 30% off voucher from Borders (several times a year if you’re only their weekly email list) or a 40% off voucher (around once a year) before actually buying in Australia.

  • It’s not a lot cheaper at the moment with the $AUD the way it is and as JohnG said, when Borders has a 30% or 40% voucher it can be worth buying in Australia.

    However, when the $AUD was near parity with $US it was significantly cheaper to buy from Amazon (I’ll use them as an obvious example) than in Australia. Australian booksellers should hang their heads in shame. Even when you add packaging and shipping (which can be relatively expensive) and convert the currency (even when it’s not so great) it is a better deal to buy OS.

    About once a year, the owner of Reading’s bookstores in Melbourne writes a letter to the paper having a whinge about GST not being imposed on OS book purchases and that this disadvantages his industry. I always chuckle at this. Even if you added 10% to the Amazon prices it is usually still significantly cheaper. He likes to make it sound as if Australian buyers might only be buying from Amazon to save the 10% GST. No mate, they’re saving about 30-50% which you are trying to rip them off.

    I’d like an honest response from Australian booksellers, how is it that I can usually import a SINGLE book from a US retailer at a much cheaper price than they can supply it to me?

  • “If you’re serious about saving money (and reducing clutter), then cutting down on the number of books you buy is a sensible strategy.”

    Couldn’t agree more. Ever think of visiting your local library? I know I still buy a lot of non-fiction / reference books (software, manuals, etc) but for fiction that I only usually read once anyway, the library is ideal and FREE!

    In my area (Logan,Qld), you can even search for and reserve a book on line. They’ll ring or e-mail you when it’s ready to collect.

  • I’ve seen three sides of the book-cost issue (having worked in book retail and as editor and consumer). It’s important to note (@Dan) that Australian booksellers aren’t responsible for the retail prices. Most sellers in Australia follow the RRP of the publisher for locally distributed titles. The same applies in the USA — normal US booksellers charge RRP, but the consumers’ perspective on “fair” prices is distorted by large online stores like Amazon which squeeze discounts from publishers or run on very small profit margings. This helps the consumer but just makes it harder for the real bookshops to survive.

    I agree entirely that the wingeing about GST is tiresome. Booksellers know they’re under threat and they can’t do much about it, so GST is an easy point of complaint. Australia is a small market, so publishers build in some of the costs of distributing books here, meaning the RRP is sometimes (not always) higher than elsewhere. That RRP doesn’t benefit the bookseller much.

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