The book retail industry has always been a cut-throat market, yet the explosive growth of online book retailers has lifted competition to another level. The experience of local iconic book retailers Borders or Angus & Robertson, now surviving online after losing their bricks and mortar presence, reflects the enormous success of international online companies such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

To see what the average Australian consumer can expect from the brave new world of the online bookstore, CHOICE put a selection of book retailers to the test.

Which is the best online book seller?

We purchased three titles from the following bookstores:

Three online retailers: The Book Depository, Amazon and Booktopia

One local chain: Dymocks

One independent: Gleebooks

We bought the same three books from each:

  • The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest by Stieg Larsson, an international bestseller.
  • The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court by Jeffrey Toobin, an older and more obscure title.
  • The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas, an Australian hit.

We compared the stores for price (including shipping, and in Australian dollars), speed of delivery and product range. We also assessed service by attempting to cancel one item eight hours after placing an online order.

Company: Amazon

Base: US

Price: $51.97

Delivery: All books arrived 14 days after the order was placed.

Cancelled book: No. Items were packed and dispatched eight hours after the order was placed.

Returns policy: Within 30 days, in new condition, at buyer's expense unless due to fault or incorrect delivery.

Verdict: A long-time favourite of CHOICE members, but beware the hidden costs in shipping charges – $4.99 per shipment and $4.99 per book. Still, their range is huge, books are mostly in stock, and turnaround time is quick – when we asked to cancel The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest, the books were already on their way.

There's a live help option, where all your questions are answered by a live chat operator. The Amazon Marketplace also facilitates the buying and selling of used books.

Company: The Book Depository

Base: UK

Price: $35.68

Delivery: The Slap arrived 15 days after purchase, and The Nine arrived six days later.

Cancelled book: Yes

Returns policy: Within 30 days, in perfect condition, at the buyer's expense unless due to a fault or incorrect delivery.

Verdict: With free shipping to almost anywhere, and bargain prices on a huge variety of books, it's no wonder The Book Depository made the top 10 favourite online retailers at our last CHOICE Awards. It was the cheapest retailer by far – more than $16 less than nearest rival Amazon, and more than 50% less than the Australian bricks-and-mortar equivalents. It was also the slowest, taking three weeks to deliver the entire order. But customer service was exemplary, with an email request to cancel a part of the order promptly dealt with.

Company: Booktopia

Base: Australia

Price: $61.20

Delivery: The Slap arrived 14 days after purchase, and The Nine arrived three days later.

Cancelled book: Yes

Returns policy: Within 90 days in new condition, to be exchanged for store credit and at buyer's expense.

Verdict: Booktopia is a good option for those who want to take advantage of online savings but prefer to shop locally. Prices for our books were slightly higher than at Amazon and almost double those at The Book Depository, but product range is comparable with Booktopia claiming to have more than two million titles available to buy. And those who prefer Australian literary gems are more likely to be catered for. Shipping charges are low – a flat $6.50 per order – and customers are given the option of free pick-up at the company's Sydney premises. Booktopia's delivery policy is to bundle-ship items unless stragglers take more than a week to arrive, though you can pay a premium for immediate delivery book by book. Because of this policy, we had to wait 14 days for The Slap. Service is good, with email addresses and a phone number prominently displayed on the website for customer care purposes, and with prompt cancellation and refund of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest.

Company: Dymocks

Base: Australia

Price: $73.95

Delivery: Instant for available books. Six days for The Nine.

Returns policy: With receipt within 60 days for refund, but limited to certain books.

Verdict: There are more than 96 Dymocks retailers nationwide. However, while it is large, it does not have the range of books available at the online retailers, nor did it deliver on price. Dymocks did not stock The Nine, and we got mixed messages from Sydney and Melbourne stores about whether a copy could be ordered in. But their Booklover loyalty program rewards frequent shoppers, they send out newsletters with book news and reviews, and their stores display staff-recommended reads. They also hold special events and readings.

Company: Gleebooks

Base: Australia

Price: $73.95

Delivery time: Instant for available books. 10 days for The Nine.

Returns policy: Within 14 days with receipt for refund, otherwise exchange or gift voucher.

Verdict: This independent Sydney icon has expanded over time to six stores. With a dedicated children's shop, an antiques and second-hand store, as well as four other branches, there's a good range of products. Staff are also happy to order in books that aren't in stock – they managed to have The Nine in-store 10 days after the order was placed, beating out all their online competitors on speed. Price-wise, the independent is on par with Dymocks for these books, despite the larger chain's bulk-buying power. Gleebooks is always a hub of activity, with a number of events on every week including author talks and workshops.

The growth in ebooks

Readers are increasingly interested in ebooks (see our ebook reader buying guide). Electronic versions often cost less than their paper equivalents, but the range isn't great for Australian consumers. Of the books on our list, CHOICE was able to pay less for The Slap and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest in electronic form, but we couldn't find The Nine in our region.

Online vs bricks and mortar

Bricks-and-mortar stores, while often more expensive, hold some distinct advantages over the online shopping experience. These include:

  • immediate satisfaction of getting a book as soon as you want it
  • tactile sensation of browsing the shelves
  • help of knowledgeable staff
  • ethical advantages of shopping locally and encouraging employment at home.

Online stores are equally attractive in terms of benefits: many analyse browsing or purchasing history to make personalised recommendations, circulate e-newsletters with views and reviews, encourage loyalty through online book clubs, and offer pre-orders of upcoming releases – which can be delivered to your door the day they go on sale.

Shopping with a conscience

Those who want to take advantage of bargain-basement prices but also do their bit for the planet are catered to by Better World Books, a US-based online store that's giving The Book Depository and Amazon a run for their money. Aside from selling new titles, Better World Books also sells second-hand books collected from schools, colleges, libraries and charity shops around the US, saving tonnes of tomes from death by landfill. A share of the profits (so far more than $16.3 million) is distributed to literacy programs around the world. Like Amazon, Better World also provides a marketplace in which books can be bought and sold. Worldwide shipping directly from Better World is free, while marketplace books attract a $7.97 per-book flat fee. All in all, the prices are some of the cheapest around, and then there's the warm, fuzzy feeling of placating your social conscience – priceless.

Compare and save

If you want to find the cheapest online books without visiting each site individually, try Booko. Consumers need only search once – Booko does all the hard work for you. It trawls most local and international retailers and reports on their prices in Australian dollars, which also includes shipping.