I haven’t really finished all the other planned posts in my series on Building a Chinese Library for the Kids. But I’ve been coordinating so many group book buys and people are going back to Taiwan for the summer and buying books, I really want to document all the things I’ve learned about the book market in Taiwan.
How I Buy Books from Taiwan
I typically buy from online bookstores. I’ve done this for myself and also for various friends who go back to Taiwan to visit for short periods. Typically, I come up with a book list for them, purchase them through srbook.com.tw, and ask for it to be shipped to the Taiwanese address of where I (or my friend) are staying.
Why this bookstore? Because there are only so many low price bookstores online that will actually accept a US credit card. Many bookstores accept credit cards, but only Taiwan issue ones. Even fewer will work with me on strange demands (read on). This bookstore has been the only one for me that fulfilled both criteria.
For all the books I buy, I contact the bookseller directly and ask if they’re willing to put the books in boxes, maximum 20kg each. Sometimes I give the book list to the vendor by a list of priority; as in, stuff as many books as you can in there in this order till you make 20kg.
For example, sometimes my mom is back in Taiwan and I ask her just how much suitcase space she has. I beg for about a 20kg box worth of space. Other times my friends go back and I ask them how many boxes of books they want me to buy for them.
Why 20kg? Because the suitcase limit is 23kg. So I stick with 20kg just in case. Also, when you ship to the US, postal service do not like very heavy boxes. They may refuse to deliver it and only ask you to pick up. Your boxes are more prone to getting damaged the heavier it is.
The boxes are packed and shipped to a Taiwanese address. If I’m lazy, I don’t even bother opening the box. It gets tied up with a red packaging string or twine so you can pick it up. You can get the string from a 7/11, stationary store, or 日常用品店 (I don’t even know what that’s called in English.)
My mom tends to open them so she can take out all the extraneous packaging. For example, sometimes set books come in its own sturdy little box, and mix the books up with lighter stuff like clothing into multiple boxes. If you’re going to repack them, then the other thing you’d need in Taiwan is a scale. Not sure where you get that. My mom’s always managed to find one for me.
The best thing about buying books online is that I have the time to build up a booklist over a year. Plus, during my last 3 trips back, I’ve never managed to go to a bookstore by myself to leisurely browse for the books I want. I also hate making up my mind on the spot on whether or not a book is worth buying. I tend to research the heck out of my books. In addition, physical bookstores tend not to have as many of the books I’ve heard about from blogs in stock.
If you use other little Mom and Pop bookstores, you can always call them and ask them if they will do this for you, ordering over email, packing your books up, and shipping them for you. Like I said, I found one early on that would work with me and takes U.S. credit cards and I stopped looking after that.
Other Ways to Buy Books
Unfortunately, buying online means you have to be able to read Chinese. So if the only option is to go into a physical bookstore, you can go to Eslite, or any number of bookstores in Taipei. I’ve been to the bookstores on the famous Book Street in the back of Taipei Main Train Station years ago. But those seem to have a lot of textbooks.
But my newest love is going to used bookstores like Mollie. Often they have books that cheap and still in good condition. After I discovered them during my last trip back to Taiwan, I’ve been recommending them to all my friends. You can find gems at Mollie, like old quality out of print books that have zhuyin. (So many non-fiction books now adays don’t but the old ones tend to.)
There are quite a few online Chinese bookstores that cater to people in the US, sometimes the sites are in English too. But I tend to steer away from those because prices are double what they are in Taiwan.
There are also some Chinese Facebook groups like 西風東谷童書城堡. The costs are not as high because you pre-order and pick up from the person directly. Sometimes they ship to you. Unfortunately they tend to focus on picture books. The good thing is that the admin also will recommend books to buy. Most of these have very low traffic.
Lastly, I’ve heard of a mom in Chicago who group ordered with a bunch of people, over 3 months, books from a Taiwanese group that sells books at a steep discount, 丹爸教材教具團購網. This is a group that is only for people in Taiwan (due to the way you pay) and requires a low(?) membership fee. They then container shipped it to the U.S. With one of the shipments shipping ended up costing about $20 USD per box of books, which is super cheap. It’s something I always wished I could do but can not because I don’t know people in Taiwan to buy the books and hold them over 3 months before getting enough to ship.
A Note About Book Costs
I’ve learned a lot from my US book vendor in the last few months about how the publishing world works in Taiwan, as he used to work for one. Basically, never buy books at list price. Book costs are listed at percentage of list price, so 80% of list price, 75% of list price. Note it’s not OFF, but OF. The big box book stores will sell them at 90%, 85%, with sales down to 70%.
Publishers distribute to distributers in Taiwan probably at 60%. They mark it up to 65%. That’s about the most you can get from one of the many discount stores you see online, like 大衛 ubooks, Yahoo stores, bookstar.com.tw. More typically you see books discounted at 70% when they’re on sale or as the base price from ubooks. But I don’t buy from any of these because they only take Taiwanese credit cards or require transfer of funds from banks or Taiwan Post Office.
Now that I know that 70% is a really good deal, I’m less swayed by online sales. For example, those recent virtual book expos to match the actual Taipei Book Expo were actually not too discounted at 85% or 80%.
A Note about Shipping
As I mentioned, last year I coordinated quite a few group book orders. After awhile I started getting the hang and logistics of them. Here are a few things I learned:
- Each box of 20kg book will probably cost you around $200-$250. So ideally this helps with your budgeting. With shipping added it costs around $300-$350. This of course depends on how much your books originally costs. I have seen books like I Love Martine 我愛瑪婷 for $60 USD and that fills up one 20kg box.
- Make sure you add insurance, bubble wrap, and Post Office sea shipping grade thick box. We’ve had quite a few Sagebook boxes delivered damaged. Also, after my book vendor told me of his horror shipping stories I stopped trying to go cheap. Once you start buying a lot of books, it’s much better to just get insurance. Insurance only costs $20NT for first $1000NT and $10 NT per $1000NT thereafter. You’re not going to get all your money back from insurance. But we suspect that it helps in getting the package delivered instead of getting lost or damaged through sea shipping.
- You won’t have as many shipping issues if you do air or surface shipping. That’s how many major Chinese book booksellers do it here in the US and why their books are so expensive.
- Make sure everything is declared. I’ve had bilingual CDs that were included in books confiscated by customs.
- Book sellers dislike shipping overseas due to all the unforeseen issues out of their control and most of the time disavow any responsibility for Customs or USPS delivery issues.
- Keep all books to under 20kg. USPS doesn’t like delivering heavier boxes.
The book market in Taiwan is small apparently because parents stop buying books once their kids are in elementary school, due to kids being focused on studying their textbooks only. While I’m happy I can find a lot of Taiwanese book CDs like Children-Can-Listen-Chinese-History online at ximalaya.com, and I use it; at the same time I feel guilty because these are quality books, with quality recording. Ximalaya has a lot of bootlegged products. But if we don’t support the book market, then eventually these book publishers will go out of business, as many have done. A dilemma……