Is online shopping the best way to get your certification books?

One for the Books

Is online shopping the best way to get your certification books?

Building your personal library of certification books can be a test of endurance and skill—but with the added edge of some online tools and a few hints for savvy buyers, you can come out at the head of the class.

For this article, I visited six well-known online booksellers to find a set of five books for SQL Server 7 certification. The phrase, "Your mileage may vary," came to mind a lot during this shopping session since not only the prices, but also the books varied from site to site!

Comparison Shopping
Books Used for Price Quotes: 
  • Microsoft SQL Server 7.0 System Administration Training Kit
    Microsoft Press, ISBN 1-57231-827-9
  • MCSE Administering SQL Server 7 Exam Cram 
    Coriolis Certification Insider Press, ISBN 1-57610-227-0
  • MSCE SQL Server 7 Administration Study Guide, Exam 70/028
    Sybex Network Press, ISBN 0-78212-382-1
  • MCSE Readiness Review Exam 70-028: Administering Microsoft SQL Server 7.0
    Microsoft Press, ISBN 0-73560-672-2
  • Inside Microsoft SQL Server 7.0
    Microsoft Press, ISBN 0-73560-517-3

Sites Used for Price Quotes:

Why would you want to buy online rather than in the convenience of your local bookshop? One of the most compelling reasons is simply the price difference. On average, our sample books came out 20 to 30 percent cheaper than list price. This kind of savings is especially important when it comes to certification books, since they tend to be much more expensive than your typical paperback novel. In most cases, even after shipping and handling charges, you'll still see noticeable savings.

To put that in perspective: If you bought our five-book selection at list price minus a typical 10 percent frequent buyer discount, dig deep into your pockets because that would set you back $260.96! If you bought at the highest online price in every case, your bill (minus shipping) would be $234.95. If you bought at the lowest online prices, you would only pay $160.39—nearly $100 in savings for a little bit of comparison-shopping!

The Books!

Prices as of 9/6/99 as posted on Web sites. Green = lowest price; Red = highest price.

Training Kit Exam Cram  Study Guide Readiness Review Inside  Total 
amazon  $50  $29.99 $34.99 $34.99 $41.99 $191.96
bn  $79.99 $17.99 $39.99 $34.99 $41.99 $214.95
bookpool  $58.95 $18.95 $29.50 $32.95 $29.95 $170.30
borders  $69.95 $23.99 $34.99 $39.99 $41.99 $210.91
fatbrain  $69.95 $23.95 $34.95 $34.95 $41.95 $205.75
readmedoc  $69.99 $22.49 $34.99 $37.49 $44.99 $209.95
lowest  $50 $17.99 $29.50 $32.95 $29.95 $160.39
highest  $79.99 $29.99 $39.99 $39.99 $44.99 $234.95
list-10% $89.99 $26.99 $44.99 $44.99 $53.99 $260.96

Shipping Details

Here are standard shipping costs for a book shipped to a U.S. address: 

Site For 1 book  For all 5 books $3.95  $7.75
Barnes & Noble at $3.95  $7.75 Depends on actual shipping costs charged by UPS Depends on actual shipping costs charged by UPS $3.95 $7.75 $3.95 $7.75
readme.doc at $4 $9

Unfortunately, it turns out that it isn't always as easy as going to a single Web site and consistently getting the best buy. had one book at a 50 percent discount, and another one at full list price. It pays to shop around—not only for the best price, but also for the little details in the product. 

Can I get it in Red?

Same book title and ISBN, different editions. The one on the left is the book advertised at The one on the right is the book you're buying from Barnes & Noble at

Would you buy a textbook with 41 pages missing? What about the almost-latest version? Lots of things change from edition to edition—updates, corrections, additions, and deletions. If you're doing serious exam studying, you want the latest and greatest version to make sure you have, presumably, the best information. 

This is where bookshops have the advantage. You always know exactly what you're getting, because you have it in your hands. Online vendors, on the other hand, give you a somewhat restricted view of the item. Looking at one of the books from our sample group, the six vendors came up with three different page counts and four varying publication dates!

MCSE SQL Server 7 Administration Training Guide
Site Page Count Publication Date 695  5/99
Barnes & Noble at 695  1/99 695  5/99 725 2/99 725 5/99
readme.doc at 736 1999

It gets even worse when the picture and text don't agree (see "Version Mismatch"). How do you know whether to believe the cover shot or the description?

Version Mismatch

You mean version number is important? Barnes & Noble gets the dreaded "version mismatch" error. Will you receive the book shown or the book described?

In some cases, it may be less of an issue than it first appears. You can often find errata and update lists at the publisher's Web site. You may also find that the changes are primarily cosmetic, and the contents are similar enough between versions to be acceptable. In the end, you'll have to decide whether the version impact is offset by the price difference.

Even Cheaper!
If the bargain book adventure whet your appetite for even cheaper fare, you might want to check out these places:
  • The public library. Hey, you can't get much cheaper than free! You might be pleasantly surprised at the selection at your local branch. The downside: Study fast-you'll have to return it in two weeks!
  • Used bookstores. Many of these shops are starting to pop up with MCSE titles in their bins, usually at 50 percent or more off list, making them a great source for bargains. The downside: Erratic availability of books and the occasional pizza stain on an important page.
  • Online Auction Sites. Here, it's possible to get rock bottom prices on nearly anything. The downside: Serious caveat emptor involved.

Brutally Honest

"Don't waste your money."
"Fails and Fails Greatly."
"Many Errors."
"Misses the Mark."

—Reviews of MSCE SQL Server 7 Administration Study Guide, Exam 70/028

Ouch! With reviews like that, who needs enemies? This is one place where online buying has a huge advantage. Nearly all of the major vendors have a "Customer reviews" area where you can see what your peers thought of the book in question. Although you have to take some reviews with a grain of salt, if the overwhelming majority read like the ones above, you may be better off saving your money! All of the sites in this issue have both positive and negative reviews for the titles shown, so it's at least one barometer of the general community opinion.

Remember again that it pays to check multiple sites-not only for the prices but to compare reviews. There's always the chance that you happened upon an isolated group of unhappy readers. Plus, several sites like allow you to look at chapter excerpts online, to get a flavor for the actual contents.

How many Web sites does it take to make a worthwhile search? You'll have to experiment to find the right mixture between being thorough and being obsessive. After all, your time and effort is worth something. Even though you might shave another two bucks off the price by searching 20 more sites, is that worth the effort?

Finally, you may just be more comfortable in a "standard" retail setting-where you can browse a selection in "real-time" and walk out of the store with your purchase in hand. Talk about express delivery!

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