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Finding those Out-of-Print Books

Last month's column discussed the use of the term "out of print," and how bookstores sometimes misapply it to books which may be available, but just aren't listed in Bowker's Books in Print. I also talked about the life cycle of a book, and how an out of print book isn't necessarily an old book. The fact is that over 90% of the books ever published in the world are now out of print. So how do you acquire such books? That is the subject of today's column.

Many of the world's out of print books have moldered away to dust, or been destroyed in some other way. The rest are in libraries, private homes, and booksellers' inventories. There's not much you can do about the ones in private homes. Libraries, on the other hand are an underutilized resource, and if you can get by with borrowing the book you might try the library. If you need a copy for your very own, however, you will have to find it for sale.

Recently out of print books are often harder to find in used bookstores and through search services because the original owners haven't gotten rid of them yet. However there may be remaindered copies of these books on the market. You probably have seen stores like "Book Warehouse," "Book Cellar," etc., which are often found in outlet malls. These stores sell remaindered books and publisher overstocks, which are usually liquidated when the publisher declares the book out of print. These stores and the remainder sections in the chain bookstores are good places to look for recently out of print books, though it is a hit and miss operation at best.

Most out of print books for sale are found in used book dealer's inventories. Until recently you had to either visit old bookshops one by one in search of your book, or hire a search service to track it down for you. Search services were the fastest way, and they took a minimum of several weeks. Their process was to publish want lists in trade magazines, where other dealers would review them and reply with quotes for matching books from inventory. This actually worked very well even though it took awhile. The number of dealers actively involved was relatively small, and almost everyone knew everyone else.

The growth of the Internet has turned the world of out of print searching on its ear. Thousands of dealers now have their inventories online in searchable databases. Search services can now perform in seconds what used to take weeks. What is more, the general public can now do their own searches because these databases are accessible to everyone.

Why would anyone need a search service if you can do it yourself? Well, aside from the fact that many people don't have access to the Internet or just don't want to be bothered, buying online carries risks. Cloaked in the anonymity of the Internet, anyone with a shelf of books and a computer can represent themselves as a book dealer, right alongside someone who has had a shop for 30 years. What do you do if the book you ordered from "Al's books and farm implements" arrives in horrible condition, or doesn't arrive at all? You might be stuck. (Maybe you've heard some of the "ebay" stories.) In addition to handling the logistics, a good search service is your protection against mis-described books, lost books, and outright fraud. They can do this because they know how to interpret the book descriptions and they know the reputations of various dealers. Because of the nature of the service they must provide, however, I believe it makes sense to use a search service only if they're local to you.

Of course search services charge a fee. Oh, I know you've seen ads for "free" book searches in the Sunday book sections and even the Yellow Pages. They just take their fee and add it to the book before quoting you the price. You'll pay $20 for a $5 paperback, "but hey, the service is free." There's nothing wrong with this, but it obscures the fact that search services don't sell books-they sell service. I offer a search service as part of my bookselling business, and separate the search fee from the cost of the book as a way to illustrate what you're actually buying.

The bottom line is that the Internet is a great tool for people who have access and feel comfortable doing their own searches. A local search service can fill the needs of others by providing access, handling the logistics, and assuming all the risks of online buying.

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