14 May 2010

10 Web Book Searching Tips

We recently posted a rather controversial list of 20 book sites - getting one site disastrously wrong (unless you are somewhat to the right of Genghis Khan.) It lead to a great rejoinder list from the esteemed Lux Mentis with some seriously useful sites. Superior stuff, it pains me to admit. However I am not Prince Hamlet nor was meant to be…

One thing that emerged from this was a need for some search tips and ways of ploughing through all the execrable ex-library stuff and worse the P.O.D's-- we're talking Kessinger and all his cohorts. I am usually searching for a book in order to ascertain its value, rather than buy it. Occasionally, if tempted, I buy a book because someone has left a wide margin of profit in it (but then you have two copies.)

As an example I will use a book I was just researching to establish price and rarity. A second edition (1871) of a sweet and once well known Victorian instructive work by Annie Carey Autobiographies of A Lump of Coal; A Grain of Salt; A Drop of Water; A Bit of Old Iron; A Piece of Flint.

1. Less is more. It is best not to put in the full title - 'Lump of Coal' will do. Likewise use just the surname (unless it is something very common like Smith, Brown, Jones etc.,). In Ms Carey's case she was also known as Ann or Anne - further potential confusion.

2. On ViaLibri (in my opinion the supreme search site, although often best used in tandem with AbeBooks) have it set for year ascending. This is a fallible method, and price descending can also be used, but both tend to put the first and early editions at the top.

3. There are are 26 matches on ViaLibri (several the same book with a dealer listing on several sites.) This can be reduced to 9 by filtering out Kessinger reprints. Simply put the word [Kessinger] in square brackets in the keywords field. The square brackets can be used for 'ex-library' but it is a less reliable word (as is POD.)

4. Mentally filter out the quietly mad overchargers and the generic booksellers who can say nothing about the condition of the book except 'may show some wear', and nothing whatever about the edition or content. These latter sellers may not even possess the book. At this point I worked out I might get £45 for my decent second edition, £6 cheaper than an Amazon scholar with a similar edition proudly described as 'VERY WORN - VERY FRAGILE!'. Ours might sell in a day, or possibly 1000 days later and somewhat reduced in price.

5. In the case of a book that cannot be found do not assume that it is valuable, it may not even be that rare - it is just that nobody has listed it. It may be irredeemably minor, so obscure that no one knows about it and therefore there will be few or no takers (even if it is painstakingly well catalogued.) Of course it might be extremely desirable and therefore valuable. There are ways of telling this but they are fallible and erratic.

6. In the case where there are too many results narrow it down with a few keywords like the publisher and the date. Filter it down further by choosing only UK booksellers (Or 'USA only' if stateside.)

7. In most case you can immediately tell the book has no significant value because there are perfectly decent copies available for way less than the price of a latte.

8. In AbeBooks do not trust the publisher field or the first edition, signed or dust wrapper buttons. They only bring up items from booksellers who have put their books in the correct fields. Trust only keywords.

9. Do not totally trust search engines at all. They have many glitches and were not designed by Alan Turing. Sometimes they will not find a perfectly common book which they will then find easily the next day. If flummoxed try several megasites such as Addall and Bookfinder (both extremely useful by the way.)

10. Use Babylon or Babel to translate foreign descriptions, often the book is in unexpected condition (fine or foul.) You could learn a few phrases like envoi de l'auteur ( signed presentation from the author) and rousseurs (foxing) and broché (paper bound, paperback.)

There are many methods - suggestions, challenges and tips are very welcome. However putting in full title , full name of author, full publisher (('Sweet, Maxwell, Kirby and Gusher') is a no-no, unless you are trying to convince someone that the book is rare. This devious method is not unknown in commerce... no names, no pack drill.
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