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Out of print, but Online

By Frank Wilson
Inquirer Staff Writer
Philiadelphia Online
May 15, 1997

The search for a hard-to-find book used to take weeks, even years. But now the Net bursts with sellers eager to cut that time to a matter of moments.

Success can sometimes get in the way of - well, success. America Online found that out when it promised the world more than it could deliver. Powell's Books in Portland, Ore., found out much the same thing, and in much the same way.

Powell's put its main store online last year. ``We started very slowly,'' says Kanth Gopalpur, Powell's marketing manager. ``Then we put out some ads in December and we got slammed.''

Unlike AOL, Powell's made all the right moves - and in a timely manner. ``We stopped advertising - we didn't want to take on any more customers - and started hiring,'' says Gopalpur. It took a few weeks, but ``we've caught up on the processing of our online orders - until the next rush.''

Powell's experience illustrates the extent to which books have become a hot commodity on the Internet. Not just the best-sellers and current editions, but also used books and out-of-print titles. The Net's unique ability to link distant folks with similar interests has made it a natural place to find that someone who has that forgotten title you've been seeking.

Powell's stocks more than a million new and used books in over 4,000 sections, and buys 3,000 books a day over the counter. Of the one million books a year that it sells, more than half are used. Last year, Gopalpur reports, Powell's did $100,000 worth of business online. This year they're expecting to do 10 times that.

Powell's bills itself as the nation's largest bookstore, and with a flagship store that takes up an entire city block there is much plausibility in the claim. But other online bookstores make similar claims. Amazon Books, with a catalog of 1.5 million in-print books and another million out-of-print volumes, calls itself ``Earth's Biggest Bookstore.'' And Britain's Internet Book Shop bills itself ``the Largest Online Bookshop in the World,'' though its catalog numbers only about a million volumes.

Then there's New York's Strand Book Store. With an inventory of 2.5 million items housed on four floors in downtown Manhattan, it's surely a contender in the size sweepstakes. But the Strand isn't online yet, though proprietor Fred Bass says plans are being laid in that direction.

``We're being very cautious about it,'' Bass says. ``People say they're making money on the Net, but I'm not so sure. We still do most of our business with browsers, people who come in off the street, look around, and find things they want.'' Nevertheless, the Strand already has cataloged its remainders electronically, and plans to do the same with its rare books shortly.

Large enterprises are the exception, however, in the field of used books. Most such ventures are small, private affairs, and it is on those that the Net seems to have exerted its greatest impact, taking what has been mostly a cottage industry and positioning it right in the center of the global village.

Typical is the Book Worm in Albuquerque, N.M., which has 1,800 of its 30,000 books listed online. Proprietor Bill Wright says that the effect of going online was that ``I immediately began getting one to three orders a day seven days a week.''

Eileen Serxner, who with her husband, Allan, runs a mail-order used-book business out of Bala Cynwyd, says that after going online at the beginning of the year, ``our business doubled.''

Some dealers, such as James DenBoer of Aptos, Calif., who calls himself ``a moonlighting Internet bookseller,'' conduct business exclusively online - ``no shop, no appointments at home, no bookfairs, no garage sales.'' For others, such as Wayne Pierce of Stellar Books, the Net has provided the perfect complement to an offbeat lifestyle.

Pierce lives 20 miles from Oroville, Calif., itself no metropolis. He built his own house and two large book buildings, and uses solar panels and a small hydroelectric source to power his computer. ``I used to have 4,000 customers, issued hard-copy print catalogs and kept too much paperwork stored away,'' Pierce says. ``But now, unless the person has e-mail or is an `ol' friend,' I don't bother. My volume has increased, my productivity has flowered, and even my spelling's improved.''

Several bookstores have their own Web sites. In addition to Powell's, there's Pandora's Books Ltd., an operation run by J. Grant Thiessen and his wife, Maureen, in Manitoba. Their shop contains about 200,000 books and magazines, all of which have been entered into their database. The Boston Book Co. has 14,000 books from its inventory in its online database. Even some smaller operations, such as James DenBoer's Paperworks, have Web sites.

But most don't, and most don't need to. Many avail themselves of the services of Interloc, which describes itself as an ``electronic marketplace,'' a location in cyberspace where buyers and sellers can get together. Interloc has more than two million books, maps, photos, manuscripts, prints and graphics registered for sale, and a list of more than 700,000 items that are wanted. Its subscribers include over 2,000 booksellers, collectors, dealers, libraries and businesses.

Each night, Interloc's computer matches items wanted with items for sale, and the next morning e-mails each of its clients. Last year, 14 million matches were reported.

Until recently, Interloc's electronic marketplace was closed to the general public, but it's now granting limited access. That's because there are so many other search engines that grant the public access and cost the book-buyer nothing - the Advanced Book Exchange, to name just one.

According to Interloc, 99 percent of all the books in the world are out of print. That means just about anybody wanting a book could be in the market for a used one - and not just collectors of rarities or first editions.

There's also the matter of economy: A used book in mint condition will usually sell for a fraction of what a new one would cost. Moreover, books aren't being made better than ever. A book that's 50 years old often turns out to have higher-quality paper and a stronger binding.

Until recently, though, to find an out-of-print book meant browsing in bookstores - fun to be sure, but not always fruitful - reading through catalogs, sending out written inquiries, making long-distance phone calls, even paying to have a search done. It could take weeks, months, even years.

That search process has now been reduced in most cases to a matter of moments. As John Clark, a Chicago bookseller with his own Web site, observes, ``Anyone in the world with a computer and a modem can now browse the books in my shop,''

Many such booksellers can thank Steve Trussell, who has a Web site called Trussell's EclectiCity that includes a page titled ``Books and Book Collecting.''

Trussell is a professor in the international business department at Sanno College in Tokyo. His interest in books and collecting, he says, ``led me to develop the . . . page to make my online life easier. Sharing with the world seems like a logical extension.''

Trussell, in fact, has gathered into one place just about everything a book lover needs to find - whatever. If you're buying from overseas and want to make a currency conversion, Trussell has a link to the Universal Currency Converter. Have a set a books that would be complete but for a missing volume or two? Trussell's got a link to the Set Maker.

There are links to libraries, including the Cleveland Public Library, the Metro Boston Library Network, the libraries of Stanford University, the Library of Congress, and many more. Links are included for book terms, glossaries and binding information; collectors' resources and references; news groups; and authors' bibliographies.

Above all, there are dozens of searchable booksites. You can go from Trussell's page to Powell's, Pandora's, and Oak Creek Books, to name just a few stores, as well as to such services as the Advanced Book Exchange, Bibilofind and Interloc. They all work pretty much the same way: Type in an author's name or a book title and click ``search.'' It's as easy as that. And a book you've been seeking for years is likely to be found in seconds.

Spend a few minutes using Trussell's page, and one thing becomes increasingly evident: The effect of the Internet on books and reading is turning out to be different from what many expected it would be. Powell's Kanth Gopalpur says that at the American Booksellers Association convention a couple of years ago all the talk was about ``the demise of the book and about how everything was going to be online. But when I was there last year, everybody was talking about the Internet and how it was going to change the book business.''

Eileen Serxner, the Bala Cynwyd dealer, thinks she knows what the nature of that change will be: ``In the years to come, that's how people will buy books.''

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