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Some Thoughts on How and Where to Buy Books by Michael G Hardy
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NEW BOOKS - BOOKSHOPS
Bookselling has always been a specialist trade, and the most traditional seller of books, the local bookshop, has come under increasing pressure over the last few years.
Many people thought that the liberalisation of the pricing of books would kill off the local bookshop altogether. I did not believe this, but I did predict that it would widen the price differential between books. I thought that the books that sold in large volumes would become cheaper, and the specialist books would become more expensive. I think this has broadly been the case, but it has been accentuated by the large booksellers, the department stores, and even supermarkets who are able to offer a very limited range of the most popular books at heavy discounts. The small bookshop therefore now misses a lot of the volume sales which might previously have kept their business running.
A trend of the last few years is the chains of bookshops in our large towns and cities. They often have large premises (in some cases enormous), and are obviously able to offer a large range of books, although they often do not seem keen to deal with the smallest or the local publishers. I am sure that these bookshop chains have had the biggest impact on the smaller bookshops. If a town is big enough to support at least one large chain bookshop, then ultimately the small independent bookshops will usually be forced to disappear. Otherwise many small bookshops are still thriving in our smaller towns. All this is, of course, directly comparable with food retailing, where supermarkets mop up all the local trade.
The specialist bookshop will always be the place where people will come to browse, and find a new book that they have never seen before. And the bookshop is the only place where prospective purchasers can take a quick look through a book before they commit themselves to purchasing it. However with the vast number of books being published each year, no-one can ever hope to stock them all. But the specialist bookshop has always had the capability of looking up details of books in print, and of ordering them from wholesalers or publishers, and usually receiving them very quickly.
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NEW BOOKS - INTERNET
There are now many booksellers on the internet. They can be internet sellers who only trade in books, or others who trade in an increasingly vast range of goods, or they can be part of traditional bookshops. They probably all have some good and some bad points.
Some will charge the recommended price for virtually all their books. Others will offer a fairly constant discount across all the books they sell. And yet others will offer a large discount on just the most popular titles. However, when considering price, the cost of postage to be paid must also be taken into account as this differs widely from free, to a set amount or a varying amount according to the value or number of books ordered. Another variable is their policies on sending part orders once books are available. Probably of the greatest importance is the service that they offer, most seem to run reasonably well, but when something goes wrong, the important thing is what action do they take? I have experience of one where it is was impossible to get a sensible reply at all, however I tried to communicate with them over many months.
Most of these internet booksellers have quite comprehensive search facilities on their web sites, and they usually include summaries of books, often with a jacket illustration as well. The summaries must generally come from the same database, as they all tend to read the same. The number of books revealed from searches as being available does vary a great deal though, even amongst those booksellers claiming to be able to source any book in print. This sort of search facility is invaluable for seeking out specialist books that one has never heard of, and to me, is the way that the internet is best able to help those interested in books. One word of warning though, many web sites still show books as available long after they have gone out of print, and ordering such a book, you can find that the order will often just sit waiting for months on end, with no further information forthcoming.
Some publishers now also sell their own books from their own web sites, and these can be worth considering. In fact, more than one specialist publisher I know sell their own books at 10% discount and free postage. Although I might be happy to take advantage of it, I do not see that these small publishers are helping the small bookshops who must be their primary outlets.
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NEW BOOKS - BOOK CLUBS
Book Clubs have been around for many years, and originated as the only way that new books could be sold at a discounted price. Some of them used to have special editions printed and these often used inferior paper. However these days they mainly sell the ordinary publisher's editions. In one particular case they publish their own distinctive editions entirely. They tend to operate by monthly postal catalogues and by the internet, and their prices can be reasonable. However these days, I think their main advantage is in making people aware of books as they run clubs in many fields of specialised interests. Some require a regular commitment and it can sometimes be a chore to have to cancel their choice of book being sent monthly.
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NEW BOOKS - BARGAIN BOOKS
Bargain books are a mixture of out of print titles, publishers over stocks, unsold and returned books, stocks from failed businesses, special reprints of old books, and books specially printed at bargain prices. I am increasingly amazed at the speed at which many books now reach this market, often in less than a year after being published, and seemingly before many interested people would have ever heard about them.
Bargain books are available in special shops, usually owned by chains, or at an increasing variety of other places such as garden centres! There are also catalogue and internet sellers which tend to deal mainly in books that have just gone out of print, and can be useful for specialised interests.
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The traditional secondhand bookshop is sadly becoming a rare sight in our towns. Many do still keep in business, but the overheads of shops in towns now prohibit most people from starting in business. Those who keep going have often owned their shops for many years, and could not now contemplate starting up by buying or renting a shop. Most shops have general stock, and many specialise in particular fields as well. Those who specialise can attract regular customers from a wide area.
A second traditional way for booksellers to operate is by postal catalogue, most of them operate in very specialised fields and are obviously in contact with people who share their interests.
A third traditional way to sell books has always been by the Book Fair. Obviously by many dealers getting together in a central place, prospective buyers are attracted to peruse the stocks of all of them. Although some of the regular Book Fairs come and go, there are still plenty around the country, and various organisers tend to cater for different markets.
Incidentally many booksellers use a combination of the above three methods (Shop, Catalogue and Fair). And a large number also use the most modern method of trading by the Internet. They may well have their own web sites, which in their simplest form just list the books they have in stock. The more sophisticated versions including searching and have facilities to purchase on-line. However, of increasing popularity is the agency type of arrangement where many dealers put the details of their stock onto one large web site. Prospective purchasers are then able to use a variety of searching facilities to find a title, an author or a subject etc. Internet book selling originally had a reputation for high prices, possibly because buyers from across the world had easy access to items. However I think that in the main prices have stabilised, as it is easy for everybody to compare different dealer's prices for the same item.
Finally I should also mention the ever increasing number of charity shops, most of which have a few books, and there are now many 'charity bookshops' as well. They can obviously be worth a look, but the condition and prices of books can vary a lot. Some of the 'charity bookshops' in particular often seem to manage to price their books rather high, considering the condition of many of them.
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This page last modified on 3rd December 2007