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Exploring a Paradox: Books on the Internet


So you're looking for a copy of your great uncle Lloyd's biography, but have found that it is no longer in print. Fortunately for you it has never been easier, quicker, or cheaper to find an out-of-print book. If you have access to the Internet and know the book you are looking for it takes only seconds to search through millions of books for sale by thousands of used and out-of-print book dealers around the world.

This is truly a revolutionary change from a few years ago, when search services still did out-of-print searches via published want lists in trade magazines. This approach was time consuming, potentially costly, and often unsuccessful. The advent of the Web and sites like www.abebooks.com , www.bookfinder.com , and others have made it much easier for buyers to find specific books while greatly expanding the potential customer base for book dealers. In fact many used book dealers have closed their shops in the past couple of years in favor of selling only online.

And here is where I begin to see a paradox. It would seem that the Internet has broken down all sorts of barriers, resulting in greater than ever access to all manner of information, products, ideas, etc. I don't know about the rest of it, but I believe a strong argument can be made that the Internet has actually made many books less accessible.

The online used book market is like a giant bookstore that contains more than 20 million books. The only trouble is that they keep all the books in the back room. The clerk at the front counter will happily show you copies of any book they have if you will kindly state which book it is you wish to see. This is a fantastic place to go if you are looking for a specific book that you have already identified. After all, with over 20 million books in their inventory they are bound to have the book you are looking for.

But what if you don't have a specific book you're looking for, and just want to browse the shelves? Well, you really can't. Oh you might be able to poke around a bit if you throw the right keywords out to the clerk, but they're just not set up to handle "browsers." Suddenly this giant bookstore no longer contains 20 million books--it simply contains the books you already know about and can ask for by name.

I think the next phase in the online book market for used and out-of-print books will focus on unlocking this "back room" and making these books browseable once again. A new site, www.tomfolio.com , is already focusing on this. It is wholly owned and operated by small, independent book dealers who sell books there, and already contains over 1 million book listings. One of its most unique features is a detailed system of categories where you can browse books by subject. Yes, some other book sites offer so called "catalogs," but these are really nothing more than lists created on the fly by behind-the-scenes keyword searches, and they invariably include many accidental and inappropriate results. The subject categories at www.tomfolio.com , however, only contain books that were individually placed (think "shelved") there by the dealers offering them. This results in the closest approximation of browsing the shelves of a used bookstore that you are likely to find online. Of course the site also has regular search functions for books you already know about.

So the paradox of the online used book market is that even though it contains millions of books, for any individual buyer it basically only contains books you already know about. At the same time it has swallowed up the inventories of many of the "real" bookstores where you used to be able to browse, because those book dealers now sell only online. Strange, isn't it? Well, for an alternative give www.tomfolio.com a try. Who knows, you might even find that biography of your great uncle Lloyd.

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