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A Penny for Your Books (2015) (nytimes.com)
50 points by axiomdata316 48 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 23 comments

The one thing this article doesn't touch on, that I wish it had, is condition. I'm a large buyer of used books from places like AbeBooks and Amazon, and the conditions simply cannot be trusted, especially from the larger sellers like Owl Books, Thriftbooks, and Better World Books.

Almost every time I buy a book listed as "Very Good" which has a clear definition on AbeBooks' website[1], I end up getting something with clear markings, or damage.

[1] https://www.abebooks.com/books/rarebooks/collecting-guide/un...

Amazon has somewhat recently modified their definition of “very good” to allow actual damage rather than just shelf wear. I returned a book last week that had a big gouge in the spine. I’ve previously had good luck buying VG books, but now I might have to rethink buying used from Amazon at all.

That's good to know. I may also have to stop buying used from Amazon. It seems IOBA also allows for damage[1], but it must be noted, which seems to be the main issue.

[1] http://www.ioba.org/pages/resources/condition-definitions/

Opposite for me. Every time I buy a book listed as "good", I end up getting "Very Good", which influenced me to never buy brand new books again. Thriftbooks is absolutely amazing.

I honestly don't mind the condition so long as it's not missing pages. If I'm buying used, i'm buying it to read, not collect. I'm buying it because new is too expensive or it's an old book so I care about the content more. I don't even mind some markings and usage, I personally like books that look like they have read. I just hate when it's missing pages or it's cheap, but the shipping is ridiculous!

some people mind, some don't, but you should be able to trust the description of the condition.

I've found thriftbooks to generally have usable copies in their good/very good category and they don't use paper bar codes so they are easier to clean up than some other high volume sellers.

The list of storefronts the author gave in the article (Silver Arch Books, Owls Books, Yellow Hammer Books and Sierra Nevada Books) look like they are all "owned" by Thriftbooks, which was interviewed in the article (just search Amazon and then one of the names to find the seller profile). Maybe Thriftbooks has a separate storefront for each warehouse?

Fascinating article! A couple of times I've been wondering what happens to old books that libraries inevitably have to dispose of. I wonder how often a diamond in the rough is uncovered in this process and how many books are "lost" because of some scanning fault. So much of our past culture only exist in old books.

My father is a used bookdealer and one of his sources of inventory on occasion has been library discards. (Books with library markings that are sold online ought to be marked "ex-library", not just "used", so that the buyer isn't surprised by this.)

But it's amazing to see this level of automation and scale. My father was manually cataloguing everything and then selling ex-library books for at least a few dollars apiece (often more based on rarity). The dealers profiled here are able to do this on a scale orders of magnitude larger, and cheaper, than a small-scale bookdealer could do by hand -- at least without barcodes.

The barcodes, as mentioned in the article, are a huge deal in that they can change some kinds of cataloguing from minutes of labor to seconds of labor. But ISBNs themselves were only invented in the early 1970s and bar codes on books weren't common until the 1980s. Depending on what decade the books you're dealing with are from, the level of automation of cataloguing could also vary quite a lot.

One thing you'll also see (which antagonized my father quite a bit as a dealer but which can definitely be seen as a huge boon for readers) is that individual people will go to huge sales, like library sales, at the earliest possible moment with phone apps and try to scan thousands of books to find those that will sell at enough of a premium above the sale price to be worth buying. Traditional dealers with brick-and-mortar shops and/or specialized knowledge of some area have some rather negative terms for these competitors, who notably may not have a lot of personal knowledge of the books they're reselling, but do have a lot of dexterity and access to big online databases.

In general, online databases and subsequently mobile apps have done a lot to make the used book market much more competitive, and also much more accessible for smaller-scale participation by non-experts. That's often a hard thing for used book shops and a useful thing for readers.

Library discards or "deaccessionment" are still a sad thing to me, and I think to most librarians too, although they'll often point out that many volumes that are being deaccessioned haven't been checked out in years. A good thing for preservation is that the Internet Archive now acquires a lot of these volumes in various ways and scans them with the goal of getting them online.

There are absolutely books still being thrown in the trash all the time that would be worth hundreds or thousands of dollars to the right buyer, but they're also an incredibly tiny fraction of the books that are thrown away.

> how many books are "lost" because of some scanning fault

Scanning processes are getting better and better, so I also think this is a diminishing problem.

Nicholson Baker wrote a fascinating book called Double Fold in which he pointed out that paper books are typically much more durable than many people think¹, and that digitization and imaging projects have significant drawbacks and limitations. Librarians were quite annoyed with this book because it attacked them as negligent stewards of history. I don't think Baker's arguments have aged very well, as current scanning options are much better and have produced much more useful results than many of those he attacked.

¹ This is true -- Baker points out that our intuitions about fragile paper are mostly shaped by a few decades in the 20th century in which the use of high-acid paper became common for cheap mass-market books, and also for newspapers and magazines. Most older books were printed on lower-acid paper which often lasts for many centuries without major degradation. I have a number of books from the 1700s that are still in great shape and can be read by hand without damaging them (though most have been rebound, because the bindings are normally more fragile than the pages).

Random anecdote time.

At a used bookstore recently (in Hobart Book Village), my too-young-to-read daughter took a fancy to _The Life of a Bear_, probably because of its 24 illustrated prints involving bears. After realizing it was a ~120 year old book and gently extracting it before she removed one of the pictures, I became slightly fascinated with it.

It appears to be a perfectly cromulent children's chapter book, of similar vintage and theme to _Black Beauty_. Its author was anonymous; in the edition I have, he is simply referred to as "by the author of 'The Life of an Elephant'", the author of which was referred to as "by the author of 'The Life of a Bear'." You can find reprints on Amazon by one of the "reprint any out of copyright books" companies, and a half dozen old editions on ABE.

After much detective work and the WorldCat database, and the assistance of a professional librarian, I did eventually discover the author to be apparently one Sir S Eardley-Wilmot, who was a naval officer at the time (hence the anonymous publishing; it probably didn't pay to be "the naval officer who writes children's books"); he did apparently republish the books under his own name, after he retired, and a third book "The Life of a Tiger" was eventually published, maybe posthumously. He even gets his own Wikipedia article, which mentions the books he wrote on military history, but not his children's offerings.

So anyway, the point of the anecdote.

One point I could make is on the ineffable mystery of why some books are cultural classics and others aren't; why is _Black Beauty_ still beloved by millions, and _The Life of a Bear_ forgotten? Is it purely a matter of artistic merit, do people just like horses more than bears, is there an underlying message to Black Beauty I don't remember since reading it 30 years ago that resonates?

Another point I could make is on the surprising robustness of this print volume, as you mentioned. It has probably been forgotten for a hundred years, not particularly well cared for, just thrown on a shelf somewhere and still in good enough shape.

Or it could be on the inanity of most of the books we are slowly forgetting. Does it really matter if this children's story about a bear vanishes from the Earth? Has our culture been lessened, did we forget something important we once knew, are people less happy for not having read this book?

But what really sticks with me is something completely different: this book is not in the long tail of books. Maybe not the fat head, but solidly in the chubby middle. It received many print editions from multiple publishers on different continents over the course of 30, 40 years. It's in multiple libraries; it's been digitized and is available for reprint at the push of a button. It's probably in the top 10 million of the ~130 million books ever published.

Can you imagine what is in the bottom ~120 million books?

Without casting aspersions on the fine authorship of The Life of a Bear:

* Black Beauty is a phenomenally well-written book, with fair comparisons to Bronte, Hardy and Dickens; and is certainly not viewed as a "children's book"

* written about horses at a time when horses were the world's most owned animal;

* and also at a bleak moment in the Industrial Revolution when the workhouse, child labor, and workplace hazards were at a local maximum.

So a fair mix of good timing and subject matter, combined with an excellent execution.

Anyway tldr everyone should re-read Black Beauty.

none of this tech is useful when the electric lights go out

Well, there are some useful ways to store and read books on mobile devices that can be charged off-the-grid.

But I'm a big fan of paper books and I have a lot of them and buy more of them regularly.

Many libraries will have regular sales open to the public where they sell whatever they are trying to get rid of for a really low price.

The sales are mostly resellers trying to find value. In some ways that's a good think making a market for books people want at a reduced price, but it is also frustrating being someone who wants to acquire books to read competing with people trying to make a few dollars.

Ah thats how thrift books works. I was wondering how they could offer books so cheaply.

It's right there in the name -- it's a "thrift" store, a store that resells product that people have given away / disposed of.

I meant the specifics. Where and how did they get the books in such volume. I didn't know of the arrangements with thrift stores to take huge volumes of books.

Earlier this year I was looking for a specific book from the early 2000's. It was priced around $60-$100+ at most of the used book sites, which I thought was rather excessive for what I assumed was a little trade paperback.

After a few months a copy turned up on ebay for $15. I looked into the seller, thrift.books (mentioned in this story), decided I wasn't taking advantage of a little mom-and-pop bookseller, and purchased it. It was indeed a little trade paperback.

While most of this type of book would go for a penny, this one is valued much higher because of the chemical recipes. The author was somewhat miffed at the profiteering taking place in his industry, and told his audience how to reap the benefits of the book without being ripped off.

Where physical used-book stores have an advantage is with long-time out-of-copyright classic novels: it can be hard to tell online whether or not you are looking at a thin paper, badly typeset, badly edited edition or a beautiful one.

They are often cheaper than amazon as well; the floor is about $3 after shipping.

The desperate plea at the end, asking readers to pay more for used books is bizarre. Authors don't profit from used book sales, and the price of a book is not its value -- merely an approximate lower bound. The natural reaction to a more efficient resale market is to raise prices on the new products (at the risk of creating a market for lemons).

I think its a plea to take the (in their view ) more serendipitous, meaningful approach of discovering something on the shelf in a quirky second-hand book store.

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