Finding old books with AbeBooks

I tend to think of AbeBooks.com as one of those common Internet resources that everyone knows about, like Google or Wikipedia. But just last week I learned that a good friend of mine, who buys books by the truckload (or maybe it just seems like it), didn’t know about it.

AbeBooks (American Book Exchange) is a Canadian company that provides a front end for a worldwide network of thousands of bookstores. They’ve got a search engine on their front page where you can query by title, author, keyword, and/or ISBN. You get back a list of books being sold by the various stores. Advances search lets you specify binding, first edition, signed copy, etc.

How does this beat Amazon.com, or using your local bookstore? For new books, it doesn’t really. For used books, on the other hand, it’s great. For example, consider Eric Frank Russell’s The Great Explosion, which Jo Walton recently described as “practically unfindable.” AbeBooks lists 89 copies for sale, all in one list, from a beat-up $1 paperback to a $350 first UK edition. (Some of those books may have already been sold by the time you read this.)

When I do the same search on Amazon, my list is much less orderly. It’s all broken up by editions, and I’ve got to click each one (twice!) to check out the individual used book listings. The cheapest copy I can find is $1.70.

Amazon also slaps a surcharge on top of the price. A search on AbeBooks for The Codex Seraphinianus finds me a copy for sale at Beech Leaves Books in Los Angeles for $375. Amazon lists what appears to be the very same book from the same vendor, but for $500. [Update: Booksellerbill sets me straight in the comments.]

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