[Paleopsych] NYT: In for a Penny, Buy by the Pound

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In for a Penny, Buy by the Pound
New York Times, 5.6.2


    MY family consumes books the way monkeys go through bananas.

    With five of us devouring them and discarding the depleted skins
    wherever they might fall, novels litter the house. "The Catcher in the
    Rye" and "Lord of the Flies," staples for teenagers, are abandoned on
    the kitchen table. "Little Women" and "Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle" have turned
    the staircase into an obstacle course. Saul Bellow's early novels?
    They're filed on a chair in the upstairs hall.

    If you walked into the house, you might think we have plenty to read.
    But on a recent Sunday, my three daughters persuaded me to walk out of
    yet another bookstore with a heavy shopping bag and a lighter bank
    account. By the following Thursday, we had devoured $70 in new books
    and my middle daughter, Ella - bemoaning the lack of things to read -
    had returned to a favorite Harry Potter novel for the 400th time.

    Given our appetite, we needed a cheaper supply. This is where the
    Internet comes in. The last couple of years have seen a proliferation
    online of the cheapest of the cheap, so-called penny books that
    merchants sell for a cent apiece, as loss leaders to attract shoppers
    to their sites.

    For instance, one day earlier this month I could have bought for a
    penny a copy of Agatha Christie's "Witness for the Prosecution & Other
    Stories" from usedbookcentral.com. From independent booksellers who
    list inventory on amazon.com, the vast penny book selection included a
    paperback copy of "Stuart Little," a "slightly torn" copy of "The
    Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" (with the owner's name written inside
    in pencil) and a "water damaged" paperback copy of "One Hundred Years
    of Solitude."

    So what's the catch? There are two, actually. The first challenge is
    to find a penny-priced copy of a title you'd like to read. Imagine the
    world's biggest, mustiest bookstore, where the used books have been
    shelved as unsystematically as in my house; it took me a good hour of
    dogged searching to come up with a list of a dozen or so likely
    penny-book titles I'd consider ordering.

    The second issue is price. In reality, a penny book costs far more
    than one cent by the time shipping costs are added. If you buy a penny
    book from one of Amazon's independent booksellers, for instance, it
    will cost $3.50 including the shipping charges of $3.49 a book. And
    Usedbookcentral's penny copy of "Witness for the Prosecution" would
    cost $3.51 including the $3.50 shipping cost. The trick is to
    calculate taxes and shipping costs before ordering.

    Luckily, online tools streamline the process. At specialized search
    sites - with names like addall.com, cheapestbookprice.com and
    bibliofind.com - shoppers can sift through databases of millions of
    titles in seconds.

    But which search site is the best? The answer, I learned, is that to a
    certain extent it's a matter of personal choice.

    "You can drive a Chevy or a Ford or a Honda and each will get you to
    the same place in the end," said Gary Price, news editor of
    searchenginewatch.com, a site that analyzes the quality of search
    engines. "Book searching involves a specialized database and it's
    always a good idea for a search to have at the ready two or three
    choices so they can decide which approach works best for them."

    One of Mr. Price's favorite search sites, for instance, is also one of
    mine: isbn.nu, a site that searches the databases of disparate online
    book providers and then merges the results into one continuous list.

    A nifty feature at isbn.nu enables shoppers to estimate shipping costs
    based on delivery destination and shipping method. (For instance, when
    I searched for a copy of the William Boyd novel "Any Human Heart,"
    isbn.nu did not have a penny book but instantly informed me that the
    least expensive copy ($3.95 from half.com) would cost me $6.40 if I
    had it sent via standard ground shipping to my home in California.)

    The feature that makes it so easy for shoppers to find penny books and
    calculate their true prices ends up costing isbn.nu's owner, Glenn
    Fleishman, money.

    "I get a percentage of the sales I refer to Amazon, but when a book
    sells for a penny? I get zero percent of a penny," Mr. Fleishman said.
    "I could say I've got a lot against these penny books. But I'll derive
    some value from anything that brings people to my site, as long as
    they come back again and again. Eventually they'll buy a book that
    costs more than a penny."

    Another book-search site I like is bookfinder.com, with a particularly
    comprehensive database of new and used inventory from 70,000
    booksellers. The site searches a list of 70 million physical books;
    least expensive copies are listed first. Shoppers can click on the
    site's advanced search tools to limit searches to specific price
    ranges, say from 1 to 2 cents.

    "Books in that price range will be mass-market paperbacks generally,
    anything that there's not a specialized demand for or anything that
    you might find being sold or given away at a library book sale," said
    Anirvan Chatterjee, chief executive of BookFinder.

    The largest selection of penny books is at Amazon, where independent
    booksellers list inventory in zShops. To best browse this inventory,
    scroll down the Amazon homepage and click on zShops, which is near the
    bottom of the left column. Next click on "Books," then select a
    specific genre and finally, from the results page, choose to sort by
    price, low to high.

    An Amazon penny book may cost nearly as much as, say, a 75-cent book
    somewhere else. At half.com, for instance, I found a copy of "Anna
    Karenina" for sale for 75 cents plus $2.79 in shipping, for a total of
    $3.54 (compared with Amazon's shipping-included price of $3.50).

    Of course, there's an even cheaper option for classics like "Anna
    Karenina," which are in the public domain. At bibliomania.com, I could
    read the novel's full text for free.

    For readers like me, who yearn to read physical copies, another free
    option is redlightgreen.com, a search site founded by the nonprofit
    Research Libraries Group that will locate copies of books at local
    libraries around the world. It informed me that "Anna Karenina" was on
    a library shelf three blocks from my house.

    Even better than the prospect of reading the novel was the prospect of
    returning it instead of adding the book to the pile on the nightstand.

    E-mail: slatalla at nytimes.com

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