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Second-hand books take off

20 October 2003

The Internet has transformed the sale of used books. In an operation which works a little like Ebay, except that it serves primarily the antiquarian book trade rather than private sellers, the Canadian firm Abebooks has opened up a new world. Antiquarian books used to be a somewhat dusty corner of the book trade, even though large amounts of money could change hands when wealthy collectors bought prized first editions. In this, as in so much else, the web has had a democratising effect, making the buying and selling of second-hand books something that everyone can get involved with, wherever and whoever they are.

Abebooks was set up by two Canadian couples seven years ago. Effectively it links the stock available from antiquarian booksellers and others all over the world into a giant database, a huge online 'bookstore' of titles coming from 12,000 booksellers in 42 countries. It costs booksellers about $35 a month to list up to 500 books, up to $400 for 150,000 or more titles. A small commission is also payable on each sale. Compared to the costs of running a real bookshop, this is pretty cheap, but the real advantage is the huge market it opens up. The 100 or so workers at Abebooks in Victoria never see the books, which are despatched directly from the bookseller to the customer.

Abebooks is a book collector's dream - access to 45 million titles which can be tracked down and purchased instantly and easily. Some booksellers grumble about Abebooks' charges, but what the online operation has provided them with is a global market. Book-buyers now have instant access to untold riches - all the second-hand books on sale in 42 countries throughout the world.