New Life for Old Books, and Feeding Your Book Habit

Bibliophiles have two interlocking problems:

  1. Given all my interests, how do i get more books without going broke?
  2. What do i do later with the pile of things generated by #1?

If you read a lot, just managing your list of things you’d like to read becomes an information technology challenge all its own. Amazon wishlists work alright for this purpose (and help you remember just how interested you were, if you use the priority feature), and of course Amazon makes it very easy to buy them! (in case you’re feeling generous, our Amazon wishlist is here)

When it comes to a task like software development that i’ll invest personal time in, purchasing a new book is an incredible value: an hour or two saved nearly always justifies the cost of the book. Nevertheless, i try not go overboard, so my regular routine is

  1. check my local library (unless it’s something i need to own or use for a long period of time)
  2. check a bookswap site like PaperBackSwap or BookMooch
  3. only if those fail me, cough up the money and buy it, typically from Amazon

But i don’t yet have quite the information technology i need to make this work as smoothly as i’d like. First of all, it means i have to check multiple places. Links and browser bookmarklets make this somewhat easier: looking at a book on Amazon, i can check my local library with one click with a library lookup bookmarklet (though it’s sometimes misses if there’s a different edition), and check PaperBackSwap with another (i posted here about the PBS bookmarklet i created).

More recently, i’ve been trying LibraryThing as my starting point for searches: once you’ve located the book of interest, they make it easy to get to Amazon, as well as your local library (through WorldCat), and they’ll even tell you if any of their associated bookswap sites have it available (kudos to BookMooch for participating in this: boo on PaperBackSwap for not playing). Furthermore, their Universal Import lets you import your Amazon wishlist directly into LibraryThing (at which point you can go down the list and check other sources). I’ve been thinking lately about writing a little Python application to query my Amazon wishlist but then do the work for me of identifying any items that are currently available from a non-purchase source.

What about problem #2, getting rid of book you don’t want anymore? We’ve had some success lately with a hybrid strategy:

  • First, estimate whether there’s continued interest in purchasing this book by checking the used market at Amazon. Powell’s makes this even easier: you can type a lengthy list of ISBNs into their page, and they’ll tell you which ones they’ll buy (which is a pretty good estimate of whether there’s still a market for the book). If there’s a market for the book, you have nothing to lose other than a little effort by listing it on Amazon’s site. Once you’ve set up a seller account, you can list them for 60 days for free. They get a cut if you sell it, but any sale means more money in the kitty for future book purchases!
  • If there’s no market for the book, then we list it on a book swap site. When people want them, we have to pay to mail them, but then we get credits so we can request future swaps. It averages out to a couple of bucks a book, which is a steal if you can find ones you want.
  • If nobody wants it on the swap site and it’s not out of date, your local library might be interested in a donation
  • If you absolutely positively have to throw away a book (sniff), at least make sure you recycle it!

(This post was motivated by Phil Gon’s latest post at the Logos blog on building your digital library by reselling your paper books. He describes a great way to finance your purchase of Logos software, and you’ll be much happier with a digital reference library next time you have to move it!)