so how DO you find a book that you can't find online

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so how DO you find a book that you can't find online

Set 28, 2018, 1:44 pm

Hi all,

Not sure if this is the best place to post this. I'm in my early thirties, so most of my targeted book-hunting (as opposed to serendipitous browsing) has been done online. (Typically my searches start at If anyone knows other great online sources I'd be happy to know of them.)

I've often felt a little wistful thinking about how the "thrill of the hunt" has gone, even though I missed out on the era altogether; it's all very easy and unromantic these days. And, this seems awfully basic as I'm writing it, but I'm realizing that I'm entirely naive about HOW to go about tracking down a book that isn't on one of the major used-books platforms...

I'm wondering if anyone (particularly book mavens active since before the 1990s) would have advice for what to do when you're seeking something relatively scarce and can't find it online (at any price). What I have in mind isn't some highly sought-after antiquarian delight --- just something that was only printed once, probably in a small edition.

If you were very keen to get your hands on something, what would you do? Do you have some kind of real-world (!) network in place? Do people still keep offline-only catalogs?

:vague hand waving:

Set 28, 2018, 2:19 pm

I like alibris, Powells, Abe and even Ebay.

Set 28, 2018, 2:34 pm

There's also the ABAA:

Editado: Set 28, 2018, 2:55 pm

Thanks! Abe is usually my ultimate preference. AddAll actually aggregates all these sources, leaving out just eBay:

Abebooks AUS
Powell's Books

Set 28, 2018, 2:57 pm

If it's not (findable) online, obviously nothing short of lucky encounters in brick-and-mortar places (bookshops, library or estate sales, other...?) is to be hoped for. Real rarities/valuable items might get into auction catalogues--I pick those up sometimes so as to get an idea how the books circulate(d), what might still be around etc.

Booker friends and family who are aware of some of my wants also surprise me occasionally.

If you enter a wishlist here, it will connect if/when someone else enters the same title. Assuming it's not that person's wishlist too, it could alert you to, at least, the existence of a copy or maybe even a new edition etc.

Editado: Set 28, 2018, 4:10 pm

It would depend on what it was. At least in the US, anything that's not available at all online is probably going to be from a small press and with limited original distribution, and anyone who has a catalog at all pretty much has it online somewhere at this point, although in a few cases it might only be on the bookstore's own site and not any of the aggregators..

--if I could find the author, editor, or publisher, I would probably start by contacting them and seeing if they still had a box of copies in a closet somewhere - you might be surprised.
--if there was some kind of local connection (local interest, or self-published/small-published and not widely distributed, etc.) try the local used bookstores over the phone (mom-n-pop used bookstores often don't have their entire stock online even if they have an online store) or, if possible, on an in-person visit that also includes antique malls, flea markets, etc. (If it's related to local history or something like that, a local museum might still be selling them in their shop even if it seems like it's completely out of print.)
--if it's related to /hobby/, you can try asking people in /hobby/ community - a couple of times I have acquired rare-but-not-valuable books by going to /hobby/ meeting, mentioning that I was looking for a copy, and having somebody hand me their old copy at the next meeting. Or, you know, hand me an entire cardboard box of related stuff that's been sitting in their garage. (This is especially likely if most people involved in /hobby/ are thirty years older than you...)
--If it's the sort of subject that still has specialist booksellers, it can be worth contacting a bookseller and asking them to keep an eye out for you, although that's more likely to work if there's a fair amount of money in it for them.

But mostly if it's not online there's no secret network that I'm aware of. At least not until you get to stuff that's way out of my budget.

My best example of this is the people trying to solve the Somerton Man ciphers - they need a very specific printing of a very specific cheap edition of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam in order to test book ciphers, and I after thirty or forty years the dedicated solvers have found about two copies of the right printing, even after the case got popular in the national media.

Without the internet, most targeted book-hunting looks a lot like serendipitous browsing except you bring a list. You keep an eye out and you never know when you might find something.

Set 28, 2018, 4:13 pm

Asking the publisher is always a good idea. A friend and I visited a museum once, and the friend was particularly interested in the museum bookshop, as she had long wanted a certain book published there. On the internet used copies were very expensive. New copies at the museum were not cheap (art books generally aren't), but much less.

Out 8, 2018, 3:06 pm

As mentioned by others, it really does depend on what the book is, where it was published, when, quantities, etc.

Some books are considerably more difficult to find than others based on a number of factors.

Many books are easily listed by people who may know little about the books because they have a barcode. I find this most with Amazon used book sellers.

Some books don't get listed because sellers who may have them don't think they are good candidates to sell online. They may not be valuable enough to take the time and effort to list.

In the 1980s and 1990s, one of the ways that people "found" books was to engage a "search service." These usually involved the service including the title as part of an expensive paid advertisement in Antiquarian Bookman Weekly (often referred to as AB by those who used it). Subscribers (and others who saw it) who had a copy would "quote" the book to the seeker. This might be by letter or postcard or an envelope full of slips if there were multiple titles.

As the used book databases (Interloc, Bibliofind, etc.) started to become relevant in the late 1990s, the importance of AB faded and it went out of business. With it went a lot of the book quoters who had lots of books and would make at least a hobby-level living by mailing out these book quotes. After AB was gone, the best they could do was list books themselves on the new used book databases.

A related part of the book trade was the "book scout" who would buy books at one sort of place and bring a box or a few to a bookstore to sell them wholesale. Some book scouts I met were really good and would pay attention to the store's interests, needs, and price tolerance. Again, this has largely gone away since these people can sell online in various ways.

Finding any book begins with knowing about the publication history. How many times was it issued by different firms? Why would some of them be harder to find than others?

For example, some publishers made limited runs (not true limited editions but it worked out that way) and many firms sold their books to libraries and never got a mass market.

I often find that getting a copy of a book can lead to another, better, copy of it becoming available. Sometimes the price of the next one is less, ironically. I use this to my advantage by being willing to buy a substandard copy and upgrade when opportunity permits.

One thing I would also emphasize is that just because you can search and find many books on the used book databases or eBay, does not remove the challenge or satisfaction in curating a collection of significance. Great collections are upgraded and improved over time. Even the very wealthy usually do not buy the perfect forever copy their first time. I have purchased many things on eBay that I would probably never have found in person, no matter how many stores or book fairs I attended. Often those venues don't have large numbers of the books I like. Even great museums buy at auctions.

Looking at lots of books, handling them, learning about them, talking with others about them is part of the learning process. Sometimes you know more than the person you are meeting and you are teaching them. Other times you are the one doing the learning. Sometimes the used book database search and buy does not encourage communication and building relationships which was the norm in book collecting of the 1990s and before. You can still do it but it takes more effort on your part.

I think we need some more details to figure out how to give more specific and useful advice.

James D. Keeline, Bookseller
(Manager of The Prince and the Pauper Collectible Children's Books from 1988 to 2000)

Out 8, 2018, 8:37 pm

Thank you, James! Extremely fascinating to hear about the search services in particular. So many parts of the trade vanished so fast...

Yes, I see there's much that's context-dependent. I didn't mention specifics because it seemed like an odd, niche thing -- but for whoever wants to slog through it, here are the details of what I'm after:

I'm collecting -- mostly casually and unhurriedly -- stuff by the English playwright David Rudkin. The book in question is just the published screenplay of Penda's Fen, a television play that aired in 1974 as part of the BBC's "Play for Today" strand, for which he was the screenwriter.

The script was published by Davis-Poynter in 1975: "Penda’s Fen by David Rudkin — A Davis-Poynter TV Script of a BBC Pebble Mill Production." I guess I have a little anxiety about getting hold of it because, in fact, I've seen 2-3 copies of it online before, but now haven't seen it for a while, and I'm kicking myself for not nabbing it back then.

Seeing it for sale was rare, but now it's completely dried up, presumably because the film itself is now getting a lot more attention that it was when I initially became interested. Despite being directed by Alan Clarke, whose reputation is significant, the film was a lost/cult gem for decades after it aired. But after simmering through years of underground reappraisals it's finally seen the light of day again with a recent (2016) Blu-Ray release. There's even a book about the play coming out next year.

So although it's still not well-known by any stretch, it's a hotter topic than it's ever been. Bad timing on my part. The last copy I saw for sale wasn't really all that long ago -- maybe spring 2017 -- and I think it was around $50-70, which in retrospect I should've paid happily and immediately. But I hesitated just long enough to miss it. Guh! Since then, I've kept an eye out for it in the usual places. There was no sign of it for a few months. Then 2 copies of it appeared for a while, each listed at over $1000, which I hope was an insane anomaly. I don't think they actually sold... even with interest in the film being reignited, I don't believe the demand would justify that price! Nothing since then.

I'm sure it was a pretty limited printing when it came out. I'm in the USA, so I have presumably zero chance of stumbling onto a copy of it in the flesh, but I'm feeling a little bit of the completist ache... I've considered contacting the publisher, figured that would end up being a useless rabbit hole but maybe worth a shot!

Out 8, 2018, 9:23 pm

I see that the publisher is based in London. Something like this probably had very few copies sold. The old adage about regretting a failure to make a purchase when available being greater than any purchase actually made seems to apply here. Do your best to learn from it for the future. Getting something when it is available is usually better than having to go to great lengths to get it later on.

Looking at, there are a few copies (84) in libraries, including several in the U.S. I don't know if you want the content or the vintage object. If the former then you might be able to borrow a copy through inter-library loan (often for a fee these days). Then you could see about making a "fair use" copy.

If you think it is the sort of thing a seller might put on, then register a "want" notification with them. The idea would be that you would get an email when a listing is made. It's not foolproof but I have obtained a couple books in this fashion.

You might want to use the minimal keywords to identify it such as the author's surname and a word or two from the title.

I don't know how much the apostrophe will be a problem since a list composed in a web form may be different from a list compiled in Excel or Word which defaults to "curly" or typographer's quotation marks, apostrophes, and dashes. Often what Microsoft word does not conform with web standards. If' you've seen a blog or page with "garbage" characters in place of these symbols, you get a hint of what can happen.

The same issue can apply in searches. Most systems ignore characters that are not letters or numbers. However, they don't all behave this way so you might try to use the surname in the author field and as little as Fen in the title field.

You can also save searches (they call it "watch" now) on eBay. Try the search first and then see about saving it.

Books and book-like items are sold in unusual places like and and these may not be part of your search. That multi-site search is the one I have used and advocated for years but can be helpful.

On books that are widely available, the multi-site searches sometimes don't show you everything because each site has a limited number of records they will return.

Plays and film scripts are not a big market. A store might get a bunch from a single source and when they're gone, they're gone. Probably most are slow sellers. There may be stores or in-home sellers with that specialty that might have it but have not listed it.

For formula sellers (many on Amazon are like this), if a work is not listed at all, it seems "rare" and something that they can only sell once so they'll start at a very high price and then see if anyone buys it. More likely they won't. However, there are not good and easily accessible ways to see the prices at which things actually sell. Common items become a race to the bottom but scarce items get high prices that no one will pay and one high price begets others.

Best of luck to you.


Editado: Out 9, 2018, 10:55 am

Well! After all that moaning, I suppose the universe heard my plea --- a copy surfaced on AbeBooks this morning for $10, and I grabbed it.

Satisfying feeling. Thanks to James and others for all the great advice. Loved getting a sense of the history of the hunt. Going forward, I will definitely bear in mind the notes about odd characters in titles, and incorporate the additional platforms mentioned!

Out 9, 2018, 11:38 am

I'm glad you found a copy and at such a low price. Perhaps this thread will be of use to others in the future.


Editado: Mar 22, 2021, 4:48 pm

Do a "saved search" on eBay and Craigslist and hope for a miracle.
You can also see historic prices on CamelCamelCamel and eBay.

Increasingly you have to ask: do I want to read it, or have it?
Book scanning will increasingly make the "read it" hunt short.

Mar 25, 2021, 3:43 pm

>1 anjenue: I would check, online, the used book stores in NYC, Boston, Portland (OR), Seattle and the many large, book-loving communities in both USA (1st), Canada and then the UK if you seek books in English.!