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The ILAB Metasearch and the Future of the Online Book Trade - An Interview with Jim Hinck

If you are really interested in the "big picture" then you have actually asked the wrong question. We should really be asking, instead, about the future of rare book-buying on the internet. We cannot know where we are headed without knowing where our customers want to go. So put yourself in a collector's shoes. If you love rare books and want to own a lot of them there has never been a better time to be alive.
Published on 21 Nov. 2011

How many ILAB dealers are part of the ILAB Metasearch?

Right now there are about 1150 dealers being searched. But there could easily be more.

How can ILAB dealers join the Metasearch? What do they have to do?

If they are not currently being searched they will need to let me know so that I can add them to the list. The only requirement is that they need to have books that are already listed in one of the online databases that are included in the metasearch. In a few cases they will also need to let the database operators know that they are ILAB affiliates and want to participate in the ILAB metasearch. I can tell them if that is necessary when they contact me.

Does the ILAB Metasearch only search the big commercial databases, or are there special possibilities for dealers who do not wish to enter ABEBooks, ZVAB or other databases?

ILAB works with 13 different online databases, large and small, but if you do not want to list your books on any of these it is also possible to have you own personal website included in the metasearch. If you do that the links in the search results go directly to your website. Some modifications to the website are required, but in most cases these are not difficult or expensive. 41 booksellers are already dong this, and at least one developer is already making all his websites metasearchready. I am happy to provide technical specifications to anyone who is considering going this route.

You also have the option of choosing which of the multidealer databases you want to use for your metasearch listings. If you have a favored site among those you list on then we can arrange to have your books show up from that site only.

In general: How does the Metasearch work?

A lot of people are confused by the term “metasearch”, but the principle is actually fairly simple. A metasearch finds information in multiple sources rather than just one. Google, for example, is a metasearch. On ILAB, when you search for something we look for it in all the different databases where our members list their books, not just one. That is why we call it a metasearch.

When all the results are gathered together we sort them and present them in a single list. Each description in the list has a link to the site(s) where the book can be purchased. If a dealer lists the same book on multiple sites then the listing will have multiple links. When you click on one of those links you leave the ILAB website and go to the website where the book is for sale. ILAB only helps you find books. You have to buy them someplace else.

What is the benefit of a Metasearch for dealers and customers when compared with online databases?

For the customers there shouldn’t be any real difference between using a metasearch and searching directly on a single online database. For them, the primary benefit from the metasearch is a larger selection. It also allows them to check the online holdings of all ILAB members in a single place. Before the metasearch that was not possible.

For booksellers the biggest advantage is probably the savings. Inclusion in the ILAB metasearch is free. You do, of course, have to pay to list your books with at least one of the databases we search. But you would be doing that anyway. After that, there is no additional cost.

Which leads to a second benefit: the ILAB search engine is now much larger than it was before. Every dealer can afford to join. Even very limited sales are profitable. As a result, the number of dealers who are searchable on the ILAB site has nearly doubled from its earlier peak. In the past the ILAB site has struggled to attract buyers. The biggest thing that attracts buyers is selection. Now that we have significantly enlarged our selection we have a much better chance of attracting more serious collectors. 1150 dealers is a significant number, especially when considering that it includes nearly all the most prominent and knowledgeable booksellers in the world. For once we may have reached the critical mass that is necessary for success. And for the first time in our history we can honestly say that we have a search engine that represents all our online members, and not just portion of them.

What do you think about the future of rare bookselling in the Internet?

Now there’s a question! I could probably fill the entire newsletter with my opinions on that subject. But I won’t. I can pare it down to three words: Individual bookseller websites.

As we know, a major negative impact the internet has had on booksellers has been to suppress the direct contact between dealer and collector and replace it with transactions under the control of third-parties. In that process we lose our individual identities and the opportunity to communicate with and learn from our customers. The solution to this will come from each of us having our own website and making it into a place our customers will identify with and want to return to. There are already some booksellers who are succeeding at this, but the techniques for doing it successfully are still being invented. This, I believe, is the direction of the future.

But that having been said, I think if you are really interested in the “big picture” then you have actually asked the wrong question. We should really be asking, instead, about the future of rare book-buying on the internet. We cannot know where we are headed without knowing where our customers want to go. So put yourself in a collector’s shoes. If you love rare books and want to own a lot of them there has never been a better time to be alive. When I started as a bookseller some thirty years ago it was not easy to find and collect rare books. If you did not live in one of a handful of major cities your opportunities were few and poor. Collecting was a demanding challenge. Mostly you waited for catalogues to come in the mail and stopped everything to read through them the moment they arrived. Then, when you found the occasional tantalizing item and phoned eagerly to acquire it, it had invariably already been sold to another favored customer, probably days before your copy of the catalogue had been put in the mail. If you had a want list it might take you decades to find the most desired titles. Books you were eager to own could sit for years on a bookseller’s shelf only a hundred kilometers away and you might never know about them. If you were passionate about Dada, but lived in Denver, then the obstacles to building a significant collection might just be too discouraging for you to ever even begin to collect.

Thanks to the internet and other technological revolutions, the situation today is completely different. The collector is, if anything, overwhelmed with opportunity. Collections that might not have been imaginable 20 years ago can now be undertaken almost anywhere on the globe. Books that once had to be purchased on the basis of written or verbal descriptions are now offered by email with multiple images to show virtues (and flaws) that could never have been conveyed with mere words. Bibliographic references that a collector might have needed a large library to consult are now available anywhere with only an internet connection. If you want to find and buy rare books of almost any kind you now have an amazing variety of tools to help you identify and obtain what you seek. Information is both power and motivation. Collectors have never had more of it than now, and will have even more in the future.

It is inconceivable to me that all of this will not result in a growth of interest in buying and collecting old and rare books. The things that people choose to collect may change. Their techniques and standards will almost certainly evolve from what we have been familiar with in the past. But I fully expect the interest in collecting - or just simply owning - old and rare books will inevitably increase as the obstacles and frustrations of the past are eliminated.

That is what I invariably think about when I try to imagine the future of rare bookselling. There can be no question that collectors now feel empowered by the internet as a tool for building their collections. This is especially true for the younger collectors - who are, of course, the future - but I find that even many older collectors and librarians (especially librarians!) are enthusiastic about these things as well. How can that enthusiasm be anything but beneficial to those of us whose business is to sell them the books they want.

The interview was published in the ILAB Newsletter 64 (November 2011).

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