A Tunnel in the Sky

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Collecting SF
In Search of the Rare and Out of Print on the Internet

By Chris Exner, aka tenavari
Posted January 14, 2003

Ok, maybe you’ve had the same problem the owner of this site, Galen Strickland, has encountered. You've had to sell portions of your science fiction books in order to free up space in your home, only to find yourself at a later date kicking yourself in the butt, running out to the nearest used bookstore to scrounge back the beloved titles you so carelessly surrendered. Or perhaps you are a newcomer to the genre. Eager to get your hands on the copies of the classics that stirred to life the fire beneth the pot, you solicit your local bookstore for Asimov, Simak, Campbell, van Vogt, Pohl, Kornbluth, and countless others.

As nausea and shock bloom, both Galen and the newbie encounter an unsettling realization. Many of the titles they hunger for are out of print. As common knowledge tells us, the bookstores carrying new books cannot sell what is not currently published. And due to the duration of time in which some of these books were last published, countless others whose stories run similar to Galen and the newbie, have long ago carefully plucked these treasures from the shelves of the used bookstores. Fear not my children, there is hope.

Unlike the vast majority of the genre’s readers, science fiction did not shackle its hold on me until my first year of college. Sure, as a kid I had the Star Wars toys (and bed sheets) and watched Battlestar Gallactica, but all I was interested in then was what was on its surface, not so much the hokey filler that made up their substance. It wasn’t until the fall of 1992, when I enlisted in an sf class in college, did I experience the genius behind the men and women who had engineered the whole of this awesome machine which so many others were standing atop of. In walked Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke and H.G. Wells. I was hooked. It wasn’t long before I was sheepishly roaming down the aisles of new and used bookstores buying what I could of the aforementioned, and snatching up any other book with a title or cover art that captured my interest.

As my collection grew, it didn’t take long before frustration struck. Literally dozens of the titles and authors I had become intent on discovering were nowhere to be found. Then came the Internet.


[EDITOR'S NOTE: This site is an amazon.com associate. If you take that link and purchase something, even a used book or DVD, we may earn a commission. We have no affiliation with eBay, but if that's where you need to go to find what you're looking for, go for it. Also, since Chris wrote this I became familiar with BookFinder.com, which is a database of many different bookstores and online sellers around the world. Easy to search by author and title, or by ISBN number for a specific edition. Galen]



I cannot recall what it was that first brought me to eBay - probably a CD. Though I do remember the first auction of Frederik Pohl books I won, containing Jem, Gateway and Man Plus. The best thing about eBay is that if you have patience, and you know how to get the most out of their search engines, you can save a bundle. I paid $4.00 (including shipping) for these books, in hardcover editions. Sure, they were book club editions that had been previously read, but my only desire was to read them myself, so it meant little to me if they were a first printing or a twentieth. But maybe I’ll impress the collectors who are reading by mentioning a first edition of Philip K. Dick’s, Martian Time-Slip that I picked up in very fine condition for $3.24.

Getting Started

The search engine on eBay is quite unique. Your principal search sorts through the titles of the auctions on the site and you get your result. But check the "search titles and descriptions" box underneath the search engine’s text box and the engine goes through every auctions' title and the text within it, looking for matches. For example, you’re looking for Arthur C. Clarke’s Expedition to Earth. You enter a typical search and find two matches. Then you enter the same search, but with the search titles and descriptions box checked. Added to the two matches that were the result of your previous search is an auction entitled, “Lot of 7 Science Fiction Paperbacks.” You hit the auction’s link and discover it carries a copy of Expedition to Earth among its titles.

While searching through descriptions can be an advantage, enter a search that is too vague and you can end up with a mess. Type in “analog” with the search titles and descriptions box checked and along with back issues of the magazine, you’ll come up with 100’s of different electronic devices, pieces of stereo equipment, and any other auction where the word “analog” has been typed into its description. To avoid this, when you decide to employ a search that digs into an item’s description, always make your search as specific as possible. In the instance of the “Analog” example above, add a specific month/year to the search, the words “science fiction,” or the last name of an author that was featured in the zine for that particular month.

Another way you can search is by category. EBay allows users to access specific categories from its home page by providing on it a number of general links. These links branch off into more specific categories allowing users to view them in one of four different methods. In each category and sub-category, you can view current auctions (all auctions currently open), new today (new listings that began in the past 24 hours), ending today (auctions that end in the next 24 hours), and going, going, gone (all auctions that ended in the last 24 hours).

Now instead of going all the way from Home > All Categories > Books > Fiction and Literature > Science Fiction, to get to the science fiction page, I’ll let you in on a few different shortcuts. One way is to immediately type in a popular, well-known sf author, like “Asimov.” While I’ve been using eBay there have always been hundreds of results (and hopefully will be in the foreseeable future) for Isaac. Now click on one of his more popular titles, like Foundation or Foundation Trilogy, but make sure it isn’t a rare copy that might be under a different subcategory, ala Rare Books, unless that’s what you’re looking for. Open the auction and beneath its title, depending on what category the seller slotted the auction in, should be an underlined link entitled, Books: Fiction & Literature: Science Fiction. By opening this link you get direct access to the science fiction literature category and the four different methods of navigating it. And while you’re on this page you can create a “Favorite” link to it, providing an even more efficient shortcut.

Another perk about opening the Books: Fiction & Literature: Science Fiction page is the extra search option you acquire. Underneath the search titles and descriptions box, there is another box - only in Science Fiction. Check this box when entering your next search and eBay’s search engine will only sift through titles and/or descriptions that have been placed in the Books: Fiction & Literature: Science Fiction category. You can then enter “analog” into the search engine and not have to worry about radio equipment and 8-track cartridges from the 1970’s popping up.

The Bid

Ok, so you know how to use the search engine and you’ve found a book you want at a price you like. In order to place a bid you’ll have to register with eBay. This means providing your name, home address, an email address (that you’ll have to confirm), and a username. Now you can bid. You’ll only have to contribute credit card information if you become a seller or want to make eBay payments via Billpoint.

But before you place your bid, make sure you know what the seller’s shipping charge is. For as many sellers I have found that list their shipping charges, there is an equal number of those who do not. For those who don’t, the phrase, “buyer pays exact shipping,” is sometimes all that is written in an auction’s description. This exact shipping isn’t always what it seems. It could mean your going to pay the same charge that the seller will be billed at the post office to ship your books, but along with it it may also mean you’re going to be charged an outrageous handling fee. Always contact sellers that do not list their shipping charge and ask for an estimate. Whether you have bid on an item or not, as long as you have registered with eBay, you can send messages to other members by clicking on their usernames. Include your country, state, and zip code to confirm vague shipping costs.

When there is a shipping cost listed, be sure to take it into account before bidding. That ninety-nine cent auction you’re about to bid on may have a $7.00 shipping fee tagged to it. Do you really want to pay $7.99 for that book? Well, if this sounds like an excessive shipping cost, it’s because it is! This breed of seller does constitute a small percentage of the auctions on eBay, but most of them are on the level when it comes to shipping. Several will even allow the buyer to choose from different shipping options, including book rate, priority mail, or UPS.

Another matter to take into consideration is the seller’s eBay rating. On the auction page besides the seller’s username there is a number followed by a symbol consisting of a colored star or a pair of sunglasses. The number signifies the total amount of feedback a seller has received, (which I’ll cover later) and different colored stars correspond to how much of those responses have been positive. Feedback is left after each transaction is completed, the end of the transaction being the time when the buyer receives their goods. A seller will not earn a star until he receives at least 10 positive feedback entries from ten different buyers. The sunglasses symbol represents sellers who are new and have not reached 10 submissions of positive feedback, or a seller who has recently changed their name. You should be cautious of sellers with a high number of feedback entries who have a pair of sunglasses next to their username. Often, in an attempt to save his reputation, a seller will change his name if he has been bombarded with several negative replies to his auctions. This feature could be essential to you if you are intent on collecting high grade books and magazines. A seller’s idea of a “like new” book could mean only a mediocre grade to a serious collector.

You follow through and place your bid. If you’re the first bidder, congratulations, you have the high bid. But if your bid is not higher than the previous one, you will have to rethink how much higher you want to go. The previous bid may be several dollars more than you are willing to pay, so you may have to find another auction that’s carrying the book you’re looking for or wait until another one starts. Through the duration of the auction, a bidder can only see the usernames of those who have placed bids on an item and the date and time which they were placed by hitting the Bid History link. While an auction is active, only by bidding can you see how high other bidders are willing to go. After an auction is over, if you wish, you can enter the Bid History page again, and now view the dollar amounts.

To organize your bids, eBay provides each user with a MyeBay page. This can be accessed at the top of every page on the site. This page allows you to track all of your current bids and past auctions you’ve won, plus comes with a bevy of other useful tools to implement on the site.

The Win

When an auction is won, eBay will send both the seller and the winning bidder an email notifying them that the auction has ended. Sellers will usually contact the winners of their auctions within 24 hours, and I suggest, for the sake of common courtesy, that they do the same. eBay also provides a “Checkout” service for the winning bidder, where information pertaining to the buyer is sent to the seller. In the Checkout, eBay totals up the winning bid with shipping fees (if the seller provided them) and displays the methods of payments the seller will accept. The winner can also enter the address which he/she wants the item(s) shipped to; the chosen method of payment; the snail-mail address of the seller; and is provided room to type any other message that they may wish to correspond to the seller.

Depending on the seller, there are several different methods in which you can pay for your winnings. The most common methods of payment are money orders, checks, and Paypal. The only instance that I have come across when a seller has refused a money order is when they reside outside the United States. The chief reason for this is that some foreign banks charge a fee for cashing these, and therefore rob the seller of profit. Checks are almost always accepted between American sellers and buyers, although sellers will generally wait for a check to clear their bank before they ship your books. Most of the time, at your own risk, you can also send cash. I recommend this method of payment only with sellers who have acquired at least 20 positive feedback entries, demonstrating that they are upstanding members of the eBay community.

For some auctions, sellers may also accept Paypal and Billpoint - eBay’s answer to Paypal. [Shortly before I began writing this piece, eBay purchased Paypal, but have done little to change its applications as of yet.] Paypal and Billpoint are online banks where a user’s credit card or bank account is accessed to transfer funds from. Registration into both of these services is free, but many sellers often discourage using them (or simply do not accept them) because they charge the receiver a fee based on a percentage of the total transferred amount. Paypal has a way around this though. Paypal allows you to withdraw funds from a personal bank account into one of its own accounts free of charge. Money in this account can then be sent to another person’s Paypal account at no cost to either party. Since these transactions are free, some seller’s will only accept a Paypal payment this way. The downside of this is that while the initial transfer between the two individuals is nearly instant, the buyer who is withdrawing funds must wait three to four days before the money is transferred from his bank into his Paypal account.

The Acquirement

Ok, your books have arrived! Now, after taking a few different circumstances into account, you get to leave your feedback. EBay provides three different levels of feedback: Positive, Neutral, and Negative. Along with your feedback grade, eBay also allows you to leave a comment as to why you left the grade you did. The feedback link can be found on the page of the winning auction or by hitting the Feedback button on your MyeBay page.

When placing feedback, there are three principal things to take into account. First, are the books in the same condition as they were described? If you’re a collector and that early copy of Amazing Stories you bought arrives with a torn page that the seller declined to mention, you’re more than likely going to bear some animosity. But if you’re a bookworm like me and simply interested in the ideas within, you might not be too disappointed if your books are a bit more worn than you anticipated. The second factor is time. How long since you sent your payment through email or snail mail, did it take until you received your books? It will take a few days for a letter to reach a seller so you’ll have to take that into consideration. So let’s rephrase my last question: How long, since the seller received your payment, did it take until you received your books? I expect no more than seven working days. This is more than reasonable, for good reason, and I’ll tell you why. The seller is human, as are us buyers. Unexpected dilemmas run rampant in life, and just because your conversation with an individual has been through digital means, it by no means makes them less human. You have to remember that eBay is made up of individuals, not machines.

The final constituent you need to consider is how pleasant was your transaction with the seller? Did he/she respond within 24 hours? 48 hours? A week? Did they answer all of your questions promptly and provide you thoroughly with the information you requested? Although I don’t think a poor transaction is reason enough to grant negative or even neutral feedback, sometimes I will comment that the transaction could have been more pleasant. Most bidders are this way for the latter two factors also. Negative, and even neutral feedback, is rare for both sellers and bidders because both know how important it is to the other to experience a gratifying transaction. If you have any issues with a book you have received, it’s best to try and work out any discrepancies with the seller, instead of branding one another with poor feedback.

Tricks of the Trade

There are a couple of techniques you can use on eBay to outsmart other bidders. My favorite is misspelling the names of authors in the search engine. Instead of “Frederik Pohl,” type in Frederick Pohl (or even Poll). The copy of Philip K. Dick’s Martian Time-Slip I mentioned earlier was won in this fashion. The seller used two l’s in his first name instead of one. You’d be surprised to find how many auctions you might find that are misspelled, sometimes permitting an auction to go unnoticed.

The second approach is a bit more hostile. It’s known as, “The Bid of Death.” This trick wasn’t revealed to me until I experienced it firsthand. There I was waiting by my computer for an auction I had bid on to end. The seconds ticked away as it ended and I anxiously reloaded the page to see the lot of books I would soon win. But wait, the name of the winner wasn’t mine. Some rascal had placed a bid higher than mine at the final few seconds of the auction. He had either been lurking over his computer, waiting for the final few moments of the auction to arrive, or he had employed a service called Bidwatch. At a miniscule fee, Bidwatch will enter a bid of your choosing at the final seconds of an auction. If the current bid is lower than the one you have chosen, you win. Although I have never used Bidwatch to execute the “Bid of Death,” I have carried it out; eagerly skulking at my monitor until the last few seconds to place my bid. I highly suggest this approach for anyone who finds a book that they won’t be able to live without.

Reaping the Rewards of eBay

Since I’ve been using eBay I’ve amassed nearly three hundred books at the cost of about $300 (shipping included). That’s just a dollar a book! Sure, there’s some patience involved; I’m still waiting to get my hands on a copy of Cyril Judd’s (pseudonym for C.M. Kornbluth and Judith Merril) Gunner Cade, and Christopher Priest’s The Inverted World. Most of the time the patience comes from waiting for a fair price, but in the case of The Inverted World, at the time of this writing I have not once found it posted on eBay.

If there are several different authors and titles you’re interested in, the most awesome auctions you’ll find are lots. A lot consists of two or more books that a seller has gathered into one auction. These are often much more sensible to bid on than single books, because even with shipping you can end up paying unbelievable prices for single books when you divide the amount of the books into the price you paid. For example, I picked up a collection of 95 books from the 1970s that were almost all out of print for $60. Another auction that I paid $30 for, consisted of 60 books, with several collectible Ace Doubles.

I have also had luck with purchasing books from auctions that didn’t sell. I merely contacted a seller after the auction was finished and made them an offer on the book/books I was interested in. Of the dozen or so times I have done this I have been successful at buying books at a cheaper cost than what they have originally been offered for. I simply make a slightly lower offer, and if I don’t hear from the seller in a few days I raise it a little. If the seller hasn’t already posted the auction back up, I’ve made myself another purchase.

Another additional advantage of buying books on eBay is the generous people you’ll find. The day after Christmas I received a lot of books from an auction I won a week earlier. To my pleasant surprise, the seller included with the lot, four back-issues of Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine that dated back to the 1980s. One of them, which featured a story by John Brunner and a profile on William Burroughs, I had previously lost a bid for a few weeks earlier from another seller. I don’t know how often this sort of thing occurs, but how much better do you think your chances are in a bookstore from a merchant you’ve never spoken to before?

Despite all these positive episodes, certainly there are horror stories. All you have to do is find a feedback record that has been blemished by a disappointing eBay experience. Maybe a package or payment never arrived, lost in the space-time continuum of the USPS. It could have been the buyer was a “deadbeat bidder” who changed his mind about paying, or simply never intended to pay in the first place. But out of nearly 200 winning auctions I’ve paid for on eBay not once has an item been lost in the mail. Never have I encountered a seller who didn’t send an item because he thought the final bid was too low. The classics are out there. What are you waiting for?

Online Bookstores - Amazon and Related Others

For those of you who know what you’re looking for and don’t want to bother waiting for an auction on eBay to end, the Internet also offers an array of used bookstores. Amazon.com, eBay’s Half.com, and Barnes&Noble.com all allow individual sellers to sell their new and used books at a fixed price. All three of these sites work in generally the same fashion. The above sites charge a small fee to individual sellers and some small bookstores to list their stock on their sites. While this appears to be a splendid find for some one seeking a rare or out of print book, there are a couple things to look out for.

Unlike the auctions on eBay, rarely if ever will you find a picture of the particular books these merchants are selling. The only time I’ve ever found pictures accompanying these items are when it is a stock photo from the mother site's collection, or a pic taken from a different edition. Often times I will find a book that is described as “Third printing, 1969,” when the photo next to it is so unmistakably more recent. Rarely under this occasion have I found next to the pic or in small print: “Actual book may differ than the one pictured.” Another disappointing side to buying from these dealers is shipping costs. Many of these dealers will not allow you to save on shipping when you purchase more than one of their books, so you might end up shelling out three dollars S&H per novel!

These means are probably good to steer away from for collectors, but if you’re just trying to find a good OOP story, or a more recent novel, you may want to take them into consideration. Some of these dealers post books that are only in “readable” condition, hence selling them at an extremely cheap price.

Small Merchants and Professional Dealers

One of the most wonderful things about the Internet is that any man, woman, or child with a computer can access its territory and shape it to their specific needs. No longer does a bookstore out of your area necessarily mean it’s out of your reach. I have been able to graciously cross out sought after books from my want-list simply by making an inquiry on a popular search engine, such as Google or Yahoo. Here I’ve found dealers and merchants who have posted their stock of old sf up on the Internet to sell. Most of them provide fair shipping costs and are happy to answer questions you may have about a book they have posted. You may also contact them to inquire if a book that you can’t find on their site is sitting on the shelves of their store or closet. Some of the dealers and merchants I’ve had good dealings with (though there are several more) are Powells.com, Rudysbooks.com, Sci Fi Buys (shoporium.com), Albris.com, BookCloseOuts.com, and Abebooks.

The Overseas Web

Log on to Amazon.co.uk and you’ll make an odd discovery: Out-of-print books in North America may not be out-of-print overseas. I first discovered Amazon.co.uk when I visited Brian Aldiss’s website. On the site was featured his newest novel, Super-State. I hit the “Buy” link beneath it and was directed to Amazon’s UK sister-site. After reading over some of the comments on Aldiss’s new book, I spent some time surfing the site. I deducted after a bit of investigating that this site was very different from the American version. Although the two sites bear the same name, this one, along with being marked in British pounds, carried several books that were not available by it’s western counterpart. Not only was Aldiss’s, Super-State: A Novel of Future Europe unavailable on Amazon.com, but neither was K.W. Jeter’s latest installment of the Blade Runner series, Blade Runner 4: Eye and Talon. Why these books have not been published in the states I have no idea, and could probably make up a whole entire article of its own. For some of the more current novels, another discrepancy I encountered was book covers. Take for example, Hidden Empire, by Kevin J. Anderson. The cover of the novel differs between the two hemispheres.

The disappointing thing about all of this is the British pound and cost of shipping to North America. As I write this article, one British pound converts into one dollar and sixty-one cents. At this rate, the paperback edition of Super-State will cost almost nine dollars. Tack on the shipping - three dollars per book and five dollars per delivery to North America - and that’s seventeen bucks for a paperback! Some of the more hardcore fans may be willing to pay these prices, but I’ll be watching eBay - the UK version that is.

You can find several UK auctions on eBay.com, but you can also search the eBay.co.uk version for auctions that sellers did not make available to North American bidders. Before you bid, ask the seller if they’re willing to ship their books to the USA. I’ve found that British sellers will quote both reasonable and unreasonable shipping fees. But the cheaper the fee, the longer you’re going to wait for your books to come. Rates of exchange for the British pound and American dollar also may contradict one another. eBay provides a fair exchange rate for British pounds, but the majority of the time the rate the seller demands is higher than what is posted on the auction page. Always know what the seller’s currency exchange rate is when bidding on any foreign auctions, or you might wind up paying more than what you anticipated.

Final Thoughts

Well, there you have it. Though I’ve only modestly touched the very expansive surface of the Internet, hopefully I’ve given you somewhere to start finding the titles you may have thought were untouchable. By no means do I wish to discourage anyone from visiting bookstores or conventions - my only goal here has been to open more opportunities for you. Though I have become somewhat of an Internet junkie when it comes to buying books, even I haven’t been able to detach myself from revisiting the pulpy smelling aisles of used bookstores. Until I finish this quest of mine I’ll be leaving all avenues open, and endlessly pursuing more.

Christopher L. Exner


Galen's comments:
I probably get at least 20 junk emails a week, come-ons for seminars, books, or CD-ROMs that purport to teach me how to make money as a seller on eBay. But until Chris sent me this article I had never heard much about what it is like to buy from them. I was pleased to post this article because it has a lot of great information that could be useful for anyone interested in finding as many out-of-print books as they can. I will probably not use this info much myself, at least for now, for several reasons. First, I do not have the time to do the searches, and second, I don't have the budget to take advantage of any great finds even if I did have the time.

EDIT: I finally did get on eBay, as both a buyer and seller, although my activity as the latter has been sporadic. Over the years they have changed policies about listing fees, final value fees, allowable shipping charges, etc., that it has become extremely difficult to make any profit there.

Lately, for any book binges I have allowed myself, I have to set aside a little money each week, then wait for the semi-monthly sale at the best used bookstore in town; there's only one other (I really got spoiled in Austin, where there were nine stores I visited). Normally, all of their paperback prices are half of the printed cover price, and they have no minimum price for SF like the other store (97¢, even if the cover says 35¢). But every other month they have a weekend sale where the price goes down to one-fourth of the cover price. This is about the only way I have been able to afford anything published recently, since even a short novel can be as much as $7.99 or more. And I've gotten some good deals on hardcovers as well, both original and book club editions. Depending on the author, and/or how long the book has been on the shelves, the owner usually pencils in a very low price on a lot of these. I once got original hardcovers of all three Rama sequels for just $3.00 each (their cover prices are $18.95, $20.00, and $22.95, respectively). If I had waited for one of her sales I could have purchased all three for a total of $4.50!

One other sale I was able to take advantage of recently, back in November, was the annual sale sponsored by the Friends of the McLennnan County Library. This included not only older titles removed from the library's shelves, but also thousands of books in all categories donated by many individuals and organizations. The sale was conducted in one of the exhibit buildings at the local "Heart o' Texas Fair" complex, in a building that has to be well over an acre in size. My budget for that sale was $40.00, and I left with 20 hardcovers and 40 paperbacks. It might be a good idea to check with your local library to see if they have similar sales on a periodic basis. I recently returned from visiting my son in California, and the last thing I had expected to do while there was buy books. But it so happened that I went to the nearest library to gain internet access to check email and the forums here. To my surprise, they had racks of paperbacks and magazines in their entry foyer for sale - paperbacks 25¢ each, or 5 for a $1.00. So I walked out of there $6.00 poorer and 30 books richer. And a great benefit of buying from libraries - they are non-profit organizations, thus do not charge sales tax.

Shopping on eBay will probably suit a lot of people, especially if they are lucky enough to win bids on similar lots like Chris did. Persons living in rural areas or small towns, with little access to used bookstores, should find economical buys if they have the patience. Collectors like Chris and others are likely to be competition for a lot of the auctions, but from the short time I surfed around there this afternoon, I would say there is plenty available to go around. Combining eBay (and other online sources) with bookstores (or libraries) in your area should insure you the best chance of finding those elusive books you have been seeking.

NOTE: Since this article was first uploaded and I made those comments about Ebay I not only started to buy things there I also sell through them occasionally. In the past few years I have sold upwards of $1000 worth of books, records, CDs, DVDs, etc, and have a 100% positive rating with a feedback count of 515. My seller name is "templetongate."

PS: Not to make Chris envious or anything, but I do have copies of both of the books he's had a hard time finding - Gunner Cade (paperback) and The Inverted World (hardback book club edition).

ALSO: Please check out Chris' first book review - Frederik Pohl's Slave Ship.


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