ASSOCIATES (vol. 6, no. 3, March 2000) -

Has Books In Print Outlived Its Usefulness?


Barbara Hill
Order Division, Library Technical Services
University of California, Berkeley Library

     My acquaintance with Books in Print began in 1967 with my first real job, which was in a bookstore. At that time there were many books which had been in print since the 1920s, and prices did not change very often. "BIP" was the Bible of the bookstore business, and no bookstore could be without a set of the printed volumes. I learned that the information in BIP was whatever had been submitted by the publishers and that BIP did not verify the accuracy of any of it.

     I soon learned that one presumed publisher with listings in BIP, "State Mutual Books," was actually an importer of foreign publications and that they almost never actually had the titles in stock; it could take months to order through them; and their prices were very high. Our bookstore encouraged customers to check local libraries instead.

     As time went on and inflation became a fact of life, BIP entries rapidly went out of date, and the printed set was only published annually. We supplemented it with Forthcoming Books to some extent. Then I left the bookstore and spent several years away from the business of buying books.

     In 1980 I began my present job, which once again consisted of "buying books." (I use quotation marks because "buying books" sounds like such a simple job. It isn't.) Books in Print was still the source we used most for determining who was publishing or distributing a given title, whether it was still in print or not, and a ballpark idea of the price. In time, we discovered a quarterly update that was issued on microfiche, and we subscribed to that until it was no longer published.

     In the past two decades, our book-buying procedures have changed a lot. With RLIN and OCLC, we no longer needed BIP to tell us the name of the publisher; and since we use library vendors almost exclusively, it became primarily their job to keep track of which publisher had purchased another's stock, or who was distributing what. We also began estimating prices on our orders, rather than carefully researching a book's price. We told our vendors that we'd accept any book that was not more than $50 over our estimate. This has worked very well, and saves time at their end when they know they don't have to "query" every little thing.

     One of our vendors gave us the idea of flagging an estimated price by adding a penny to it. Thus if our purchase order cites the price of a book as $45.00, it means that is the book's list price, as far as we know. But if we cite the price as $45.01, it means "we haven't got a clue." This has been useful to those vendors who understand it, and they still adhere to the fifty-dollar rule.

     Although the staff of our library's Order Division used BIP less and less, our library is large enough and has several far-flung branches that it still had several subscriptions to the printed version.

     Then came databases and the Web. Our library became part of a nine-campus "consortium" of libraries who shared the cost of online access to several valuable databases through OCLC's FirstSearch. One of the databases was BIP Online. Patrons on all nine campuses could "telnet" from our online library catalog to FirstSearch, and access BIP Online from library terminals. We cancelled several print subscriptions to BIP and are now down to one.

     A few years ago the telnet access was dropped in favor of access via the Web version of our multi-campus library catalog. There is no single URL to click on - the consortial arrangement necessitates going through three screens to connect to BIP. Patrons have been confused and frustrated by this, but since they are used to BIP and think it is an authoritative source, they continue to ask for it.

     Meantime, the Order Division staff discovered online databases belonging to and Barnes & Noble. It didn't take long to notice that their databases were quite a bit more accurate and up-to-date than the BIP database. Yes, we have found errors in those sources too, but on thewhole they have proven to be much more reliable. In-print or out-of-print status is remarkably more accurate on these booksellers' sites.

     It should not take a genius to understand why this is so. A publisher who wants to sell a newly-published title has an incentive to list it with BIP so potential buyers can order it. But when the book goes out of print, the publisher has very little incentive to de-list it. A bookseller orders books on a constant basis, to replenish stock or to special-order for a customer. It is in the bookseller's best interest to update its database as soon as it gets a report that a title has gone out of print, in order to avoid wasting time trying to order the title repeatedly. (Price increases are noted in a similar manner.) Bowker, the publisher of BIP, does not order books, and only relies on what publishers report on their own. Not all publishers are reliably communicative, and many do not even keep their own websites up-to-date.

     Last year, our library's consortium paid over $12,000 for online access to BIP from July 1, 1999 through June 30, 2000. and's databases are free. Has Books In Print lost its usefulness? I think so. I think something will have to change if BIP hopes to survive in the 21st century.

     Encyclopedia Britannica has already seen the handwriting on the Web's wall, and has made the contents of its encyclopedia free to everyone. Britannica's future may depend on its reputation as an authoritative beginning point, with links to the best sources for additional in-depth information, supported by advertising revenue which will be drawn to such a highly-visited site. Perhaps Bowker should consider planning a different future for BIP on the Web.

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