British Library opens a new chapter in its history: helping Amazon storm the antiquarian book market

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The online retailer Amazon has stormed the fusty world of antiquarian booksellers by acquiring the rights to the British Library's unique back catalogue, dragging the buying and selling of rare and out-of-print books into the dotcom age.

No longer will enthusiasts have to pore over the dusty shelves of specialist book shops, or trawl flea markets hoping to find a rare first edition or a favourite childhood read out-of-print for decades.

Instead, they will be able to search for the book, or take a punt on the second-hand market, from the comfort of their home. But the move could push antiquarian booksellers out of business as their margins are eroded by the arrival of the biggest online merchant.

The deal gives Amazon the right to use the British Library's bibliographic catalogue, which contains 2.55 million books. Crucially it includes 1.7 million produced before the introduction in 1970 of the International Standard Book Number (ISBN), a 10-character code that uniquely identifies any modern book.

Amazon will open a new online market where buyers and sellers can strike deals for some of the world's most expensive literary creations. Robert Frew, vice-president of the Antiquarian Book Association, whose members' stomping ground include the bookshops of Charing Cross Road and Great Russell Street in central London, said the news would almost certainly mean greater pressure on those with real shopfronts.

"There's already a trend, a tussle between traditional methods and online bookselling," Mr Frew said. "I suppose the Web is winning. It's having a serious impact, but it's also just meant that some people are operating in a different style: they do their selling online."

Amazon's presence is sure to increase those pressures, especially because more than half of Britain's households now have internet access. Amazon is one of the best-known and trusted online brands.

Old editions now on the Amazon website include Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind (1961), a 1951 edition of Enid Blyton's The Enchanted Wood and the Big Noddy Book from 1967. More cerebral titles that have already attracted sellers to the new service, which opens today, include Luther Hess Waring's Political Theories of Martin Luther. Royal enthusiasts will not be disappointed either: online buyers can find eager sellers offering copies of The Queen Mother's Horses published in 1967, and written by Ivor Herbert, for between £4 and £10.

Amazon has agreed to license the catalogue from the British Library though neither revealed any details of the arrangements.

This is not the first time that the British Library has struck potentially lucrative commercial deals. It already earns £30m a year as one of the country's biggest suppliers of documents, such as old newspapers, to university researchers. Robin Terrell, the managing director of Amazon.co.uk said: "This is a massive deal. We have so far focused on books that are in print but now we can make available to users of the website millions of books going back hundreds of years."

The new service will be available through Amazon's "Marketplace" on its website. "Each title will have its own page on which sellers can post details of the copies that they have available and their prices," Mr Terrell said. "Buyers will be able to come online and order them using us as a third party to make sure of things like security of payment." Making use of the British Library catalogue not only provides a huge list of titles that dealers can make available but also acts as a way of authenticating books that do not have an ISBN number. Natalie Ceeney, director of operations and services at the British Library, said: "The Library's alliance with Amazon is a wonderful way to make our catalogue data relevant and available to a wider audience.

"Our bibliographic catalogues are second to none and we are delighted that Amazon will be using them to underpin and support the service."

Mr Frew admitted that the move "is not going to be selling millions of books overnight, but over time it will create a huge demand. We know there are people who want to buy books dating from before the introduction of ISBN numbers which we currently use for authentication purposes."

He was uncertain of the impact Amazon would have on the online antiquarian market. "There are already plenty of sites, such as abebooks.com which have been around for a while." He estimated the value of the business at "tens of millions of pounds" annually, although there are no precise figures. "The difference between a second-hand and an antiquarian book sometimes is only price," he suggested.

But for those sites, the arrival of Amazon could threaten their existence. Founded in Seattle in 1995 by Jeff Bezos, acomputer specialist from New York merchant banking, Amazon's initial pitch, as an online bookseller, bemused those who were still getting used to the internet. Few could see the sense in a bookstore you couldn't wander around.

But Mr Bezos knew that it could work like mail order ­ but with more interaction, such as customer reviews, recommendations of similar purchases, and a streamlined checkout that made it easy to buy.

Eight years later, Amazon is still the byword for ease of use on the Web ­ and it has seen off far bigger, but less able, competitors such as the book chain Barnes & Noble and the Bertlesmann Group. None could match Amazon's simplicity, efficiency and determination.

How important the move is was summed up by Greg Hart, director for Amazon.co.uk's media products. "Amazon aims to be the place where you can find and discover anything you want to buy online." It's sewn up books. What's next?

The odd couple

BRITISH LIBRARY: The Department of Printed Books, part of the British Museum, was founded in 1753. Chairman of the British Library Board is Lord John Eatwell. In 1972, an act passed by Parliament incorporated several institutions to form the British Library. The library's collection includes 150 million items in most known languages. Three million new items are added every year.

The earliest printed book, the Diamond Sutra, dating from before 1000AD, is at the British Library in St Pancras.

Books are stored on 599km of shelves at five sites in London and Yorkshire.

AMAZON.CO.UK: Amazon.co.uk originated as an independent online store, Bookpages, in 1996. It was bought by amazon.com in October 1998. Sales increased by 37 per cent in the three months to June this year. The stock includes more than 4.5 million items (nearly every UK book in print). Globally, Amazon has 35 million customers who have bought books in the last 12 months.

It would take in excess of 90 years to listen to Amazon's entire CD sales collection.

Its oldest available book is Phillippe de Monte's Il Terzo Libro delli Madrigali sheet music dating from 1570 (not a first edition!)

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