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Many of us have been in the situation of looking for an out of print book at some point, and it can be very frustrating for people don't know what to do. Fortunately, there are a number of ways to search for out of print books, and the advent of several specialized websites has made this process much, much easier. You may still be forced to pay a hefty sum for an out of print book if it is a first edition, signed, or rare, but at least you won't have to battle to find the book in the first place. Incidentally, the same techniques used to search for out of print books also work for sound recordings, videos, and so forth.
Before delving into the myriad ways to search for an out of print book, it can help to know what an out of print book is, and to understand the different types of out of print books. An out of print book is simply a book which is no longer being printed by any publishing house. In some cases, a book is considered to be permanently out of print, meaning that it will never be printed again to the best of the publisher's knowledge. In other cases, the book is merely temporarily out of print, meaning that the publisher could order a new print run or sell the rights to another publisher. In these instances, if you are patient, you may be able to get a new copy.
When searching for an out of print book, the first thing you should do is contact the publisher to confirm that it is out of print. You should also ask the staff at the publisher's if the book is permanently out of print, or if a new print run is projected. In the event that a publisher has gone out of business, you should be able to get information about where the printing rights for the books it published went, and you can ask the new publisher.
Once you confirm that a book is well and truly out of print, you have a number of ways to look for it. The first is to leave the work to someone else. Many independent bookstores offer out of print book searches, often for free or for a minimal fee. You can give the staff what information you have, and they will come up with a list of copies and their prices. You can also ask a used bookseller to keep his or her eye out for a copy, or ask if the bookseller does out of print searches.
You can also do an out of print book search on your own, as the resources used for these searches are no longer restricted to booksellers in the know. A number of websites specialize in out of print book listings, and you can also try auction sites, which often have a diversity of offerings. You can simply search for your book on these sites to see if it comes up; if it doesn't, you may have to resort to a bookstore or book searching professional who is willing to scour and utilize connections to find your book.
Just because a book is old doesn't necessarily mean it is valuable; you may be able to find books over a century old which cost less than a book which went out of print five years ago. The price is dictated by demand, size of the print run, and fame of the book. You may also want to be aware that if a book becomes particularly famous, the publisher may decide to order a new print run to capitalize on growing demand, and you could pick up a copy cheaply that way.