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I have always considered myself a reader, but it was only when I left full-time education and began reading for pleasure that I started reading properly. I set several rules for myself at that point.
1. I will only read something that I want to read. This seems like a strange rule, but you would be amazed how many people try to lend you books once they know reading is one of your hobbies. (Sidebar Rant: Part of this rule means owning everything that I read rather than borrowing. I feel there is more of an investment if it has cost me time and money to purchase the book. It’s one of the main problems I have with professional reviews of things like books, movies, theatre and concerts. So often the reviewer does not have the same investment as a normal person. How can they give an objective opinion of something they were never that inclined to see in the first place and then got for free. In my imaginary magazine, reviewers would only write about things they were interested in and they would have to pay the standard price for everything they review. Kind of like Ciao, but less needy.)
2. I will challenge myself, but I will also treat myself.
3. I will only read one book at a time.
4. I will finish everything I start.
If you’re not careful, reading can be an expensive hobby. I have traveled the world for work and everywhere I go, I look for contraband to feed my habit. I picked up my Philip Pullmans for a song on Yonge Street in Toronto. I found a surprisingly comprehensive selection of John D MacDonald paperbacks on the Khaosan Road in Bangkok. In Manila, the exchange rate made a bargain of McEwan and Roth. When I come back to London I always spare a day to trawl the Charing Cross Road and I have to mention Two Jays Bookshop in Edgware, the best hometown, second-hand store a boy could wish for.
Satisfying as this life of literary bargain hunting is, it has never solved the problem of keeping up with the critics. If you limit yourself to second-hand shops and remainder warehouses, you are limiting yourself to books of a certain age (and perhaps of a certain type). If you want to be reading the latest books by the current titans, you are stuck with barely discounted hardbacks or the increasingly pricy paperback versions that come out a year later.
Then along comes bol.com. I first encountered the site in its previous incarnation. It was a pale imitation of other online booksellers with a limited selection and nothing special in the way of discounts. Then in
Pictures of bol.co.uk
September 2002, bol.com was reborn as a book club.
Before you get nervous about the obligations associated with joining an online book club, let me clearly state the rules as found on the website. Your initial purchase can be as small as one book or as many as ten. After that your commitment is clearly laid out in the Terms & Conditions:
“As a member of bol.com, all we ask is that you buy at least one more book from us within the first six months of your membership. We will not send you anything you have not ordered, and we don't ask you to decline anything either.”
I have been a ‘member’ for nearly two years now and I can assure you that this is the case.
One of the major obstacles to buying online is hidden charges for postage and packaging. At bol.com they have simplified matters considerably. You are charged one pound per book for postage, but if you order three or more books there is no charge at all for postage. In two years, I have never ordered less than three books at a time and, therefore, I have never paid a penny for postage.
The sales tagline at bol.com is “Bestsellers at 60% off, everything else at least 20% off”. Let’s start with some of those so-called bestsellers. The 60% off list is currently divided into the following categories:
• Art, Philosophy & Poetry • Biography • Children’s • Contemporary and Literary Fiction • Crime & Thrillers • Entertainment • Food & Drink • Health, Beauty & Self-Help • History, Politics & Science • Romantic Fiction • Science& Nature • SF & Fantasy • Sport • Travel
All the books listed within are discounted to at least 60% off the cover price. There is a ‘but’, though and for many it’s a deal-breaker. Most of the fiction books are not actually hardbacks. The majority are paperback versions of the hardback, that is, the same size and printing as the hardback but in a soft cover and usually paperback quality paper inside. If you have ever been a member of QPD or TSP, or if you have bought an oversized airport edition you will know what to expect.
I should point out though, that not all the books come like this. Sometimes a book is randomly offered at 60% off and it is the actual hardback edition. I have picked up Paul Auster’s The Book of Illusions and Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver in hardback editions. Either way the binding is clearly defined on the page for each book either as Hardback, Paperback or Special Paperback Edition.
Also, if a book is not a standard size print then bol will sell it as a hardback. I bought the original editions of Schott’s Original Miscellany, Lyra’s Oxford and Eats, Shoots and Leaves for 40% of their cover price. These books may never be issued as paperbacks and they have been heavily discounted elsewhere, but never by 60% and never in their first month of publication.
Similarly the non-fiction and cookery books usually come in their original hardback editions. My five year old has both What Not To Wear books on her shelf and my thirty five year old has a complete set of Delia Smiths on hers, all in hardback (they both like looking at the pictures).
I have also bought hardback reference books including an amazing visual dictionary from Dorling Kindersley and the Times Atlas of the World reduced by 60% from £150.00 (it was a bar mitzvah present for my nephew, but I was sorely tempted to get two).
One downside is that the books don’t stay at the highest discount forever. I check the site at least once a month and I often find that books that were previously at 60% off are now only 28% off or, worse, not available at all. You have to be quick. A search for all the books I have mentioned so far will only turn up one or two at the price I paid for them.
At the other extreme some books stick around for ages and stay available well into their paperback printing. I notice that the overblown, underdone, potboiler Brick Lane is currently on offer for 60% below the paperback price i.e., £3.19. But the edition they are selling is the Special Paperback Edition which is exactly the same version that I bought a year ago for 60% below the hardback price which was £5.19. I don’t begrudge the two quid because it was important to me to have read the book while it was still being discussed and nominated for things, but a lesser man may feel piqued.
Every month the site updates the books in the 60% below categories, but it is also worth having a look at the rest of the books available. The claim is that the books will be at least 20% off but I have found some real bargains that were not in the main listing. I bought Peter Carey’s My Life as a Fake at 78% off and I saw they were selling Zoe Heller’s book at over 80% off. Admittedly these prices were only available once the book was out in paperback, but it still provides classy new literature for under four quid.
One of the great by-products of bol’s pricing policy is that I have been able to try new authors that I may have shied away from before. British publishers don’t like to take risks on unknown quantities and recently they have taken to publishing newer authors in outsize paperbacks rather than offering a paperback edition. These books carry a cover price of between 10 and 12 pounds (as opposed to 12 to 20 quid for a hardback) and if they are successful may end up in the standard paperback format. At 60% off a tenner, I have been able to sample Dan Rhodes and ZZ Packer where, in the past, I may have waited for more of a critical consensus.
I had one occasion to gripe at bol when a book which I was semi-interested in went up in price before I had a chance to match it with two more to make a free delivery. I sent an email outlining my complaint and received a perfectly polite reply offering the book to me at the cheaper price whenever I wished to purchase it. Very Satisfactory.
Reading through other opinions on bol.com I notice that this has been something of a sticking point for people. Unfortunately I have to remove myself from the debate. I don’t live in the UK but I get my books sent to my parents’ house and then I pick them up or they get brought out to me so time is less of a factor for me. As a result I am totally unaware of any delivery issues except my mum complaining that they always ring on the doorbell on Saturday mornings and she has to find her dressing gown and go downstairs and it’s always my bloody books. I have tried to appease her by chucking in the latest Kellerman but she’s still pretty miffed. However, I’m not sure delivery issues pertaining to my mother are strictly representative for the consumer-oriented readers of Ciao.
I love bol.com. It enables me to buy books now that I would otherwise have to wait a year to read. It is affordable and efficient. I find myself looking forward to the first of the month to see what new books they are offering. I have ordered from them at least once every two months for the past two years and have never been disappointed by their service or their product. Their stock is tiny in comparison to Amazon, but it changes regularly and stays current. Despite the narrower range I have found presents for nearly every member of my family at one time or another.
The best bargain currently on offer is Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. Although the book has now been published in paperback, bol.com are offering the hardback at 82% off cover price. That is £3.59 for a 700 page hardback. In comparison Amazon.co.uk have the paperback edition for £8.99 plus postage. If you buy new books, you owe it to yourself to check out uk.bol.com