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Your iPhone as bargain book shopper

February 2, 2009 |  2:51 pm

Snaptell_2 Last week booksellers gathered in Salt Lake City for something called the Winter Institute, where they networked and went to panels. I was following some of the play-by-play on Twitter, where I discovered that some booksellers still consider blogs to be scary. The folks at Harper Studio apparently caught up with some booksellers in more detail, relating the even more terrifying development of an iPhone app called SnapTell.

Dave Weich from Powell’s pulled out his iPhone and showed his colleagues a new free app (name?) that had them all gulping their wine and gasping for air. The app allows iPhone users to simply point their phone at a book jacket (perhaps one they like the looks of on Powell’s store recommendations shelf) and the phone instantly provides a price comparison of everywhere that book is available online.

Dave may have been paying attention to the New York Times Gadgetwise blog, which wrote about SnapTell just before Christmas.

The fanciest iPhone app I tried was SnapTell, which doesn’t use a bar code, but makes a search from a photo you take of an item. SnapTell correctly recognized the CD from the cover, and returned nine online prices, starting at $10.65. It should have given results for local stores but didn’t, so I tried a more common item, the Doris Kearns Goodwin book “Team of Rivals.” SnapTell not only found it online, but also at two stores less than 10 miles away — and at a discount.

Apparently booksellers are rattled by the comparison shopping — and it would be awful to have someone standing in your store, cruising your stock, who snaps a photo of it and then runs off to buy it cheaper elsewhere.

But in a place as spread out as L.A., how likely is it that a prospective book buyer might find three bookstores in close proximity — and want to abandon one for another? Say you're at Skylight Books and you find out that "Twilight" is $1.75 cheaper at Barnes & Noble at the Grove. Are you really going to abandon your Los Feliz parking spot, skip the idea of lunch at Fred 62 or a drink at the Dresden so you can spend 20 minutes or more driving the 6 miles to The Grove to save a buck or two?

Maybe I'm just a book-loving optimist, but I don't think so. SnapTell might seem scary, but I don't see it really affecting the buying habits of people who shop at independent bookstores. If price were the only thing we considered when book buying, we'd spend a lot more time cruising those big flat tables at Costco.

—Carolyn Kellogg