Rare Book Monthly

Articles - March - 2004 Issue

Abe Increases Rates;<br>Alibris is Going Public.<br>What&#146;s Next for the Book Sites?

Coins

Making sense? Abe will be collecting three more cents per dollar on sales for a total of eight.


By Michael Stillman

Two significant announcements were made this past month concerning the online bookselling sites. The one which garnered the most attention came from Abebooks, which announced it was raising the commissions it charges on sales by 3%. Formerly at 5%, the new charge is 8% (plus a monthly listing fee based on the number of books the seller posts).

The reaction from booksellers was fast and predictable. No one likes their costs to rise. While Abe may be a bargain compared to Alibris or Amazon, with commissions of 20% and 15% (but without posting fees), booksellers were quick to point out that this represents a 60% increase. After all, it was not that long ago that Abe charged no commissions at all, only the flat, not very expensive monthly listing fees.

The message boards quickly lit up with complaints, anger, and threats to leave Abe. Probably few will follow through. Unless they have an alternative, anyone doing a substantial business on Abe will only hurt themselves by leaving. Those not doing a substantial business don’t make much difference to Abe anyway. The short-term effect will probably be minimal. The more interesting question is what will the long-term effect be. The internet turned the staid old business of bookselling on its head a few years ago. Now the internet bookselling business is in the throws of major changes itself. Who will emerge as winners and losers is as yet unknown. Abe is in a pitched battle with some powerful foes. It is the leader, the biggest fish in its pond, but it is swimming with sharks. Some of those sharks are very large, and a few are killer sharks. They will have to be very good in the years ahead to retain their leadership. This is just one step in preparing for the future. Only time will tell whether it was the right step or a misstep.

This is a point booksellers need to remember. Abe is a business in a very competitive world. They need to do what is best for themselves. Booksellers may not like increased costs. The book collecting community may not like it either. Eventually, costs get passed on, and increased commissions for middlemen ultimately hurt both those who buy and those who sell. Nevertheless, Abe must act in its own self-interest. The only question is whether this move is in its best interests. Only from hindsight will we be able to answer this question.

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