Rare Book Monthly

Articles - July - 2013 Issue

A Transaction Reversed: AbeBooks Sells Chrislands Back to Founder


Back to the future - Chrislands is single and free again.

Five years ago, amid great fanfare, it was announced that AbeBooks was purchasing Chrislands, the bookseller's website hosting service. At the beginning of May 2013, almost exactly five years later, it was announced that Chrislands had been sold back to one of its co-founders, Jaymes Sorbel. The explanation given was the suitably vague “We [AbeBooks and Jaymes] have come to the conclusion that ChrisLands needs to be independent.” Obviously, they reached a totally different conclusion in 2008. At that time, Abe CEO Hannes Blum stated in a press release, “Chrislands is a perfect fit for us.” Chrislands' other co-founder, Lance Christen, said, “we’ll be able to offer a better product by working closely with AbeBooks.com and its affiliated companies.” What changed?

The world changed. While we can't know exactly why the two parties decided to split, we can see that the marketplace has changed in five years. So, perhaps, has management's focus. AbeBooks was an acquisitive company back in 2008, roughly purchasing a book-related company a year. In 2004, it was Spanish book site IberLibro, in 2005 BookFinder, in 2006 FillZ and later a 40% stake in Library Thing, and in 2008 Chrislands. Later that year, Abe itself was purchased by Amazon.com, and its only purchase since then was struggling European competitor ZVAB in 2010.

In 2008, AbeBooks officially explained it made purchases based on three factors: the company was book-related, successful, and possessed an opportunity for growth. We aren't in a position to know whether Chrislands fulfilled these promises. Certainly, it is still book-related, success is a subjective, eye-of-the-beholder test, and whether it has achieved growth is unknown to us. However, there was something else that may have been a factor in selecting this particular successful, growing, book-related business in 2008 that may no longer be as much of a concern for AbeBooks. We look back to an interview conducted by Book Patrol on seattlepi.com at the time with Dr. Blum.

The interviewer asked Dr. Blum why this purchase was made, but not before observing, “It would seem that one of the greatest threats facing AbeBooks would be in the booksellers building of their own websites. Coupled with Google’s dominance in the search arena and Amazon’s far reach and you potentially have a situation where the user will eventually bypass the traditional 3rd party books sites like AbeBooks...” Abe's CEO is quoted in response, “Booksellers realize that they have to offer books for sale through as many different ‘channels’ as possible. Before the internet, that meant auctions, book fairs and catalogs as well as bricks and mortar bookstores. Today, the same rule applies and we accept that sellers are going to sell through other online marketplaces and also develop their own retail websites. We understand this and accept this. This is a part of the online bookselling world that we want to be involved with – Chrislands already does a great job and has fantastic potential. We’re not straying away from online bookselling but simply making sure we have a strong presence in another developing area of internet bookselling.”

Why does AbeBooks no longer need a presence in this other area of internet bookselling? In 2008, Abe likely saw Chrislands, or at least the concept of cooperative individual bookseller websites, as more of a threat to their business model. Booksellers loved Abe in the beginning, but numerous price increases and other demands later, that relationship had become more tense. Some dealers looked for alternatives. Add the interviewer's comment about “Google’s dominance in the search arena” to “another developing area of internet bookselling” and you have a potentially dangerous mix for aggregators like Abe.

In 2008, the idea that Google could become a powerful aggregator, not just of books but of everything, seemed like a serious possibility. Google had an advantage. They weren't listing products themselves. They would pick up listings from the sellers' own websites and enable customers to sort them in a useable order. You could search for books almost the way you could on a traditional aggregator's site. However, Google did not have to deal with the expenses of listing books and interacting with dealers since they picked up the listings from someone else's site. Therefore, they did not have to charge fees. They could make money through advertising and offering a check-out service for those who needed one. Booksellers (like everyone else) like free.

Google opened a specific product search in 2002 under the name “Froogle.” It developed slowly, but in 2007, Google renamed it “Google Product Search” and ramped up the service. By 2008, one could imagine it becoming a serious threat to even Amazon. And, Google was showing an especially keen interest in books, as it developed its massive database of scanned books under the name “Google Books.” That might have provided an extremely good place to promote books found through “Google Product Search.” It is no wonder AbeBooks would have wanted to own the company that built and operated the largest number of individual booksellers' personal websites.

A lot has changed since 2008. Google never became the force in shopping, and particularly the book field, it appeared it might. Do you search for books or anything else by going to Google Shopping (successor to Google Product Search) instead of Amazon, eBay, a regular Google web search, or AbeBooks (for books)? I thought not. Google Shopping is now another pay-to-play service like the other sites. Meanwhile, Google Books has been bogged down in lawsuits for years with no end in sight. Their interest appears to have waned. Google seems to be focused elsewhere. They are involved in such fields as wearable computers and driverless cars. How exciting are old books to them now?

So, some combination of dealer websites and Google no longer appears much of a threat to Abe. Meanwhile, though books are still an important part of Amazon's business, they are hardly the focus any more. In their early days, books were the next big thing. That is no longer the case. Most booksellers would likely acknowledge these as tougher times, not the growth era of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Chrislands may have appeared more of a distraction than an opportunity today for Amazon/AbeBooks. It likely belongs in the hands of a small, privately and personally run business than in those of an internet giant. We suspect that is what AbeBooks and Chrislands' old management concluded recently.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Old World Auctions (March 21-28):</b> Lot 7. Ritter's unusual sun-dial world map, 1607. Est. $3500 to $4500
    <b>Old World Auctions (March 21-28):</b> Lot 16. Fascinating Japanese satirical map published prior to WWII, 1932. Est. $1400 to $2000
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    <b>Old World Auctions (March 21-28):</b> Lot 346. One of the most decorative 18th century maps of Malta, 1680. Est. $1200 to $1500
    <b>Old World Auctions (March 21-28):</b> Lot 412. The first printed map devoted to the Pacific in full contemporary color, 1589. Est. $8000 to $10000
    <b>Old World Auctions (March 21-28):</b> Lot 425. Rare set of celebrated explorers of the New World, 1592. Est. $1900 to $2300
    <b>Old World Auctions (March 21-28):</b> Lot 436. Two superb miniature atlases bound in one volume with 98 maps, 1682. Est. $5500 to $7500
    <b>Old World Auctions (March 21-28):</b> Lot 445. Part IV of de Bry's "Grand Voyages" by Girolamo Benzoni, 1613. Est. $2000 to $2500
    <b>Old World Auctions (March 21-28):</b> Lot 447. Tallis' "History of the United States of America" in six volumes, 1850. Est. $1500 to $1800
    <b>Old World Auctions (March 21-28):</b> Lot 448. Mallet's miniature military masterpiece, 1672. Est. $1400 to $1700
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 29: Printed & Manuscript African Americana</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 29:</b> Malcolm X, Autograph Letter Signed, from prison, 1950. $20,000 to $30,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 29:</b> Letter from Moses Walker, an enslaved Georgia man, to his mother at another plantation, 1854. $12,000 to $18,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 29:</b> Signed cabinet card of Frederick Douglass, albumen photograph, Boston, circa 1879. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 29: Printed & Manuscript African Americana</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 29:</b> Placard from the Memphis Sanitation Worker's strike, 1968. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 29:</b><br><i>The North Star,</i> volume 1, issue 27, Rochester, NY, 1848. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 29:</b> Hand-tinted tintype of John Brown, circa 1860. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 29: Printed & Manuscript African Americana</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 29:</b> Poster signed & inscribed by Huey Newton, circa 1967. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 29:</b> Album of aerial views of the march on Montgomery, taken by federal troops, 1965. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 29:</b> Poster for the SNCC, photograph by Danny Lyon featuring John Lewis, circa 1962. $3,000 to $4,000.
  • <b>Bonhams: Fine Books and Manuscripts. March 9, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> BEETHOVEN, LUDWIG VAN. Autograph Manuscript sketch-leaf part of the score of the Scottish Songs, "Sunset" Op. 108 no 2. [Vienna, February 1818]. Inscribed by Alexander Wheelock Thayer. $80,000 to $120,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> Violin belonging to Albert Einstein, presented to him by Oscar H. Steger, 1933. $100,000 to $150,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> EINSTEIN, ALBERT. Autograph Letter Signed ("Papa") to his son Hans Albert, discussing his involvement with the atomic bomb, September 2, 1945. $100,000 to $150,000
    <b>Bonhams: Fine Books and Manuscripts. March 9, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> HAMILTON, ALEXANDER. Autograph Letter Signed, to Baron von Steuben, with extensive notes of Von Steuben's aide Benjamin Walker, June 12, 1780. $10,000 to $15,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> NEWTON, ISAAC. Autograph Manuscript in Latin, being detailed instructions on making the philosopher's stone. 8 pp. 1790s. $200,000 to 300,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> 1869 Inauguration Bible of President Ulysses S. Grant. $80,000 to $120,000
  • <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Charles Darwin on sexuality and the transmission of hereditary characteristics: Autograph Letter Signed to Lawson Tait. Down, 17 January [1877].
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> MILTON, JOHN. <i>Paradise Lost. A Poem written in ten books.</i> London: 1667. A very rare example with the contemporary binding untouched and with a 1667 title page.
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Hamilton secures the ratification of the Constitution: <i>The Debates and Proceedings of the Convention of the State of New-York, assembled at Poughkeespsie, on the 17th June, 1788.</i>
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> The social contract “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”: ROUSSEAU, JEAN-JACQUES. <i>Principes du Droit Politique [Du Contract Social]</i>. Amsterdam: Michel Rey, 1762
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> “The first English textbook on geometrical land-measurement and surveying”: BENESE, RICHARD. <i>This Boke Sheweth the Maner of Measurynge All Maner of Lande…</i>
  • <b>Forum Auctions: Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper. March 22, 2018</b>
    <b>Forum Auctions, Mar. 22:</b> Jenner (Rev. George Charles). <i>The Evidence at Large...Respecting Dr Jenner's Discovery of Vaccine Inoculation,</i> presentation copy from Edward Jenner to Rev. Rowland Hill, 1805. £4,000 to £6,000
    <b>Forum Auctions, Mar. 22:</b> Houdini (Harry).- Maggi (Girolamo). <i>De tintinnabulis liber postumus...de equuleo liber,</i> Harry Houdini's copy, Amsterdam, H. Wetstein, 1689. £600 to £800
    <b>Forum Auctions, Mar. 22:</b> Meyer (Henry Leonard). Coloured Illustrations of British Birds, and their Eggs , 7 vol. in 2 plus Illustrations of British Birds, 4 vol., 1842-50 and [1835-51]. £5,000 to £7,000
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