Abe: A Walk on the Wild Side
By Bruce McKinney
Abebooks, like most businesses that have done well enough to actually change scale, is looking to swim with the big fish. What they have created in the book business is nothing short of amazing. Their now increasingly apparent goal is to monetize their success. To do this they need to develop predictable earnings and they have been raising fees and shutting off backdoor communication between buyers and sellers to accomplish this. They have every right to do so and a high majority of book sellers are probably unaffected. For most Abe booksellers transactions are small and their buyers non-repeaters.
Perhaps 3% or two million of the seventy million books on Abe are serious antiquarian items offered by specialist dealers: antiquarian booksellers who see themselves as a special breed, as Bergdorf Goodmans among the Seven Elevens. Antiquarian booksellers are generally highly intelligent and in the relationship marketing business. They identify and describe often obscure material and place it in collections. They thrive on contact. It is their life blood. Abe faces the challenge of providing a formula or formulas that works for both used booksellers and antiquarians. To see into the future let's look back for a moment.
On most Main Streets in America you can feel if not actually see the history of retailing. There are the small stores and among them there are a few larger emporiums. The downtowns tend to be run down and the malls on the outskirts of town where merchants moved several decades ago themselves now beginning to age. Even regional malls, the praying mantis of shopping that years ago induced people to travel beyond their once preferred local shopping options now find themselves in the belly of the whale. Shoppers never stop looking and have now moved beyond geographical constraints.
Ten years ago the internet with its shopping options showed up as a blip on the radar. People were already used to buying mail order so the idea of viewing things electronically was simply the next new idea. At the same time states were raising sales taxes to offset the Reagan downsizing. Such taxes were efficiently collected locally while out-of-state purchases often went untaxed. Consumers quickly understood that savings on sales taxes tended to offset shipping cost.
Locally selection has always been a problem whatever the item. For books the problem is especially acute and so for new material the super-store emerged. Today Barnes and Noble, Borders, Powell's, Brentano's and others stock up to 70,000 titles under one roof and sometimes serve cappuccino and a snack, if not lunch. New books lend themselves to store distribution. They come in boxes and they are designed to be handled. They have ISBN numbers and store inventory identification. They warehouse well. There is also a system that supports new books. The New York Times ranks them by sales, offers reviews and anoints others as notable. The New York Review of Books weighs in as do numerous daily and Sunday publications. Everywhere movies are reviewed. So are books.