Rare Book Monthly

Articles - September - 2005 Issue

Abe: A Walk on the Wild Side


Exchanges, buyers and sellers have always argued.

Used books are another matter. New books have a "newness" premium that disappears as the cash register goes ching. Consumers of course are buying a consumable, not a collectible and generally understand they pay a premium. They nevertheless tend to keep the books they buy, lining their shelves with talisman of intelligence and memorials to experiences real and imagined. The day inevitably comes when the books must go. "We're downsizing, dead or simply losing interest." Many of them end up on Abe. "This book is the same as it was the day I bought it 10 years ago." This book owner means it. They haven't read this book. The spine hasn't been cracked and no corners were folded to note the forward progress of a reader's eyes. This baby is still brand spanking new. And this baby also isn't alone. In fact we are awash in unread and now unwanted printed material and it is Abe's job to sell it.

In the 1990s the founders of ABE began to build a site to list books that people wanted to sell. Others did it first and others have done it since but Abe, has done it better. Their reward is today to be the largest listing site of used, old and rare books on the planet. It's quite an accomplishment.

But what Abe is good at is listing books. Selling books requires buyers and there are nowhere near enough buyers to keep the inventory stable. Thus the listings keep on growing. Today they have 70,000,000 books for sale and more seem inevitable.

Abe is also a for-profit business and they have every right to be rewarded as the market leader they are. Amazon sells books and is worth an enormous amount of money. eBay derives some of its revenue from books and they too are worth tons of money. Abe has 13,000 sellers and perhaps an average listing fee of $35 per for total listing income of five to six million dollars. It's nice but hardly impressive by Wall Street standards. So for the past three years they have been trying to monetize their success. Their processing fees, now 8%, have much increased over the years although they remain far below what Amazon or Alibris charge. Recently they took steps to force sellers to run more transactions through them as in the past Abe provided such services but obligated no one to use them. Now this is changing. Links to sellers have been repositioned and obscured, a step that feeds a bookseller's natural insecurities. To gain revenue, Abe is kind of tricking inexperienced buyers into ordering through them. In other words they are using their stronger position vis-a-vis book sellers to tilt the table in their direction. But it's not a good idea to treat all book sellers the same.

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