Rare Book Monthly

Articles - September - 2005 Issue

Abe: A Walk on the Wild Side


Can peace be restored?

I'm sure Abe wants a one size fits all solution for their business and I suspect that many booksellers are comfortable with this approach. Most of Abe's books are after all pedestrian, out-of-print materials that will find a home in time at a low price. But about 3% of their listings are for higher value old and rare books that are part of a separate and distinct business that has as much in common with used book selling as cavier does with cotton candy. They share the common link of being printed just as new fiction and a Gutenberg Bible do but don't expect to find an original example of a Gutenberg Bible at Barnes and Noble. The world knows the difference.

Abe seems determined to impose a single pricing structure on all its book sellers. To do this it needs to inject itself into each transaction by creating a barrier between buyers and sellers. Its speed bump includes an 8% processing fee. Used book sellers, who are for the most part, happy to sell their books to anyone, have fewer problems with Abe's approach while rare book dealers feel dread. Rare book dealers tend to have fewer customers but significant relationships with them and Abe seems to be treating a book sale simply as a financial transaction. Now, by putting the seller further back in the informational queue they are implying that in time they'll eliminate all contact between buyer and seller. Many antiquarian booksellers view this as unreasonable and they are actively looking for alternatives. Nothing comparable to Abe exists but it's an open invitation for others to try.

Abe faces several problems as they contemplate the impact of using a single pricing set for its sellers. [1] Many rare book sellers aren't going to accept reduced contact with potential buyers. The contact trumps the sale in importance so they will relentlessly resist until an alternative marketplace looms into view. [2] The presence of higher end books lends a patina of quality to the operation and probably makes Abe both a more attractive public stock offering and outright buy-out candidate but if they can't work out a solution they'll lose this component of their listings. [3] An alternative market place for high-value material may already exist. It's not yet as interesting or effective as Abe but does anyone believe that Google, Froogle or something similar under another name can't replicate the Abe experience on a per click basis? Google is now a publicly traded company and will feel the need in the years ahead to monetize every opportunity at its disposal. Stockholders will demand it and the bean counters who will inevitably run Google will make it happen. Creating an Abe look-alike where commissions are paid for clicks looks to be a very logical alternative. In fact the only reason Google won't do it will be if the Abe model is so efficient they can't really improve it. The 8% commission plus credit card processing fees give Google plenty of room to believe they can and the online used book business is going to be someone's billion dollar business in the future.

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