Rare Book Monthly

Articles - March - 2006 Issue

ABE -- To The Summit And Back

Vancouver

Some of the "summits" near Abe's home in Vancouver


By Michael Stillman

Abebooks held their much ballyhooed dealer summit early last month. It's not clear what their purpose was in holding the summit, but if it was to relieve the tensions that have developed over the past year between the site and some of its dealers, it was probably not a huge success. Abe started with an announcement that they would be taking over the processing of all credit card orders made through the site. Previously, dealers had the option to use Abe's services or their own. Processing through Abe is now mandatory. What upset dealers even more was the fee: 5 1/2%. Few booksellers are paying anything like 5 1/2% to process their credit cards. While Abe's cost is not publicly known, large users generally pay 1%-1 1/2% for card processing. It is hard not to see this as a 3% or 4% price increase.

Not surprisingly, this development overshadowed anything else that might arise from the summit. There were other issues, such as multiple listings by large sellers, books on demand reprints listed so as to appear in searches for original material, and visibility of dealer contacts. However, money trumps everything, and a transfer of a few percentage points from the booksellers' pockets to Abe's did not set well with the former. Nevertheless, this is more than a simple rate increase. Underlying it all are the changes taking place in the relationship between Abe and its dealers, particularly its older ones. For them, it is a painful transition.

The evolution of Abe has been difficult for many of its earliest sellers. They saw Abe as something of a family, a bookselling site run by book people. Everyone on both sides of the aisle knew and appreciated books and the trade. Everyone was part of a bookselling fraternity that had developed literally over centuries. Abe was the successor to AB Bookman, a technological step forward but still part of a long bookselling tradition.

Ultimately, this was not to be. Perhaps it couldn't. The traditional world of bookselling, based upon personal relationships, was no more immune to changes in the marketplace than any other Main Street business. We, as a people, talk about relationships and service, but we buy based on price and cookie-cutter familiarity. We hate Wal-Mart, even fight to keep it out of our communities, but when it opens, we shop there. Here's another example. Do you remember the tasty hamburgers they used to sell at the lunch counters in your local drug store (this one is for the oldtimers)? So why do we buy the atrocities they sell at McDonald's instead? Price and familiarity. When we travel, we eat at the same restaurants and sleep in the same motels we find in our hometowns. You'd think we never left. The trade for new books long ago succumbed to the large, impersonal look-alike chains. The old book trade is not immune.

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