Rare Book Monthly

Articles - July - 2007 Issue

AbeBooks Survey: Who Is Selling Books Today? Who's Buying?

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AbeBooks surveyed almost 2,000 of their booksellers.


By Michael Stillman

Abebooks recent released the results of a survey they conducted of almost 2,000 of their booksellers. While their findings did not particularly surprise us, they did confirm a lot of our own anecdotal impressions about who is selling books today, and particularly, who is selling online. We then went to the source, AbeBooks, to see what their reaction was to the results.

Youth may be served, but youth is not doing the serving. Abe found that 79% of its sellers are aged 45 and over. This places the bookselling profession in the same category with Wal-Mart greeters and...well...book collectors. Perhaps the greatest issue facing the collectible book field today is the aging of those who have an interest in its wares. The current generation has not grown up with books the way earlier ones did. Alternative sources of information, first television, and now the all-invasive presence of the internet, has made books an afterthought to much of a generation. It is hard to sell nostalgia to those who never experienced the thrill when it was new.

This is not to predict the doom of bookselling. Millions of books are undoubtedly changing hands every few days, and many buyers are young. The huge textbook market must have an average customer age of around 20. The issue here relates to the traditional collectors, a valued but smaller part of Abe's overall business.

The remaining profile of Abe's booksellers is also interesting. Half have degrees or some type of "higher qualification," and most sellers left white-collar careers to become booksellers. The most common prior careers are teaching, librarians or other library careers, sales, and management. What we are seeing here is something most AbeBooks sellers know (likely from personal experience) -- those entering the field tend to be well-educated, professional people, looking to exit their stressful careers for something more relaxing. Boy are they surprised! For so many, bookselling is a labor of love, rather than a great career move (financially). They love books and want to be a part of the business, but for many it may be more suitable for a side, hobby career than a way to get rich.

The survey shows that 11% of Abe's sellers work 51-60 hours per week, 9% over 60 hours. These are not the hobby sellers but those trying to make a full-time income. The most time-consuming task is online cataloguing. You knew that. A majority -- 60% - sell only online, but just 21% plan to launch their own selling website. Abe sellers get their books at library sales, estate sales, private sales, and auctions, and 26% have traveled up to 100 miles to obtain a book. One quarter of these dealers expect to increase their online inventory by 10% to 25% this year.

In a sign that there are many booklovers within this profession, the survey revealed that 33% read from 5 to 10 books per month, despite all of the time needed to sell them.

What are the sellers' biggest fears? To this question, 68% listed falling book prices as their largest concern. Another 38% said they were worried that fewer young people are reading books today.

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