Rare Book Monthly

Articles - September - 2008 Issue

Amazon Purchases AbeBooks... The Book Community Yawns

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AbeBooks has a new owner.


By Michael Stillman

It was like the giant Sequoia tree which fell in the forest. No one knows whether it made a great sound because no one really cared enough to pay attention. A month ago, in what was the largest transaction in the "pre-owned" bookselling field, the largest book website, Amazon.com, purchased the largest used book listing site, AbeBooks. A year or two ago, the transaction probably would have lit up the bookselling community and message boards with endless commentary, consternation, and condemnation. This year, the reaction was "ho hum."

The announcement contained the usual meaningless fluff, essentially telling us nothing. Most corporate takeovers are announced this way. Amazon's Vice-President of Books said he was excited they could now provide "the widest selection of books available any place on Earth." Abe's CEO Hannes Blum was enthused that the combination could bring customers and sellers a "great experience," and, "We are very excited to be joining the Amazon family." An AE writer attending the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar, where Blum spoke, reported his responses to questioners there were equally insubstantial.

The reason for Abe's second generation, German owners selling is obvious - cashing out on an investment. Amazon's reasons are less scrutable. Certainly, consolidation and concentration is the inevitable evolution of all new fields, and online bookselling is still in the early stages of evolution. Why Amazon made this move at this time is not clear. Perhaps it is related to fierce competition in the field of online selling (see the article on eBay cutting its listing fees elsewhere in this issue of AE Monthly).

As for what changes we might see in Abe in the days ahead, little was said. Amazon announced, "AbeBooks will continue to function as a stand-alone operation based in Victoria, British Columbia." It is hard to imagine change will never come. Few businesses combine without any attempt at economies of scale. These types of transactions often make employees of the purchased company a bit nervous, but what, if anything, will happen here long term is not information to which we have access.

As to why this transaction, which once would have created outrage among sellers, seems to have had so little impact, we believe this can be chalked up to the evolution of the online bookselling field as well. Certainly, a few sellers were concerned that they would be adversely affected, that the new combined entity would raise their fees. However, Abe sellers have seen a fair amount of this already. Many have felt Abe has been gouging them with large increases over the past couple of years, but this really isn't an accurate picture of developments. What has happened has been an evolution from Abe being a great bargain to a more market priced enterprise. However, as its pricing has come to better reflect its market value, the room for arbitrary price increases has shrunk. Now, with eBay pricing more aggressively to gain market share, Google searches freely turning up seller website listings, new markets appearing (see this month's article on Craig's List), and other old standbys like Alibris and Biblio still competing for market share, the window for imposing price increases is closing. As eBay has shown, the market may even be turning the other way, another inevitable result of evolution in technology. The market may no longer permit Abe to impose fee increases as freely as it once did. The Amazon-AbeBooks merger is less of a threat to booksellers today than it once would have been. This is why, we suspect, the response from the bookselling community has been so muted.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Bonhams, inviting consignments for Sep 27:</b> Newton. <i>Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica</i>. London, 1687.
    <b>Bonhams, inviting consignments for Sep 27:</b> Josephus. <i>De antiquitate Judaica.</i> Lubeck, 1475-76.
    <b>Bonhams, inviting consignments for Sep 27:</b> Carlerius. <i>Sporta fragmentorum, Sportula fragmentorum</i>. Brussels, 1478-79.
    <b>Bonhams, inviting consignments for Sep 27:</b> Fridolin. <i>Der Schatzbehalter</i>. Nuremberg, 1491.
    <b>Bonhams, inviting consignments for Sep 27:</b> Pinder. <i>Der beschlossen gart des rosenkrantz marie</i>. Nuremberg, 1505.
    <b>Bonhams, inviting consignments for Sep 27:</b> Isidorus Hispalensis. <i>Synonyma de Homine</i>. Nuremberg, 1470-71.
    <b>Bonhams, inviting consignments for Sep 27:</b> Durer. Sammelband including <i>Underweysung der messing</i>. Nuremberg, 1525-29.
  • <b>TO AKABA! T.E. Lawrence and the Arab Revolt. Books, manuscripts and pictures. On exhibition 16 to 24th July at Maggs' new premises 48 Bedford Square.</b>
    <b>TO AKABA! T.E. Lawrence and the Arab Revolt. Books, manuscripts and pictures. On exhibition 16 to 24th July at Maggs' new premises 48 Bedford Square.</b>
    <b>TO AKABA! T.E. Lawrence and the Arab Revolt. Books, manuscripts and pictures. On exhibition 16 to 24th July at Maggs' new premises 48 Bedford Square.</b>
    <b>TO AKABA! T.E. Lawrence and the Arab Revolt. Books, manuscripts and pictures. On exhibition 16 to 24th July at Maggs' new premises 48 Bedford Square.</b>
    <b>TO AKABA! T.E. Lawrence and the Arab Revolt. Books, manuscripts and pictures. On exhibition 16 to 24th July at Maggs' new premises 48 Bedford Square.</b>
    <b>TO AKABA! T.E. Lawrence and the Arab Revolt. Books, manuscripts and pictures. On exhibition 16 to 24th July at Maggs' new premises 48 Bedford Square.</b>
    <b>TO AKABA! T.E. Lawrence and the Arab Revolt. Books, manuscripts and pictures. On exhibition 16 to 24th July at Maggs' new premises 48 Bedford Square.</b>
  • <b>19th Century Shop’s Catalog 170 Great Books and Photos. Please inquire for a copy.</b>
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Exodus 10:10 to 16:15. Complete Biblical scroll sheet in Hebrew, a Torah scroll panel. Middle East, ca. 10th or 11th century.
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Copernicus Refuted. (Astronomy.). Scientific manuscript of a course of studies at Collège de la Trinité, Lyon. 1660s.
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Israel’s War of Independence and the Early Days of the IDF. 58 photographs presented to Israel Ber, IDF officer and later convicted spy.
    <b>19th Century Shop’s Catalog 170 Great Books and Photos. Please inquire for a copy.</b>
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Early Unpublished Darwin letter on the races of man. Autograph Letter Signed [to Henry Denny]. Down, Kent, June 1, [1844].
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Classic Image of American Slavery. Kimball, M. H. <i>Emancipated Slaves</i>. New York: George Hanks, 1863.
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> (Underground Railroad.) Scaggs, Isaac. Important Runaway Slave Poster: $500 Reward Ran away, or decoyed from the subscriber…
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 2: Vintage Posters</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 2:</b> <i>Keep Calm and Carry On</i>, designer unknown, 1939. $12,000 to $18,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 2:</b> Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen, <i>Le Journal / La Traite des Blanches</i>, 1899. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 2:</b> <i>"Let Us Go Forward Together,"</i> designer unknown, 1940. $2,000 to $3,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 2: Vintage Posters</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 2:</b> Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, <i>Babylone d'Allemagne</i>, 1894. $20,000 to $30,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 2:</b> Frank Beatty, <i>Out of the Running</i>, 1929. $2,000 to $3,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 2:</b> James Montgomery Flagg, <i>Wake Up America Day</i>, 1917. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 2: Vintage Posters</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 2:</b> <i>Danté / Sim • Sala • Bim!</i>, designer unknown. $12,000 to $18,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 2:</b> Alphonse Mucha, <i>[Zodiac]</i>, 1900. $12,000 to $18,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 2:</b> Rick Griffin, <i>Jimi Hendrix Experience / John Mayall</i>, 1968. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 2: Vintage Posters</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 2:</b> Abram Games, <i>Join the ATS</i>, 1941. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 2:</b> Aldo Mazza, <i>Torino / Esposizione Internazionale</i>, 1911. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 2:</b> Robert Motherwell, <i>Julliard School / Dedication - Lincoln Center</i>, 1969. $3,000 to $4,000

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