Rare Book Monthly

Articles - February - 2010 Issue

Bookselling - It's a Business: Year and Decade in Review

Halas-volk

Susan Halas (left) and Chris Volk.


By Susan Halas & Chris Volk

Many independent booksellers found 2009 was a better than expected year with a stronger than expected finish. It was also marked the end of a decade when everyone and his dog became a bookseller.

The rush to bookselling was not surprising given an economy that turned sour and an occupation with a very low threshold of entry. The field generated as many business models as there were vendors. Some sold on eBay: cited in a 2005 survey as the primary source of income for more than 724,000 Americans. Many focused on Amazon, which launched its Marketplace in 2000 and reported 1.7 million active third party sellers by 2009 (not all of them booksellers).

Others flocked to the more traditional multi-dealers sites like Alibris, AbeBooks and biblio.com. Still others relied strongly on their own independent websites jazzed up with the new social media bells and whistles. With the influx of hordes of newcomers, those who were already established in the field had to work harder and be more creative to stay ahead. The best performers seemed to have a strong on-line presence and an increasingly sophisticated command of the tech repetoire.

Wide range of financials
The variety of business models was not surprising. What was surprising were the range of gross sales, the extremes of volume and the divergent views of the future.

Reported gross revenues started near $0 and escalated though several financial benchmarks. The first breakpoint came under 20K, next stop was mid five figures, then mid sixes, and upward to more rarified climes approaching, or even exceeding $1,000,000. No matter how many dollars were earned and spent almost all of these ventures remained relatively small, independently owned entrepreneurial businesses. Year end reports ran the gamut from major declines to significant increases, particularly in the fourth quarter.

"I was off by 25 percent and anyone who tells you it was different is a liar," said one highly reputable and long established ABAA member, while his colleague, also an ABAA member and almost as long established, reported, "We had a very strong fourth quarter and we're ahead year over year by at least five percent."

"…The best ever." That's how one bookseller classified last year, while another said 2010 looks to be even better based on the first 10 days. Several remarked on it being a great year for buying, while more than one seller noted that they had exceeded their conservative forecasts.

Some of these comments are from a poll in January 2010, when a group of online booksellers (over half of them members of IOBA, the Independent Online Booksellers Association) were surveyed on how things had turned out for the whole year. The results were strongly positive. A year which started out at least moderately affected by the overall economic recession wound up - for some sellers, at least - with substantial gains. Seventy percent of those replying to the follow-up questions reported increases in total sales which ranged, in dollars, from 10% to over 50%.

Not that booksellers were immune to downturn: the January survey was a follow-up to a more narrowly focused one in March 2009. In the original poll, over 50% of the 48 independent and experienced sellers reported a significant decline in the first two months of 2009. Even by the end of the year, 30% were still reporting an overall decrease.

Rare Book Monthly

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