Rare Book Monthly

Articles - July - 2013 Issue

A Transaction Reversed: AbeBooks Sells Chrislands Back to Founder

Chrislandssite

Back to the future - Chrislands is single and free again.

Five years ago, amid great fanfare, it was announced that AbeBooks was purchasing Chrislands, the bookseller's website hosting service. At the beginning of May 2013, almost exactly five years later, it was announced that Chrislands had been sold back to one of its co-founders, Jaymes Sorbel. The explanation given was the suitably vague “We [AbeBooks and Jaymes] have come to the conclusion that ChrisLands needs to be independent.” Obviously, they reached a totally different conclusion in 2008. At that time, Abe CEO Hannes Blum stated in a press release, “Chrislands is a perfect fit for us.” Chrislands' other co-founder, Lance Christen, said, “we’ll be able to offer a better product by working closely with AbeBooks.com and its affiliated companies.” What changed?

The world changed. While we can't know exactly why the two parties decided to split, we can see that the marketplace has changed in five years. So, perhaps, has management's focus. AbeBooks was an acquisitive company back in 2008, roughly purchasing a book-related company a year. In 2004, it was Spanish book site IberLibro, in 2005 BookFinder, in 2006 FillZ and later a 40% stake in Library Thing, and in 2008 Chrislands. Later that year, Abe itself was purchased by Amazon.com, and its only purchase since then was struggling European competitor ZVAB in 2010.

In 2008, AbeBooks officially explained it made purchases based on three factors: the company was book-related, successful, and possessed an opportunity for growth. We aren't in a position to know whether Chrislands fulfilled these promises. Certainly, it is still book-related, success is a subjective, eye-of-the-beholder test, and whether it has achieved growth is unknown to us. However, there was something else that may have been a factor in selecting this particular successful, growing, book-related business in 2008 that may no longer be as much of a concern for AbeBooks. We look back to an interview conducted by Book Patrol on seattlepi.com at the time with Dr. Blum.

The interviewer asked Dr. Blum why this purchase was made, but not before observing, “It would seem that one of the greatest threats facing AbeBooks would be in the booksellers building of their own websites. Coupled with Google’s dominance in the search arena and Amazon’s far reach and you potentially have a situation where the user will eventually bypass the traditional 3rd party books sites like AbeBooks...” Abe's CEO is quoted in response, “Booksellers realize that they have to offer books for sale through as many different ‘channels’ as possible. Before the internet, that meant auctions, book fairs and catalogs as well as bricks and mortar bookstores. Today, the same rule applies and we accept that sellers are going to sell through other online marketplaces and also develop their own retail websites. We understand this and accept this. This is a part of the online bookselling world that we want to be involved with – Chrislands already does a great job and has fantastic potential. We’re not straying away from online bookselling but simply making sure we have a strong presence in another developing area of internet bookselling.”

Why does AbeBooks no longer need a presence in this other area of internet bookselling? In 2008, Abe likely saw Chrislands, or at least the concept of cooperative individual bookseller websites, as more of a threat to their business model. Booksellers loved Abe in the beginning, but numerous price increases and other demands later, that relationship had become more tense. Some dealers looked for alternatives. Add the interviewer's comment about “Google’s dominance in the search arena” to “another developing area of internet bookselling” and you have a potentially dangerous mix for aggregators like Abe.

In 2008, the idea that Google could become a powerful aggregator, not just of books but of everything, seemed like a serious possibility. Google had an advantage. They weren't listing products themselves. They would pick up listings from the sellers' own websites and enable customers to sort them in a useable order. You could search for books almost the way you could on a traditional aggregator's site. However, Google did not have to deal with the expenses of listing books and interacting with dealers since they picked up the listings from someone else's site. Therefore, they did not have to charge fees. They could make money through advertising and offering a check-out service for those who needed one. Booksellers (like everyone else) like free.

Google opened a specific product search in 2002 under the name “Froogle.” It developed slowly, but in 2007, Google renamed it “Google Product Search” and ramped up the service. By 2008, one could imagine it becoming a serious threat to even Amazon. And, Google was showing an especially keen interest in books, as it developed its massive database of scanned books under the name “Google Books.” That might have provided an extremely good place to promote books found through “Google Product Search.” It is no wonder AbeBooks would have wanted to own the company that built and operated the largest number of individual booksellers' personal websites.

A lot has changed since 2008. Google never became the force in shopping, and particularly the book field, it appeared it might. Do you search for books or anything else by going to Google Shopping (successor to Google Product Search) instead of Amazon, eBay, a regular Google web search, or AbeBooks (for books)? I thought not. Google Shopping is now another pay-to-play service like the other sites. Meanwhile, Google Books has been bogged down in lawsuits for years with no end in sight. Their interest appears to have waned. Google seems to be focused elsewhere. They are involved in such fields as wearable computers and driverless cars. How exciting are old books to them now?

So, some combination of dealer websites and Google no longer appears much of a threat to Abe. Meanwhile, though books are still an important part of Amazon's business, they are hardly the focus any more. In their early days, books were the next big thing. That is no longer the case. Most booksellers would likely acknowledge these as tougher times, not the growth era of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Chrislands may have appeared more of a distraction than an opportunity today for Amazon/AbeBooks. It likely belongs in the hands of a small, privately and personally run business than in those of an internet giant. We suspect that is what AbeBooks and Chrislands' old management concluded recently.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Bonhams: Treasures from the Eric C. Caren Collection: How History Unfolds on Paper, Part VII (Online). March 6-14, 2019</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Mar 6-14:</b> Albert Einstein A remarkable letter on God in English, one of his most eloquent and quoted, 1 p, July 2, 1945. $100,000 to $150,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar 6-14:</b> Benjamin Lincoln's commission as Major General in the Continental Army, February 19th, 1777. $60,000 to $90,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar 6-14:</b> Broadside. A Poem Upon the Bloody Engagement That Was Fought on Bunker's-Hill. 1775. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar 6-14:</b> Early, full printing of the Star-Spangled Banner in The Yankee, October 7, 1814. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar 6-14:</b> Paul Revere. Engraving, “The Boston Massacre Perpetrated on March 5, 1770," in <i>Massachusett's Calendar 1772.</i> $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Bonhams: Treasures from the Eric C. Caren Collection: How History Unfolds on Paper, Part VII (Online). March 6-14, 2019</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Mar 6-14:</b> Earliest known newspaper coverage of Babe Ruth, "a St Mary's schoolboy," Baltimore, April 4, 1914. $6,000 to $9,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar 6-14:</b> Franklin, Benjamin. <i>The Independent Whig.</i> First Magazine Published in America, Philadelphia: Keimer, 1723-4. $15,000 to $20,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar 6-14:</b> Smith, Joseph. <i>The Book of Mormon.</i> Palmyra: Printed by E.B. Grandin for the Author, 1830. First printing. $40,000 to $60,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar 6-14:</b> Last Words of Joseph Smith. Autograph Letter Signed from a Mormon disciple, conveying a contemporary account of the Prophet's final words, Nauvoo, July 27, 1844. $10,000 to $15,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar 6-14:</b> John Brown's Body. Autograph Letter Signed from the daughter of John Brown attempting to arrange the return of her father's body, North Elba, Essex Co, NY, November 29, 1859. $4,000 to $6,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar 6-14:</b> Powell Expedition. Autograph diary of Rhodes C. Allen kept during the Powell Expedition of 1868, June 29, 1868 - November 16, 1868. $20,000 to $40,000
  • <b>Bonhams, Mar 12:</b> Walt Whitman. <i>Leaves of Grass.</i> First edition, first issue, SIGNED in block letters by Whitman. 1855. $200,000 to $300,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar 12:</b> Isaac Newton's copy of John Greave's <i>Pyramidographia,</i> London, 1646. $50,000 to $70,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar 12:</b> Colonel John Mosby. Robert E. Lee's autograph letter to Samuel Cooper reporting on Mosby's exploits, with Cooper's autograph note ordering his appointment to Major.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar 12:</b> Gyula Halasz Brassai. Large archive of autograph and typed letters, over 260, to his family including his wife Gilberte, 1947-1978. $40,000 to $60,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar 12:</b> Archive of drawings and letters from Harper Lee to Charles Carruth, including an inscribed first edition of <i>To Kill a Mockingbird.</i> $20,000 to $30,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar 11:</b> VESALIUS, ANDREAS. 1514-1564. <i>De humani corporis fabrica libri septem.</i> Basel: Johannes Oporinus, June 1543. $300,000 to $500,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar 11:</b> HARVEY, WILLIAM. 1578-1657. <i>De motu cordis & sanguinis in animalibus Anatomica Exercitatio.</i> Leiden: Joannis Maire, 1639. $25,000 to $35,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar 11:</b> BERENGARIO DA CARPI, GIACOMO. 1460-1530. <i>Isagogae breves perlucide ac uberrimae in Anatomiam humani corporis.</i> Bologna: Benedictus Hectoris, 15 July 1523. $15,000 to $25,000
    <b>Bonhams NY, Mar 11:</b> FRANKLIN, BENJAMIN. 1706-1790. <i>Experiments and Observations on Electricity, made at Philadelphia in America…</i> London, 1769. $10,000 to $15,000
    <b>Bonhams NY, Mar 11:</b> BENIVIENI, ANTONIO. 1443-1502. <i>De abditis nonnullis ac mirandis morborum et sanationum causis.</i>Florence: Filippo Giunta, 1507. $8,000 to $12,000
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries, Mar 7:</b> Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, <i>El Ingenioso Hildalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha . . . Nueva Edición,</i> first Ibarra edition, Madrid, 1780. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries, Mar 7:</b> Illuminated Prayer Book in Latin and French, France, 1530-40s. $20,000 to $30,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries, Mar 7:</b> Illuminated Book of Hours in Latin, France, mid-15th century. $15,000 to $20,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries, Mar 7:</b><br><i>Die Ernsthaffte Christenpflicht,</i> earliest known edition of the first complete Mennonite prayer book, 1708. $300 to $500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries, Mar 7:</b> Georg Agricola, <i>De ortu & causis subterraneorum Lib V.,</i> first edition, Basel, 1546. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries, Mar 7:</b> Frederick Ruysch, <i>Icon durae matris in concava [convexa] superficie visae,</i> with 2 mezzotints by Jan Ladmiral, first edition, Amsterdam, 1737. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries, Mar 7:</b> Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, <i>Eine Neue Art von Strahlen,</i> Würzburg, 1895. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries, Mar 7:</b> Pietro Carrera, <i>Il Gioco de gli Scacchi,</i> first edition, Militello, 1617. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries, Mar 7:</b> William Lithgow, <i>The Totall Discourse, of the Rare Adventures</i> [etc.], London, 1632. $2,000 to $3,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries, Mar 7:</b> Michel de Nostradamus, <i>The True Prophecies or Prognostications,</i> first complete edition in English, London, 1672. $2,500 to $3,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries, Mar 7:</b> Pseudo-Methodius, <i>De revelatione facta . . . beato Methodio,</i> Basel, 1504. $2,500 to $3,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries, Mar 7:</b> Hrabanus Maurus, <i>De laudibus sancte crucis opus,</i> Pforzheim, 1503. $1,000 to $2,000.
  • <b>Chiswick Auctions: Autographs & Memorabilia. February 28, 2019</b>
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Feb 28:</b> Autograph album featuring signatures by prominent actors, politicians, musicians and authors, including Rudolph Valentino. £1,000 to £1,500
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Feb 28:</b> An extremely rare working radio script for Crazy People No 29, the first series of <i>The Goon Show.</i> £600 to £800
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Feb 28:</b> Manuscript prayer book, in German. 8vo, 1755 £800 to £1,200
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Feb 28:</b> Italian Manuscript on Geometry, with diagrams, 18th century. £500 to £700
    <b>Chiswick Auctions: Ornithology, Zoology & Voyages. February 27, 2019</b>
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Feb 27:</b> Thorburn (Archibald). Sparrowhawk, original watercolour & gouache, signed & dated lower right, 1917. £1,500 to £2,000
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Feb 27:</b> Burton (Sir Richard Francis). <i>Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to El-Medinah and Meccah.</i> 3 vol., FIRST EDITION, 1855-56. £1,000 to £1,500
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Feb 27:</b> [Mount (Richard) & Page (Thomas)]. <i>The English Pilot. Describing the Sea-Coasts…</i> 31 engraved maps, W. & J. Mount, T. Page, 1756 £4000 to £6000
    <b>Chiswick Auctions: Ornithology, Zoology & Voyages. February 27, 2019</b>
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Feb 27:</b> D’apres De Mannevillette (Jean-Baptiste Nicolas Denis). <i>Le Neptune Oriental.</i> Paris & Brest, [1775 – 1781]. £10,000 to £15,000
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Feb 27:</b> Loring (Josiah). Terrestrial Globe Containing all the Late Discoveries and Geographical Improvements. Boston, Gilman Joslin, 1846, £800 to £1,200
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Feb 27:</b> Shelley (G. E., Capt.). <i>A Monograph of the Nectariniidae, or Family of Sun-birds,</i> FIRST EDITION, by the Author, 1876-80. £4,000 to £6,000

Article Search

Archived Articles

Ask Questions