AbeBooks – 20 Years Down, the Next 20 Ready to Go
- by Michael Stillman
AbeBooks recently celebrated its 20th anniversary in business. That was the opening salvo in the new means of book selling that changed the trade as it had been known for over five centuries. Starting with a test run of three booksellers in Victoria, BC, Canada, by the end of 1996, the site had members from all around the world. The exact number has been forgotten – AbeBooks didn't keep great records back then. However, PR & Publicity Manager Richard Davies reports that co-founder Cathy Waters told him that by August 1997, they had a party celebrating 1,000 booksellers. Sixty-four of those early adapters, "Heritage" booksellers in Abe's parlance, are still selling books on AbeBooks' website today. Most are from the United States, but the list includes six Canadians and one each from Mexico, Australia, and New Zealand. Those who were once the pioneers are today the veterans.
How many Abe booksellers are there today, and how many books are listed? Mr. Davies said they do not release those numbers. As he explained, "We don’t reveal our exact number of sellers but simply say ‘thousands’ located in more than 50 countries. In terms of books for sale, we say ‘millions’ – I can assure you that it’s an awful lot of books." Several years ago, the number of listings passed the 100 million mark, so it is surely a very large number today.
This trip down memory lane led to the inevitable question. We asked Mr. Davies where will AbeBooks be 20 years from now? "That's a good question," he responded, before tackling the impossible to answer inquiry. "Well, I am 100% sure that physical books will still be read, loved and desired. There will still be people who love books as an object and will want to own copies of significance. The historical significance of books has not faded and that’s going to continue. Thanks to social media, more is written (and photographed and videoed) about books than ever before, and that’s not going to change.
"There’s bound to have been several more rounds of major technological change by 2036 – print on demand technology will probably become more accessible to buyers and more common inside bookshops. Could there be more ways to read a book?
"The actual range of books available via the Internet is incredibly broad today but it’s only going to get broader. For instance, people still want translations of particular books that are loved in one part of the world and not available elsewhere. AbeBooks does not have enough books to satisfy everyone on a global scale – that’s why our Wants system still exists to help people find books we don’t currently offer. We’re a global business and our inventory could be much more global."
We asked whether Abebooks foresees branching out beyond books. After all, its parent, Amazon, started out as a bookseller and today markets everything under the sun. That type of diversification does not appear to be in Abe's plans, and really wouldn't make any obvious sense. Amazon already fills those needs, and Abebooks' role is logically focused on being the leader in a specific market – books, particularly old and rare ones. However, they have already expanded into related items, notably in the paper field, and this type of expansion is likely to continue.
Davies explains, "We are already experimenting with non-book items that are currently listed for sale on our site. A traditional used and rare bookshop will typically also offer ephemera and art, and we have been slow to acknowledge this fact and make these types of items findable on our site. We are currently making an effort to learn about the market for art and ephemera by promoting it more aggressively via our merchandising team. Since November, we have promoted lobby cards, posters, maps, prints from a French fashion journal, photographs, and lithographs. Our next job is make this inventory easier to find.
"With that in mind, we have also launched a new type of product display called Collections. It’s experimental at the moment but it’s intended to improve our browse experience. The collections themselves are based upon seller catalogs, which sellers create when uploading items to the marketplace. Our catalogs were intended to be online versions of the print catalogs sellers traditionally produced. Typically, used and rare sellers create AbeBooks’ catalogs so Collections is focused on those areas. A few examples of what Collections can look like are vintage dust jackets from Between the Covers, Folio Society books from multiple sellers, and film still photographs from Royal Books. Visitors can see a lot of books, or photos, or posters, in a short space of time and jump from collection to collection. It’s quite different from our regular search results. Personally, I have found items via Collections that I have never seen before and I’ve been here 11 years. Right now, it’s a Beta and we’re still working to improve it, and that includes developing a search functionality.
"We have also just introduced updated seller storefronts and Collections are part of that upgrade. If a seller offers catalogs and they fit the Collections criteria, then they are now visible on the storefront. It’s a great way to explore specific inventory from a particular seller."
Check back in 2036 for an update on how these changes play out.
Here is a link to the stories of the 64 pioneers.
These are links to some of the specialties:
Examples of "Collections":
Examples of Updated Storefronts