What Is happening At Abebooks?
So, presuming Abe's commissions are reasonable, and deciding what is "reasonable" for their service is Abe's right anyway, what is the problem with these changes? What Abe is doing is no different from what Alibris and Amazon have been doing for years. If their pricing structure is too high, booksellers will move their listings to another site. If the pricing structure is fair, though perhaps not the bargain it once was, dealers really have no cause to complain. It still affords them their share of the profits. The problem here for many booksellers is not that Abe is charging too much (though they undoubtedly feel this way). The issue is the changes being made to increase Abe's share of income are forcing dealers to change the way in which they conduct their business. This has enormously upset many of those dealers, especially those in the antiquarian and rare (as opposed to "used") book trade.
Here is the difference between the antiquarian/rare book dealer and many of the newer online used book sellers. Many used book sellers simply buy old books wherever they can find them and post them for sale online at a mark up. They are not necessarily experts on their books. They may, in fact, know little about their merchandise, like a sales clerk at a large discount store. They probably do not have a store, and have minimal contact with their customers. They simply use their skill at finding old books to operate a business that posts them for sale on the online sites. The new Abe works just as well for them as the old Abe.
The traditional antiquarian and rare book dealer, however, is a very different animal. He or she has developed an expertise in his specialty that is of great value to his customer-collectors. This bookseller understands what is important in a particular field, what is acceptable condition for a given book, and can help the collector find the titles that are important to his collection. He survives on his relationships and knowledge as much as on his inventory, probably even more. This dealer may not sell books at the lowest of prices (although maybe he does), but that expertise can be of enormous benefit to the collector, and may help that collector avoid some disastrous mistakes. In short, service is an essential ingredient of what that bookseller has to offer. Without this service, the most knowledgeable, trained, experienced bookseller is little more than the totally ignorant newcomer who just bought a bunch of books he doesn't understand at a yard sale and decides to post them for sale online.
In the old Abe, the knowledgeable bookseller could readily provide his/her service. That bookseller could encourage buyers to contact him personally, where he could provide valuable advice to the collector. Now I certainly don't think Abe has anything against providing customers with such service, or has any desire to cut it off. It's just that in order for Abe to secure its commissions, it must cut off the direct contacts that make this service possible. It is undoubtedly an unintended consequence of moving to a commissions system, but an apparently necessary one nonetheless. To secure its commissions, Abe must reduce direct contact between seller and buyer, and in so doing, it negates the value of all the knowledge and experience the professional bookseller brings to the table. In effect, they need to prevent the professional bookseller from using his most critical tool, his knowledge, to make the sale. He is reduced to being a Wal-Mart supplier, selling books at wholesale prices to a retailer who is entrusted to make the sale for him. He is just another supplier, no better or worse than every other supplier, including those without a fraction of the knowledge he possesses.