Rare Book Monthly

Articles - October - 2005 Issue

Amazon Cuts The Cord: Now What For Abe and Alibris?

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Alibris' response to Amazon was to say it would seek to strengthen its partnerships.


So, what comes next? For Abebooks, it is a go-alone strategy, at least for now. Abe does still have the advantage of being the largest site in terms of number of old books listed. As a consumer, your chances are still greater of finding an old book on Abe's site than on any other. However, with a restless clientele, and a likely significant decrease in sales once Amazon withdraws, Abe will need to find ways to hold on to its sellers. While the experiences of different booksellers vary widely, at least some have found sales on Abe slow of late, particularly since the various technical problems resulting from their site changes. This could be a critical point for Abe, as they need to smooth over any hurt feelings plus find ways to bring more buyers to their site. It is a challenge.

Alibris, on the other hand, is taking a completely different tack. Instead of going it alone, Alibris is seeking to strengthen its outside relationships. As noted, they are pulling out all the stops in an attempt to convince Amazon to change its plans. But, regardless of whether this succeeds, they continue to look to build relationships with other sites. When Barnes and Noble ended its selling relationship with Abe, it named Alibris as their sole source for used book listings. While we are not privy to what went on behind the scenes, one can only assume there was a lot of active lobbying going on by Alibris. It worked. In a response from A.J. Kohn, Alibris' Director of Direct Marketing and Sales, he states, "I do want to make it clear that we're not going to become isolationists. Alibris is committed to providing sellers with the largest sales distribution channels available." He also noted that Alibris maintains relationships with Borders, Chapters and others. He goes on to say, "Alibris will be looking to further expand our distribution channels." And finally, in total contrast to Abe's course of action in dropping Half, he concludes, "Half.com is certainly high on that list and we are actively working to bring this new channel to our sellers."

It's an interesting contrast between the two sites. You may like or dislike Alibris' strategy, but they seem to have a clear sense of where they want to go. Their site has a certain selling format, and they look to increase sales through outside partners wherever possible. To an outsider, they have a clear, transparent business plan, and seem to be executing it as well as possible considering the very competitive nature of the business they are in.

Abebooks, on the other hand, is much less clear to me. I have always admired their site and the ease with which it allowed me to find books. However, I really don't know where they are going. Perhaps their response to Amazon and Barnes and Noble's decisions represents a carefully considered plan, but they feel more like FEMA's response to the hurricane. Alibris has responded with a clear plan of action, while Abe seems to be groping for a new formula.

Now perhaps Abe has one that is just not obvious to me. There must have been a plan behind the earlier changes they made, though their lack of an adequate explanation and less than ideal implementation left their sellers wondering. In his letter to their dealers, Abe's President says, "Moving away from a reseller model that actively encourages you to provide your unique books to our competition can further secure our position as the world's largest online marketplace for books, but only if we are able to improve our own sites to meet and exceed the expectations of our customers. We are committed to doing this." They better be. Abe can hardly afford another misstep at this point.

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