The Book Keeper

Yesterday's used-book dealer was a far-flung librarian of Babel. Success on the Internet may make tomorrow's a desk-bound day trader.

The truth of the matter is that most of the stuff used- and rare-book dealers have always considered their most interesting inventory is the sort of thing for which there is and will always be a limited and generally specialized market. Now factor in the odds that some buyer's-side representative of that "limited and generally specialized market"--what we in the business like to call a customer--is going to just walk into some used bookstore in the middle of Bumstuck and...well, thank God for the Internet, I guess.

 

The Internet discovered the used-book market about six years ago. Or the used-book market discovered the Internet. Used-book dealers all over the world had found a way to take the mountain to Mohammed. The World Wide Web seemed to be tailor-made for the original worldwide web of used bookstores--a realm of infinite cross-references, contradictions, and conspiracy theories.

Peter Lochner

When in 1994 a Seattle antiquarian bookseller by the name of Dr. Richard Weatherford launched Interloc, an electronic marketplace for used books, he revolutionized an industry--or launched an industry, to be more precise. The old-school price-guide annuals like Mandeville's and Huxford's became almost instantly obsolete, as Interloc made it possible for the first time for dealers to catalog and list their books in a head-to-head comparison with other dealers from all over the map. Many dealers reacted with initial trepidation and curiosity, but it didn't take long for even the most hidebound booksellers to embrace the new technology.

The initial system was creaky and not terribly efficient, but improvements came rapidly, as did competition. Advanced Book Exchange out of British Columbia was up and running in the spring of 1996, allowing dealers to list and maintain thousands of books, along with complete information on editions and condition. Using a search template on such sites, a customer could enter basic--or specific--information on a title (hardcover, paperback, first edition, signed, etc.) and receive a list of matches from participating dealers. Other similar sites joined the fray--including eBay (www.ebay.com), a more amusing and less dignified pig pile, yet one more tool to move books efficiently--and for a few years there was a dizzyingly competitive free-for-all as listing services both jockeyed for position and refined procedures. The Library of Babel had come to the Internet, and there was no denying that the initial effect on the lives and businesses of used-book dealers was simultaneously disruptive and almost overwhelmingly positive.

It didn't take long for that competition to become cutthroat. Corporate concerns like Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com discovered the out-of-print book market, and the used-book listing services like ABE and its scrawnier fraternal twin Bibliofind scuffled to forge alliances and partnerships with the big players, with used bookstores increasingly playing the role of middleman or, worse, anonymous procurer. Barnes & Noble has working relationships with both Alibris and ABE, while Amazon.com acquired Bibliofind in May of 1999. Both Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com use those sites to buy books directly from dealers, mark them up, and sell them to their own customers. The whole mad scramble forced dealers into bed with the same sorts of giant corporations that were killing off independent competition all over the country.

In 1997 an astute and solidly credentialed guy named Martin Manley, a Harvard Business School graduate and former assistant secretary of labor in the Clinton administration, joined forces with Richard Weatherford at Interloc, and led a massive restructuring of the company, backed by a who's who of Internet venture capitalists. In November 1998 they reconfigured Interloc as Alibris (www.alibris.com), and, emboldened by an influx of cash that was unprecedented in the Internet used-book business, launched a full-scale assault on the Internet used-book market--or, as they prefer to call it, the hard-to-find-book market. Right out of the blocks Alibris sunk millions of dollars into a stylish advertising campaign, featuring dust jackets of mostly obscure pop-culture relics and utilizing the slogan, "Books you thought you'd never find." They opened a massive warehouse and distribution center in Sparks, Nevada, and aggressively targeted libraries, retailers, and consumers alike. They built partnerships with Barnes & Noble, and, more recently, with U.K. book retailer Gardner's and Canadian giant Chapters. Through their relationship with distribution powerhouse Ingram Book Group, one of their principal investors, Alibris has been able to integrate its inventory into Ingram's iPage ordering system, allowing most bookstores and libraries to order new and out-of-print titles using the same system.

Alibris's aggressive approach has alienated plenty of used-book dealers, many of whom are fiercely loyal to Advanced Book Exchange. ABE is a privately owned company with no venture-capital war chest and virtually no marketing presence, yet, according to spokesperson Lindsay Carlson, it has already shown a profit, with a system that is markedly different from that of Alibris. ABE charges dealers a sliding scale based on the number of books listed--ranging from $20 a month for less than 500 books to $100 for 30,000 books or more--and does not take any cut of the sale. Its function is strictly as a middleman: Its search engine puts a customer in direct contact with the dealer--via phone or e-mail--and the dealer is responsible for processing the transaction and shipping the book. While ABE does offer the customer the option of using a secure credit-card server to pay for the transaction at its site, most money changes hands directly from the customer to the dealer.

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