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.

In the Alibris model--where Alibris gets a cut at both ends of the transaction, through dealer discounts on the one end and customer mark-up on the other--the dealer becomes a middleman himself. Alibris has access to a dealer's inventory, orders the books directly, and funnels all orders through the company's Nevada warehouse, where they are inspected and repackaged for the customer. All money is processed by Alibris. The customer enjoys the primary advantage of the Alibris system, if he can stomach the mark-up. In effect he can order books from a number of different sources, pay for them through one server, and receive one shipment. It's easy enough to see how such a system would be more efficient for libraries or other institutional buyers, but many dealers feel that Alibris reaps most of the benefits of such an arrangement by distancing them from the transaction and slapping the Alibris brand on the products of the anonymous dealer's expertise and hard work. For the thousands of dealers who have chosen to participate in the Alibris program, the logic is simple: A sale is a sale, and moving books through Alibris is really not a whole lot different from the old system in which dealers sold large numbers of books to fellow dealers who already had a customer lined up--as with Alibris, Amazon.com, or Barnes & Noble--and in the process extended a courtesy discount, much like the 20 percent that Alibris takes.

James and Mary Laurie have been in the business for 28 years, and they currently operate an eponymously named store on the Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis. They sell books through both Alibris and ABE. "We love having a shop," James Laurie says, "but we couldn't be here without the Internet. Alibris is annoying, but they're part of the reality of doing business today. It wouldn't be practical to pull our books off their site."

Mary Laurie, who handles much of the store's Internet traffic, agrees with her husband. "My preference is certainly ABE, mainly because I get to deal with the customer. Alibris not only takes a cut, but it also shields you from the buyer. And even on the Internet that direct relationship can be gratifying. You get a feel for who you're dealing with, and can exchange information with people all over the world. It's nice to make a sale, but building those relationships with customers is one of the really satisfying aspects of the job. It's bittersweet in some ways, but you have to recognize the tradeoff and the reality: We're selling books we couldn't sell before....The Alibris system is not very satisfying in many ways, but I do like the checks."

Peter Lochner

In its drive to build its brand and increase its market share, Alibris has engendered a fair share of panic and even paranoia in the once-fragmented used-book world. Because while most dealers agree that Advanced Book Exchange is winning the battle--with more than 6,800 dealers enrolled, and more than 23 million books listed, they are outpacing Alibris at the moment--many fear that Alibris is financially positioned to win the war. In the last year they have become even more aggressive, and according to the New York Times have now raised more than $60 million. According to the technology business journal Red Herring, "The company expects revenues between $20 [million] and $30 million this year," but Manley "declines to specify when [Alibris] expects to be profitable." Industry buzz is that the company has its eye on Wall Street and an IPO, and also, in all likelihood, the acquisition of Advanced Book Exchange.

A brief cruise through the Alibris Web site provides ample evidence of the company's broad ambition. Along with the impressive roster of high-profile investors and biographies of the members of its board of directors (including Michael Keller, chief librarian at Stanford University), there is an archive of newspaper and magazine articles detailing the company's assault on market share. There are references to a "dealer relations team," a "fulfillment staff," and "fill rate" statistics--precisely the sort of patter that might get you tossed out of many used bookstores. And somewhere on the Alibris site, there is this quote from Martin Manley: "We will invest more in marketing hard-to-find books than anyone in bookselling history."

To further flame dealers' paranoia, in the last year Alibris has purchased the entire inventory of several independent stores of long standing in the used-book community--shops in St. Louis, Seattle, and Berkeley--and boxed up the books and shipped them off to the warehouse in Nevada. In touting the acquisitions of Bowie & Co. (the Seattle store) and the Berkeley Book Company, Alibris announced that it was adding Taylor Bowie and Jay Miller--former proprietors of those establishments--to its "buying and referral team."

For his part, Manley is a polished and enthusiastic advocate of his company. Talking on the phone from the company's San Francisco offices, Manley extols Alibris's combination of "serious management, serious technology, and serious, demanding investors." He talks about their "industrial-strength supply feed," and says things like "Our value is aggregating lots of supply from around the world." He refers to something that sounds like the "gating factory," and boasts, "We have people cataloging 500 books a day under laboratory conditions." Manley spools out facts, figures, and e-business lingo at breakneck speed, and his ambition for his company is apparent in virtually everything he says. As he ticks off Alibris's distinctive features and advantages, it is difficult to keep up with him.

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