Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet
(an occasional outburst)

Avenue Victor Hugo Bookshop

Contents © Gavin J. Grant


Books and People: An Occasional Series

Alibris: Hung, Drawn, Quartered and Damned
5/4/00
Gavin J. Grant

Alibris-Free ZoneTheir ads are good. They're simply old dustjackets with a tag line based on the premise, 'Lost it then? Find it here.' And that's a shame because the company is a complete waste of time and money. Despite large warehouses and maybe a nice suite of offices they are a web-based business. But they're trying to add a layer between customer and retailer when this is exactly the fat that is being reamed from the book business. So why are they doing it and how did they get to the position they are in today?

Early Years
In the early 90s if you were in the book business or occasionally read the trades you'd have heard of Interloc. Interloc were one of many companies trying to bring together book buyers and sellers. However, their method was a little odd. They were building a searchable database that was only available to booksellers. The customer was left out. They were soon left behind as others realized the advantages of directly reaching the customers rather than a middle man. Services such as the Advanced Book Exchange (ABE), Bibliofind and Bibliocity (see below) sprang up and quickly found both funding and revenue. All the while Amazon showed that with books - a concrete item with known specifications - could be marketed and sold over the net.

Interloc were being pushed out of the market. They needed to reinvent themselves. So, a couple of years ago, they transformed into a customer-focused service, Alibris. But their business plan was again based on proprietary information. This time instead of the bookseller paying a fee to be part of Interloc, the bookseller disappeared into the Brand of Alibris. And paid 20% of the price of every book for the opportunity.

This is where it gets downright ugly. There are no saints in business. This is used books, as nostalgic and basic a product as there is outside the bare necessities. The market is changing from month to month and very rapidly concentrating. ABE has a business arrangement with Barnes & Noble (B&N), the 'category killer*' chain - although Alibris just sneaked around the back and made a deal with B&N to be the first service they go to when an out-of-print book is requested. Bibliofind has been sold at least twice since starting up and is now owned by Amazon.com. Amazon have thus far left well enough alone (although I cannot condone Amazon's out-of-print search practices of adding huge markups to the books). Bibliocity has disappeared into Alibris. So we need to take a more detailed look at Alibris' business practices.

The Middleman
Alibris are an oddity: a two-year-old company with $100 million to spend on advertising, sorry, brand-building. They apparently have 1,700 book shops signed up compared to the 6,000 plus on ABE and Bibliofind. The business model begun by ABE, Bibliofind -- and later adhered to by services such as Global Book Mart and Yourbooks -- is to charge the book shop a fixed amount per number of books listed with their service. Thus if a book shop sells one book or twenty books, the cost is the same. Alibris is very different. They charge a flat 20% fee on every book sold. Their are two ways this 20% can be paid as illustrated:

This book is listed by the venerable John T. Zubal Books in Cleveland, OH:

Bibliofind Listing

Richard Frothingham, Life and Times of Joseph Warren. Boston: 1865,. quarto, orig. cloth, INSCRIBED BY AUTHOR, untrimmed as issued & mostly unopened; bookplate & other minor ownership markings but, in all, largely unperused, bright & clean, very-good, American Revolution Massachusetts Paul Revere British Empire Politics Government Military Affairs Rare Books $350

Alibris Listing

Richard Frothingham, Life and Times of Joseph Warren. Boston: 1865,. quarto, orig. cloth, INSCRIBED BY AUTHOR, untrimmed as issued & mostly unopened; bookplate & other minor ownership markings but, in all, largely unperused, bright & clean, very-good, American Revolution Massachusetts Paul Revere British Empire Politics Government Military Affairs Rare Books $420

Exactly the same book, one $70 (20%) more expensive than the other. To check this for yourself go Here (as of 5/3/00 this may change or be sold)

Alibris either takes 20% of the original price of every book, or, 20% is added to the price of the book.

Not surprisingly they have been slow to find book shops to sign up for this 'deal.' Thus they are looking for ways to leverage their name into becoming the only available choice for used books. Last year they bought a competing service, Bibliocity. We had been listing books with Bibliocity but when offered the chance to list with Alibris our answer was a very quick and definite No.

Imagine our surprise last month when we logged on to the website of our distributor for new titles, Ingram, and found an Alibris link. Alibris has signed a deal with Ingram to offer out-of-print searches in new book shops. Knowledgeable book shops not do this. They will use Bookfinder or one of the other Meta Search Services (see below) to check a range of options and prices on the book you are looking for. When you go to a chain book shop such as B. Dalton or Waldenbooks and they offer a search for used or out-of-print books (e.g. Source Records of the Great War) they will probably be using Alibris. With the built in 20% mark up. And Alibris thoughtfully provided a further markup chart for the new book shop to use. By the time they are finished you are being quoted almost twice the price you would pay in a regular used book shop. Write down the quote. Go home - or to a library if you do not have internet access - and go to Bookfinder and check the price yourself. Alibris is listed there and you can laugh at their higher prices and the quote you received as you buy the book you want from Global Book Mart or Antiqbook.

Controlling the Net
The only reason they are getting away with this is ignorance. The same books, the same dealers are out there and can be found on Bibliofind, Bookavenue, etc., but no one else is pasting the world with advertisements in quite so unsubtle a manner as Alibris. They know they have a short period of time in which they can take advantage of the public's ignorance as to the existence of other, cheaper services before they disappear just like last time, with Interloc. Their basic problem is an inability to recognize the free nature of the internet. Subscription-based services are on the rise but for the most part the individual using the Internet in the USA does not need to pay for access: either to connect (www.altavista.net, www.freeinet.com), to find books (www.bookfinder.com) or for services and information (i.e. www.phonefree.com, www.nytimes.com).

Two of the most popular types of sites are recommendation (www.recommend-it.com, www.apple.com) and comparison sites (www.cnet.com). And a quick tour of these will show that they are not charging their users or customers. Many industries are experiencing a collapse as individuals or businesses are brought into direct contact with one another. Dell is a leader in home computing and has a roaring trade through its website. Everybody wants to reach their customers directly. The traditional role of the middleman is changing. They are no longer necessary. Where they can be useful, in comparisons and recommendations, they are charging the companies that list with them, not the customer.

Brand Building
National branding for used books, is an idea that B&N, Borders, Book Sense and others are investigating. But from the independent book shop's point of view it looks like we'd be losing our name, reputation and the individuality that makes browsing in different parts o the countries so much fun.
At this book shop we have spent 25 years building a unique and hopefully interesting shop. We have had a website for about five years and the only thing holding us back on Internet sales is data entry - the industry bottleneck. Every week our website gets hits from all over the world: Japan, The Netherlands, Australia, Spain, New Zealand and more. Alibris requires book shops to give up their name and spirit and package books under one brand. Books are no longer held in the shops, instead they are warehoused by the company. They are shipped by the company. Billing is done by the company. Book shops do not immediately receive payment.

It is an interesting idea to apply such ideas and potential efficiencies to the book business but where they will lose is their insistence on control and proprietary use of information.

The Future
According to a recent New York Times article Alibris is burning through their cash reserves very quickly. They need to have something to show for it. So they have signed on with B&N and Ingram to be the out-of-print vendor of record. They have the cute ads in the expensive dailies and glossies. But who are they providing a service for? Neither the bookseller, nor the buyer. Who benefits? The potential shareholders of Alibris? I doubt they will make it to their Initial Public Offering. Their business model of controlling the flow of information and placing themselves as a nexus for book buyers and sellers to meet is outdated. There are already too many other highly efficient and profitable sites doing just that. They are a huge, sleek, good-looking dinosaur, which will soon be extinct.


* 'category killer' is a business term that has come to mean a business that is so efficient or so well advertised - that initially it kills off all competition. Later when the field is clear, they can do what they like, thus B&N and Borders recent quiet switching of their basic 10% discount to a bestseller-only discount.

Book Search Services

These sites search at least two or three (and often more) of the listings sites below. They are free to use and are funded by (non-intrusive) advertising. Bookfinder is the mother of them all book comparison sites whereas 123pix and Addall boast CD's and many other products.

www.bookfinder.com
www.addall.com
www.123pix.com
www.choosebooks.com
www.isbn.nu

Book Listings

These sites come and go, BookFinder.com above is the best way to keep up with what's going on. These are sites that book shops pay to list their books. Here you will find many copies of most common books and usually at least a few of uncommon ones. Some of them are bigger than others, some of them are better designed but none of them are charging you 20% to use them.

www.abebooks.com
www.tomfolio.com
www.bookavenue.com
www.antiqbook.com
www.biblion.com
www.bibliofind.com -- subsumed by Amazon; gbmbooks.com, bookradar.com, usedbooks.com -- seemingly defunct

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This first appeared on the website of Avenue Victor Hugo Bookshop and was reprinted by Pat Holt in her Holt Uncensored column.