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Quo Vadimus?

January, 2006
By John Huckans

In a recent AP news story, figures given by the Book Industry Study Group were used to inform the public that the secondhand book business has never been better. “… used book sales topped $2.2 billion in 2004, an 11 percent increase over 2003. Much of that growth… can be credited to the Internet. While used sales at traditional stores rose 4.6 percent, they jumped 33 percent online, to just more than $600 million.”

Almost lost in the article was the mention that the study relied on figures reported by the “leading used book retailers.” “Amazon.com, Alibris.com, are among those that provided precise sales figures… Abebooks.com… had used (book) sales of more than $100 million last year” (but) “sales from individual retailers were not provided by the study group.” Online sales were given as $609 million but $1,607 million or a little over $1.6 billion of the $2.2 billion total was attributed to bookstores and “other locations.” Without accounting for sales from individual bookstores, ABAA members, catalogue booksellers, and the many part-timers who sell at book fairs and online, it’s unclear how they arrived at the $1.6 billion figure. If indeed individual booksellers were surveyed, part of their annual sales were probably included in the figures reported by Amazon, ABE, Alibris, and the other online services, resulting in an unrealistically high number.

According to the real world most antiquarian and secondhand booksellers live in, the Book Industry Study Group’s overall rosy assessment may be overstated and several independent booksellers I’ve talked to lately are of the opinion that prices and values of general secondhand books are less than they were fifteen or twenty years ago.

Paul Minet commented on this phenomenon in our last issue:

…the consensus seems to be that the Internet and charity shops between them have destroyed much of the secondhand, as opposed to the rare book end of the business..(and at a recent) reputable book fair… 20% of the exhibitors failed to show up…I am afraid that I have come to the conclusion that this is how (virtual) monopolies behave. You secure your market and then you milk it.

Booksellers accelerate the trend by continuing to cooperate with online services that eliminate transparency (i.e. make it difficult for customers to contact the bookseller offering the book, reducing the bookseller to the role of anonymous quoter). Some call this the Wal-Mart effect-after the company sometimes blamed for destroying main-street retailing throughout the country. By squeezing suppliers, giant retailers gain temporary public favor by offering lower prices-and when local competition is eliminated prices can be raised at will. It’s an old story.

What the on-line mega-sites do not have, however, is a monopoly on knowledge and expertise. But they’re working on it. Several weeks ago Sylvia Castle of Chicago’s Abraham Lincoln Book Shop sent me an interesting e-mail that said in part “I just had a telephone call from Amazon.com. They called here with some questions about the rare book market. How we price, what makes a book rare, etc… All I can say is how typically arrogant of Amazon. To call a bookseller and ask for tips on how to run a rare book business! It’s like asking us ‘how can we use our money and influence to put you out of business?’ ”

But Sylvia was just getting warmed up…

My conversation was short, but not too sweet. She asked me what drives the rare book market....I told her “the collector”. Dealers do not decide what is “rare”. I explained that one cannot take a Danielle Steel novel, wrap it in morocco leather, gild the edges and make it rare. I also told her that most rare books are deemed so on their literary value/cultural relevance/artistic merit and often that value is seen in retrospect and not realized when a book is released. I explained to her that is one of the reasons why large booksellers (like Amazon, B & N and Borders) can be so dangerous. Large booksellers are in such a hurry to turn a profit that a book is often remaindered before it gets “legs”. She asked me if pictures were important…

Then I asked her if Amazon would be willing to share their secrets with potential competitors...competitors who have more resources and power than they do? What if Wal-Mart wanted to do online bookselling? Would Amazon share? Honestly, I am still angry about it. To just call me on the phone and think I am going to welcome the biggest online retailer on the playing field when they have no knowledge or experience just speaks of their arrogance. In my opinion, books are first about disseminating knowledge. Other retailers put other concepts ahead of knowledge.

In the past year or so the major sites have been inundated with so much in the way of dross-cheap reprints, book club editions and books in less than acceptable condition-that they are dragging the overall market downward in terms of expectations of quality. The fact that Amazon contacted the Abraham Lincoln Book Shop (and probably others) indicates to me they are becoming aware of the problem, a problem that suggests an intriguing opportunity.

Books found on the ABA, ABAA, and ILAB websites represent the best the antiquarian book trade has on offer, but not every bookseller with important or fine books belongs to one of these organizations. Although sometimes unwieldy and bureaucratic, they are essentially cooperatives-that is they do not follow the corporate model but exist to serve their members and the general public. If one of these organizations were to sponsor a cooperative website (permitting non-members to participate) and allow complete transparency while setting standards for importance, price, and condition for the books listed on the site, the antiquarian book trade would be in a good position to regain control of its own business. In the meantime others could continue consigning their book club editions, Reader’s Digest condensed books, worn reading copies, Gideon Bibles, surplus copies of Headhunting in the Solomon Islands and the like to the online websites that presently seem intent on monopolizing all levels of the antiquarian book trade.

In the part of the bibliosphere I live in, content trumps everything so I really don’t mean to denigrate “worn reading copies” of anything. And if the old ABE and Interloc (pre-Alibris) model still existed-with book searchers able to deal directly with booksellers-I think most booksellers would be content with websites where the Nürnberg Chronicle might happily co-exist with the latest Danielle Steel novel.

A few days ago Allen Ahearn (Quill & Brush) recalled a conversation in the early ’90s with someone who had predicted that the major free search engines like Google would gradually replace the specialized book search sites we’re all familiar with. Furthermore, Quill & Brush have already sold books from their website to people using Google as their search tool. Assuming one has a website to begin with (not very expensive to set up and maintain these days), the content of every page is within reach of the ever more sophisticated web crawlers that can ferret out information in a flash and report back to the researcher in fractions of a second.

Intrigued by this possibility I went on Google and typed in “Patton. The Natural Defence of an Insular Empire…” [Southampton, 1810]. (For anyone interested, Philip Patton was the Admiral of the White Squadron of His Majesty’s Fleet and his book describes proposed incentives as alternatives to the press gangs used to “recruit” able-bodied seamen for service in the Royal Navy). At the very top of the first page of hits was the copy offered for sale on the “Books for Sale” page of our own website. Not so surprising for a rare item, I suppose, and I do concede that for relatively common modern first editions one would have to pick and sort through dozens of pages of hits. As Google refines its search capabilities I think it’s only a matter of time before book buyers become accustomed to using it as a search tool. The service is free and customers are able to establish direct contact with booksellers as they would with a traditional printed catalogue.

*

Library book sales and charity bookshops are also doing their bit to capture the browsing public. Cazenovia has long had a very good annual used book sale (preceded this year by an outdoor wine and cheese preview held on a delightfully warm summer evening in late July for members of the friends group). In their newsletter, a couple of months following the most successful book sale to date, there was a discussion about how to reach an even broader market and to that end “several committee members along with (the library director) attended a Mid-York workshop on selling used books online. The program enlightened them on possible online venues, pricing, writing book descriptions, and general organizational tips.”

When the committee approached me for some ideas I suggested that since they were selling books that cost them nothing, had no rent, staff salaries or taxes to pay, and very little in the way of other overhead expenses, they shouldn’t be so concerned about getting the maximum profit from books with a cost basis next to zero. Booksellers in search of sleepers and bargains have traditionally been among the heaviest buyers at library sales and by attempting to price every book to the fullest, organizers of library and other charity sales would be in danger of eliminating a substantial segment of their market. I also suggested they might want to carefully reconsider adding to the 100 million or so books that are already online—when looking at a database of 100 million books, one is looking at a database of 100 million unsold books.

Although library sales pose no threat to established rare book dealers, segments of the general secondhand book trade have already gone into survival mode by abandoning expensive retail locations, laying off staff, donating slow-moving stock, and moving up market. Not a month goes by when I don’t get a notice from a subscriber advising us of the demise of yet another open shop. The real losers in all this, I think, are the people who may have gotten used to having a secondhand bookshop nearby where they can browse and discover books they didn’t know existed. But at least for a day or two each year, the local library book sale offers book-hunters the next best thing—a pale imitation of the Fourth Avenue experience.

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