A Conversation with Advance Book Exchange (ABE)


First of a projected series on the various bookselling services.

Cathy Waters

Cathy Waters

We interviewed Cathy Waters, one of the principals of the Advanced Book Exchange and Judy Kam their Director of Marketing at the ABE offices on the second floor of a newish building in a light industrial area of Victoria, British Columbia.  The offices are a buzz of activity and ABE is clearly having difficulty fitting into them. They are not spending their money on lavish quarters.

Tell us a little about how ABE got started and the early days.

I (Kathy) had my store Timeless Books and I was a customer of Interloc’s. I found that it was very expensive and I wasn’t getting a lot of return on the investment.  We (Keith Waters) were out for dinner one night with the Pura’s and I was lamenting about the time and expense to find customers’  and I told them that they could do it better and cheaper. About five months later Keith was in a boring meeting and designed ABE while the meeting was going on. He sold Rick on it and they worked on development for the next eight months. This was in 1995. They worked on it part time for two months and then took the leap, quit their jobs, worked on it for another 6 months full time and went live on the net in May of 1996. Our first book fair was in Burbank, then Boulder Colorado and then the Children’s Book Fair In Seattle. After that we ran out of travel money and stayed home for the rest of the year.  .

Our first booksellers were five stores here in Victoria – Heather Graham, Renaissance Books, Russell Books, Timeless, and Wells Books. We actually went to their stores and housed to help them get online.

We made the decision to have a 1-800 number so our customers could contact us with any problems or suggestions.  We had an office in Rick’s house and an office in our house and the 800 number would ring in Rick’s and if he wasn’t there it would ring in ours and then we set up an office at our ISP and I would work there in the mornings answering the phone and then go out to Timeless.

In the first year we had three employees, the second eight the third 26 and today we have 57 and counting. We now have just over 6000 booksellers and eighteen million books listed. About 100 new booksellers sign up every month.

What do you use for hardware and software?

1) ABE uses two high-end IBM RS6000s to keep everything running smoothly.

2) One useful feature of the database allows a customer on the site to
request a particular item.

“We regularly have more than a 1.4 million such requests—we call them ‘wants
’— in a 24 hours period and we’re able to match somewhere between a 250,000
and 400,000 of those within a day.”

3) Everything the customer sees now is written in JAVA and the database is
Oracle.

What’s been your biggest challenge?

The biggest challenge at first was technological limitations and trying to deal with the growth by getting new equipment and hiring employees and figuring out how to expand our business while trying to keep everyone happy and still make a profit. Every change we make stirs up an enormous controversy and flurry of emails but on the whole we have a very loyal customer base.  Whenever we send out a B&N update I’ll get two or three hundred emails. And it continues to be a challenge to keep up with the changes- who knows what the impact of things like ebooks or digital paper will be.

What Are your Biggest Challenges Now?

In a word – diversification. Looking for new ways to help our booksellers sell more books. An example is the 21NorthMain program where our sellers should be able to reach many more libraries than before and it allows the libraries to buy through an Ecommerce model so that they can buy from many different sellers at a keystroke. We have to continue develop more programs like this.  We try to learn from our mistakes as well  –  after the ABEcommerce introduction we now have both a booksellers and a book buyers advisory group. With all the excitement we had about the introduction we forgot to ask our booksellers what we thought and we won’t do that again. We’re a growing company, we’re human and we make mistakes but we will learn from them.  Booksellers in the US don’t realize how hard it can be in other countries to get merchant accounts for Internet sales. We really tried to develop a system that booksellers worldwide could use to grow their business. The complexities of taxes and shipping across thousands of jurisdictions are enormous.

We are an international business operating in Canada and overall that works very well. It does get complicated because we deal in US dollars with Canadian, US and overseas banks. We have to be very alert to what national governments are doing in such areas as Internet taxation.  The US government is working on this now but that still leaves the rest of the world and every jurisdiction will probably deal with it in a different way. We have been a pioneer in this – we now represent the largest volume (transactions, not dollar volume) of private electronic funds transfer in Canada!

Speaking of that, there have been complaints about the speed of ABEcommerce transactions. Do you have any comments on this?

We know there have been complaints and we’re trying to everthing we can do to speed up the process.  Getting the payments out is a complicated process involving a large number of financial institutions. Very often the bottleneck is , depending on its size, the booksellers’ own banks.

What has been the impact on ABE of the Barnes and Noble/Alibris agreement to display the Alibris listings first?

We weren’t happy about it but we continue to maintain a very strong` working relationship with Barnes and Noble. A very small number of dealers have left and switched to Alibris because of it. Because of the uploading difficulties currently being experienced by Barnes and Noble it is impossible to determine how much sales have fallen off – we are unable to differentiate between sales decreases caused by the uploading problems and decreases caused by the book records display. Barnes and Noble is rapidly catching up with their backlog and once that happens we will have a much better idea. These uploading problems are at the B&N end and are affecting both ABE and Alibris books. In the meantime we are constantly working to streamline the whole process. And obviously we are continuing to monitor it very closely.

What about advertising? – We have heard booksellers complain that ABE is not advertising enough?

We’re continuing to expand the advertising program but our budget at this time does not extend to full-page ads in national magazines. We will be advertising more in non-book venues to expand consumer awareness of ABE and to try to get the maximum value for our advertising dollars.

What’s the biggest threat phasing ABE today?

It’s really always the competition – both the competition we know about and the competition from unexpected sources. Sites are springing up that shop everything – including used books. One of the biggest problems is that consumers don’t know about us and we are working hard to correct that through partnerships, advertising and working to be sure that we maintain our positions on the search engines. We’re expecting substantial improvements in our search engine positioning because of these efforts.  Some of our strongest efforts are going to be based on our existing and new partnerships – that way we can share the resources with our partners and reach far more people.

What do you see five years down the line for online bookselling?

That’s a really hard question. They say that one year is equal to 10 Internet years. When we first started we thought that maybe we would someday have 2000 booksellers on line. I see us growing much more heavily in the international market and having a much stronger international flavour.    Our ongoing goal is to be the absolute best book site on the web – in every way.  We’re adding a lot more information and articles to the site to make it more useful and informative to the book community and we plan to try out a lot of different ideas to add even more value. The only certainty on the web is constant and sometimes surprising change.

The Standard: The Journal of the Independent Online Booksellers Association

Check out the Independent Online Booksellers Association Website