Bookselling – Past And Present, On and Off Line

Fall 2003 (Vol. IV, No. 3) Table of Contents

I was asked to write an article about the history of Internet bookselling and the interaction between on-line bookselling and a proper bookstore, what in internet parlance has been called a “bricks-and-mortar” store but what will always, in my mind, simply be called a bookstore.

To be honest, I am not sure what I am going to say.

I started scouting books when I was about 16, being lucky enough to meet a couple of professional booksellers who became good friends of mine and showed me how they made their living. There is a popular misconception that booksellers buy cheap and sell high, that the primary source for books is the garage and church sale. I’ve been to thousands of these sales over the years, and turned up maybe a hundred worthwhile books. Piles of useful stuff, but there’s only so many five-dollar books that you can buy for a quarter before you get sick of five-dollar books.

The best books I have ever bought I bought through bookstores–in fact, many of the best books I have ever bought came from high-end bookstores and not at high-end prices, either. Every bookseller has books that come to him by accident, or were on the periphery of a collection that he was focusing on the center of. That’s always a good way to buy books–an important dealer’s junk is usually way better than the best books in a low-end store. But I’ve just started to write this and already I feel that I am rambling.

The internet has changed the way we do business, and I am not so sure that it is for the better. Databases like ABE are operated on the “bigger is better” philosophy;­ the more books, the more booksellers, the better for the website. I disagree. ABE and many of the other on-line databases–­ Alibris, Amazon, even eBay (although it’s not a book database, it is an important aspect of on-line bookselling)–are full of five-dollar books for a reason:­ these books can be bought cheaply, by anyone, and the market to sell them exists. It used to be that if you wanted to open a bookstore, you had to invest a great deal of time and money, securing a location, buying stock, building shelves, buying reference books… the whole routine. Nowadays, in order to become a bookseller you need to do none of this. You just need to go to a few good book sales, buy a bunch of stuff, get a computer, download a free book cataloguing program, type in a few ISBN numbers and off you go. It’s bookselling for dummies. A bookstore looks bad and has a hard time paying its bills when it’s loaded up with 5-dollar books. A computer can hold thousands of 5-dollar books at virtually no cost ­ and they don’t even need to be shelved; they can be piled up in boxes in your basement!

I published my first print catalogue in 1984, and I opened up my first bookshop in 1986. I’ve used a computer since about 1985. My first few catalogues were typewritten, but starting with Catalogue Seven, I used an old Morrow CPM computer with absolutely no memory. I’ve published over 25 printed catalogues over the years, mostly done on computer, and because I always had a computer on my desk (usually just to play tetris), and I hooked up to the internet in the earliest days. I have watched it go from a few of us selling books in the usenet groups and on the earliest of book lists – the Biblio list – from Interloc to the formation of the first online websites–The Virtual Bookstore–and I was there at the beginning when ABE first started up as an online version of Interloc. I welcomed these changes with open arms, as I was always looking for new ways to sell books, and for new ways to create new customers.

I never foresaw what would happen.

The simplification of bookselling is threatening our trade. As more and more bookstores listed their books on the internet databases, more and more bookshops closed their doors to walk-in trade. And as fewer and fewer bookshops exist, more and more customers are driven to the online world to buy their books. And what a world awaits them! Databases like ABE with millions and millions of books being offered from every greasy shack in North America. Professional booksellers with perfect copies of wonderful books listing beside auction-scroungers with lousy copies of the same books, ­inferior copies at inferior prices, misdescribed, hopelessly inadequate listings, prices from $5 to $500 for similar- sounding items. I’m a very experienced on-line buyer and I still recently bought a book online that turned out to be an undescribed ex-library copy. It turns me off, and I am sure that it turns many serious book buyers off. There are too many copies of too many books, and anybody who understands the laws of supply and demand will understand that there are more books being offered than there are customers to buy them. A proper bookseller understands what the book is and understands how he can try to sell it to the right customer. More and more, that means NOT listing it on the internet, in order to try to keep it as something even moderately special.

I recently pulled my books from ABE. I list on two on-line web sites, and I sell books on eBay. I spent a year on ABE’s advisory board, being ignored. I quit the advisory board, and later I quit ABE. I was feeling guilty about cataloguing books and listing them on websites whose interests are self-serving. The ILAB website is owned and operated by the Antiquarian book trade. It’s not available to everyone;­ only members of the ABA, ABAA, ABAC, and other ILAB-affiliated organizations can join. But it is a website with the bookseller’s best interests in mind, rather than their own bottom line.

I will continue to sell books online. I use the internet as a tool, to effectively market books that I do not have any immediate customers for. I will not list my best books online in order to have them used as a free price-guide for those who don’t know book clubs from bat shit. Selling books on large databases is sort of like having a small bookstore in a 100-mile long strip mall;­ the chances of anyone even noticing you are very small. You might as well put the books in a box and hide it under your bed; you have as much hope of selling them there as on-line with everybody else’s copies. So I recently opened another bookstore, with high overhead, in a high traffic area, where customers can come and look at the books, touch the books, see the books, enjoy the books. Hopefully, my faith in the trade will pay off, and I will continue to sell enough books to make a fair living, and I will continue to be able to buy excellent books because of my presence in the community.

Abe has recently announced that they have 11,000 booksellers and 46 million books on their website. I am happy for them, and they are indeed an internet success story. Alibris and Amazon, along with Abe, are now considered “The Big Three.” I cannot fight the success of these websites, nor do I wish to. They are what they are, and they live in their own world. I use them when I have to – just today I bought two books off of Abe for which I had been searching for 2 years–the only available copies for a long time, and seriously underpriced to my mind. There are good things and bad things; the verdict is not yet in. But things are getting more and more distorted, and as time progresses, I feel much more safe and secure running my bookshop the way that I always have instead of becoming an unpaid data-entry employee of a big company whose interests are not the same as mine.

 Michael John Thompson

The Standard: The Journal of the Independent Online Booksellers Association

Check out the Independent Online Booksellers Association Website