Pros and Cons of Alibris.com for Buyers and Sellers


This is the second in a series of articles taking a brief look at the pros and cons of the various multi-dealer book listing databases. The first in the series looked at AbeBooks.com and can be found in the previous issue. This article examines Alibris.com, which was the first “on-line” site developed under the name of Interloc (in pre-internet days), and the site which has undergone the most dramatic and significant changes over the years.

Interloc, which was founded in 1994 by Richard Weatherford with Tom Sawyer and Brad Councilman, was perhaps one of the most important factors in introducing booksellers—especially those with open stores—to the use of computers in their business. Initially, it was a closed business-to-business only service, which gave sellers the ability to upload information on thousands of books, to get want matches daily, and to search for books for their customers. It was also a rather expensive service, although less so than running an ad in AB Bookman’s Weekly, the only real alternative at the time. With hourly phone charges and listing fees, it was far more expensive both to run and to participate in than the public sites which later appeared on the internet in 1996—notably Bibliofind.com and AbeBooks.com. Late in 1996, Interloc also opened a public internet website, but it had already lost some ground among booksellers as the third such site (personal note: since we were Mac users as booksellers, we were never able to upload to Interloc back in those days).

In 1998, there was a drastic change: the old Interloc was bought out, or merged into, a new company called Alibris.com. Rather than simply being an “internet classified listing service” for booksellers (as they referred to Bibliofind and Abe), Alibris was going to be a bookseller itself. While booksellers could still upload their inventory to Alibris (and in fact, Alibris purchased Bibliocity.com at least in part to enhance their ability to accept more files, for example, from Mac users), the dealers’ prices were increased by a certain percentage; the individual bookseller’s name was not associated with a specific book; and there were no costs to the bookseller until a book was sold to a customer, at which point Alibris “bought” the book from the seller for a 20% discount, and the book was shipped to the Alibris warehouse. Flush with venture capital funding, Alibris bought extensively for its own inventory (including the entire stock of some booksellers), developed a warehouse in the Reno area (at one time it offered listing/warehousing/shipping services to booksellers on a consignment basis), and advertised extensively. Most significantly, it developed several partnerships with libraries and other businesses like Ingrams, Borders, and others, most of which continue to this day.

While Alibris described its new business model as similar to that of a traditional bookseller, in reality, in less than 2 years the other listing services had created new expectations among booksellers: low flat fees for listing, direct contact between buyers and sellers, the advertising benefits of having your business name associated with your inventory and more. Over the past few years, Alibris has moved back towards this “new traditional” Internet model. While Alibris remains a bookseller itself, it changed its focus from rare and out-of-print to remainders and new books. It also began charging a flat monthly fee for all but the smallest sellers, reduced its commission on retail sales from 20% to 15%, listed books on the website at the same prices that individual sellers put on them, increased seller visibility, had sellers ship directly to buyers in the US (thus reducing the costly and time-consuming shipments to the warehouse), and made direct contact between buyers and sellers possible.

FOR BUYERS: PROS

– Extensive use of coupons and discounts. These, combined with “flat” and relatively low shipping rates set by Alibris, often means that a buyer can obtain a copy of a book on Alibris for less than on the competing services.

– Reliability of sellers. ALONE of the three big “A’s” Alibris seems to be making a serious effort to exclude “sellers” who are just data uploaders or who do no more than “spider” other listings and then offer these books (which they do not actually have in stock) at inflated prices. Alibris might not be perfect in this regard, but at least they are trying.

– “Protection” of your order in the shopping cart for 12 hours. If you select a book and put it in the shopping cart, it is removed from public sale for up to 12 hours, thus giving the buyer time to look around and select other books.

– Reasonable shipping fees. Set by Alibris (and almost identical to those set by Amazon). In addition (unlike Amazon), Alibris offers reduced shipping on additional books when purchased from the same bookseller. Buyers should be aware of the fact that not all of the shipping fees are passed on to the sellers (again this is identical to Amazon). Some are retained by Alibris to help fund programs like the discount coupons.

– A large database. 60 million books are claimed on the website, and in 2006, Alibris had approximately 8,000 active sellers. While this was reported as a reduction in numbers from previous highs, it represented only active sellers. Recently Alibris has opened listings up to individuals who might just want to sell a few books (as Amazon did long ago), but it is too soon to see what effect this will have on the overall inventory.

– For buyers looking for a reasonably priced reading copy of a book, the summary results (by title) and the “quick buy” suggestions can speed up and simplify searches. However, these same features become a negative when searching for specific features, such as first edition, as discussed below in the Cons.

– For collectors, Alibris permits the listing of uncorrected proofs and advance reading copies (ARCs) after the book has been published.

– Consolidated ordering and billing services for libraries. While the prices of the books might be slightly higher, this is probably more than offset by the increased convenience and savings in handling.

– Offers want matching (called “fetch book”). However, even though Interloc pioneered want matching capabilities, Alibris’s system seems to be less effective. For example, I put in a match request and received a notification that there were no matches, but an actual search using the exact same parameters brought up 62 results.

– Reliability ratings. While Alibris tells buyers that these ratings only reflect book availability (with the highest rating meaning “almost always available”) and does not reflect quality of dealer service, the buyers are not told precisely what the ratings mean in terms of percentage of completed order. 3 dots means “often available” but this can be as low as 70% of the time.

FOR BUYERS: CONS

– Difficulties in searching. Especially for more uncommon books or for collectible books like signed or first editions. Unlike the traditional search engines, Alibris searches first its own bibliographic database of several million “most commonly searched for” books and gives as matches the books found in that database. If you do a title search for an uncommon book, you might get back a book with a similar title but not the book you are looking for. If you “narrow” your search by adding the author, then the search will find the exact book, since it now looks at the actual listings uploaded by dealers. This is designed to speed up the search results, but is often counter-intuitive. (Example: title search “Writer on Her Work” will return two “summary” results, for the first volume in this series, and the second with the subtitle “New Essays in New Territories.” If you select the second volume “New Essays” you will see 38 results, all for the trade paperback edition, no hardcovers. If you go to the advance search and put in “Writer on Her Work” and select hardcover, you will get 80 results, some of each title. Adding “first edition” to “hardcover” returns 34 results. If you further narrow the results by adding “signed” to “first edition” and “hardcover” you will get 4 results, including two copies NOT returned in any of the previous searches. This is a neat trick, and I have no idea why these two copies did not show up in either the hardcover or first edition results, but still showed up when all three refinements were selected.)

– Limited and inaccurate keywords. The “keywords” used are not those entered by booksellers but are presumably taken from Alibris’s database. (Example: if you enter “Canadian authors” in the keyword field, you will get 20 pages of title results, but if you sort these results by author, you will see that only three of Margaret Atwood’s many titles are included, but one of Australian author Thea Astley’s books is also listed.) The same problem exists in browsing a single seller’s inventory. The categories are assigned by Alibris and are often very inaccurate and incomplete.

– False results when searching for first edition and signed copies. When Alibris “parses” for first edition, phrases such as “first US” or “first UK” are not accepted as first edition identifiers. Since most of Canadian writer Margaret Atwood’s “true first” printings were Canadian editions, this means that listings by sellers who are careful to correctly identify printings from other countries will be eliminated from first edition searches (unless they use a program with a specific “first edition yes/no” type of box). However, this does not mean that all books listed as “first editions” really are. If you narrow the first 38 search results for “The Writer on Her Work: New Essays in New Territory” by clicking first edition, you will see 3 copies—1 “trade paperback” presumed first and two identified as “second printings.” Sometimes search results for first editions or signed copies on Alibris are more accurate on Bookfinder (if you use the “classic” option on Bookfinder, the Alibris results are easily found).

– Credit card is charged immediately upon placing the order, even though the book has not yet been confirmed as available.

– The only payment method is by credit card. PayPal and checks are not an available option.

– For most international buyers, books are first shipped to the Alibris warehouse and then to the customer, which can increase costs, possibility of damage from additional handling and the time of delivery.

– “Help” pages are not kept up-to-date. Information on returns still gives instructions only on returning the book to the warehouse, rather than the individual seller, and the ability to ask the bookseller directly any questions you might have is not mentioned.

– Minimum price of $1.99 means that a book listed for as little as 1 cent on Amazon or $1.00 on AbeBooks.com will have the price increased on Alibris.com to $1.99.

– Unable to set preferences for search results. Depending on the search, the results default to “by seller rating,” lowest price, or most popular, depending on the search, and have to be manually adjusted for other options each time.

FOR SELLERS: PROS

– Its network of “business partners” which gives booksellers access to many different markets—primarily, the library consolidation feature it offers, uploading to BarnesandNoble.com, Borders, Chapters, and for a small additional fee on sales, it offers sellers the option to have their books uploaded to Amazon’s marketplace.

– Extensive use of coupons, widely available internet discounts and other promotions to increase sales.

– New program which permits those who have a small number of books for sale to list them individually on the site and to incur no fees (after a sign-up fee) until the book is sold. At that time, an additional flat fee of 99 cents is charged in addition to the usual commission.

– An informative and easy to access bookseller page called the “dashboard.” Includes summary information on sales, listings, total value, average sale, etc.

– ISBN look-up features, market value comparisons, and optional automatic re-pricing (however, I will include the caveat that I personally think the comparative values shown are rather inaccurate).

– Email customer support is usually responsive and to the point.

– Moderately active forum for booksellers.

– Reduced commissions on more expensive books. Although Alibris does not have a maximum commission (for example, AbeBook.com’s is $40 regardless of the price of the book), Alibris does have a declining scale for books priced at $500 and more. This can lead to inconsistencies. For example, a book priced at $475 will have a commission of $71.25, one at $525 will be $52.50, and an $850 book will only incur a $42.50 commission. Since this includes credit card processing fees, it means that on sales of all books over $500, Alibris is less expensive than the same book would be on both AbeBooks and Amazon.

FOR SELLERS: CONS

– Search engine results on Alibris.com often do not include your copies. This is the direct opposite of AbeBooks.com. All of the factors that will improve the visibility of your books on AbeBooks will either reduce the chances of “your” copy showing up on Alibris or have no effect at all (see detailed search notes above under the comments for buyers). In addition to the problems already mentioned, listing contributing authors or illustrators in the author field will either have no effect, or can eliminate your copy; the use of keywords, catalogs or subjects are ignored; and books can not be searched by any information included in the description.

– Alibris and its partners consider the buyer as their customer rather than what they really are, which is the customer of the individual bookseller.

– Competes with sellers by offering options and benefits like free shipping, express shipping, etc. only on the books in its own inventory.

– The cost of listing and selling. In addition to a high commission of 15% (20% on some partner programs), Alibris has a flat monthly fee which is a few dollars less than AbeBooks.com, and can be higher than Amazon’s, depending on the number of books listed. Alibris also retains part of the fees charged to buyers for shipping, so when the buyer pays $3.99, the seller only receives $2.65.

– Sellers are told that they are responsible for sales taxes, but there is no provision for collecting sales tax (except in the four states where Alibris has a presence and automatically charges sales tax on all sales).

– Limited uniform shipping reimbursement set by Alibris (can occasionally be adjusted).

– Long delay in receiving payment for sold orders. Payments are made only twice a month and cover orders either marked as shipped or received in the warehouse. Most of the time, this means that there is a minimum 15 day delay that can reach up to 29 days. Four times a year there is an extra Friday in the month and this increases the delay to as long as 36 days.

– No telephone customer support.

Chris Volk operates Bookfever along with Shep Iiams out of the Sierra foothills of Amador County, CA and can be contacted at http://www.bookfever.com.

IOBA Standard, Summer Edition 2007, Volume 8, No. 3.

The Standard: The Journal of the Independent Online Booksellers Association

Check out the Independent Online Booksellers Association Website