Second of a series on the various bookselling services.
I was hired as a consultant by Bookquest which was sponsored by a company called Faxon. At that time I was a partner with Taylor Bowie in a bookstore in Pioneer Square in Seattle and had been writing articles and giving seminars on the use of computers in the used book business for some years. Not too long after this Faxon dissolved and shut down Bookquest. There were 125 dealers involved at that time and a number of them wanted this kind of service to continue. I contacted Tom Sawyer, who had written Bookquest and Brad Councilman and in March 1994 we launched Interloc with about 35 dealers and 35,000 records.
Were you surprised by the success of the web based services like Bibliofind and ABE?
I talked to Rick Pura quite a bit while they were getting going so it certainly wasn’t a surprise. They are good people and had a good idea and they were the first to go live on the net. We did not do so immediately because we always felt that if the dealers wanted to keep their customers the system would have to remain dealer to dealer. We felt that this was going to generate too many listing services and no one, or at least very few, would make any money since no revenue was being generated on transactions. Another effect would be to bring a tremendous amount of supply without corresponding demand generating a price decline for many types of books and this has certainly happened particularly with fiction. And without criticizing ABE or anyone else, they started out by using our software for their clients and undercutting our prices. I continue to believe that there is a very strong market but that the collector market does not define it. It is world wide and in all languages and is our job to reach that market.
You recently announced the dropping of your high-profile advertising campaign. What will you be replacing it with?
Our primary strategy has always been to service companies who already had customers who were or might be intererested in out of print books. We have important agreements with Barnes and Noble, Chapters – the largest bookseller in Canda , and other organizations. I am leaving for Germany tomorrow to develop our opportunities in Europe. Companies like these like the fact that we source the books from our own warehouse and from our family of dealers, that we approve them, ship them and guarantee them. This will be our major area of growth.
Do you plan to continue buying bookseller inventories?
We buy inventories of booksellers who have approached us – they might have lost their lease, want to retire or any number of reasons. I can’t think of any case where we have bought an inventory from someone who had not approached us first. When that happens we have professional buyers who come in and make an offer and they can accept it or not. I know there is a perception of us a kind of Book Grim Reaper with a scythe mowing though the field of independent booksellers but that’s just not the case.
What About the Book Buying and Referral Program. Many people think that you are competing against your own members with these storefront buying operations.
We are NOT a listing service. Alibris is a dealer and we have never made any bones about this. We don’t charge a fee to list with us and we buy our members’ books when they are sold and we assume the risks of that sale and even pay the postage. Of course we compete to buy books and people are welcome to compete with us by opening their own locations or by paying higher prices for books. One of our longtime members commented that you either compete or don’t or fail but there’s no point in crying about the fact of competition itself. I thought competition was what the American model of business was all about.
Some people don’t like to give us a discount and in fact many say that they don’t discount their books to anyone. That’s fine, although I personally find it unprofessional and in that case we simply don’t buy their books and life goes on.
Do you have any comment on allegations that Alibris substitutes books from its own inventory for independent bookseller orders made by such bulk buyers as Amazon.
We don’t do it. Even if we wanted to it would be far more trouble than it’s worth to attempt to find an identical copy of a book and then ship it. We would have to do a manual search for a copy and then go send someone to get it. It makes far more sense to just ship the book the customer ordered.
Why did you withdraw support for Record Manager and Bookmaster even though you had made very strong personal commitments that you would not?
We have not withdrawn support for these products. Anyone who continues to do business with us is entitled to free technical support on an ongoing basis. There are many copies of these programs outstanding and from our travels around North America presenting seminars it appears that the majority of people in the book trade continue to use them. We do not provide support for people who are not doing business with Alibris. It is ridiculous to think that you can continue to provide free support for products that you might have sold a decade ago. No company would.
What about the future?
The biggest single step was an affordable electronic marketplace for books and Interloc first provided that – four or five companies tried it before me by the way. The services have really proven that more people wanted more books than anyone realized. It removed the out of print book trade from its small cocoon of dealers and collectors. The real expansion will come through working on business to business arrangements with organizations with their own customers and processes, who deal in their own country and the language of their customers. There will be ongoing issues with supply created before the demand is there and with the lack of standards among the huge number of sellers on the Internet. ABAA is too small and too focused on the antiquarian trade – hopefully IOBA will be able to provide those standards.