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The IOBA Standard is the journal of the Independent Online Booksellers Association and covers the book world, with a special focus on the online used, out-of-print, and collectible bookselling markets.


The ABE Bookseller Ratings Deception

How on earth can it be that David Brass Rare Books, a well respected ABAA antiquarian book dealer in California of over 40 years experience, is rated by ABE as a one star bookseller, yet obviously inferior re-listers such as Anybook, Best Bargain Books, Bargain Book Stores, etc., with their millions of low-grade boiler plate listings polluting the ABE site, are rated as four or even five star booksellers?


The answer, of course, is that they are not bookseller ratings at all. They are simply “fulfillment” ratings. But the presentation and the implication of the wording is that it is the overall quality of the bookseller that is being assessed by a caring ABE.

Anyone from the outside world looking at “Bookseller Rating” would assume that it meant the overall quality of the bookseller—the quality of stock, the expertise, the quality and honesty of descriptions and the quality of service. Therefore a five star bookseller is better than a three star bookseller and so on. We all know the many reasons why ABE has chosen fulfillment as the criteria and “Bookseller Rating” as the purposely misleading title, and they are all selfish to ABE, rather than for the good of their customers or member booksellers.

Is there anything we can do about it? I think there is.

For a number of years now (from when ABE started going bad) we have given our customers information on which listing sites do and don’t charge commission and how much.

We do it via a give-away leaflet in the bookshop, via a “tail” on the emails we send out, and via the book searching information page within our website. A number of other book dealers have joined us in these efforts, which is very helpful.

And it is working. Over the past three years our web-based sales have risen by almost 100%. Direct sales and sales through non-commission sites have risen dramatically over this period, but ABE sales have remained stagnant and have therefore diminished significantly as a proportion of our overall web sales.

So, slowly but surely customers are learning about, and don’t like, the extra charges, and are beginning to understand that if they go direct to the seller, or through non-commission sites, they will make significant savings.

I believe that the ABE Bookseller Rating needs a similar approach and to this end we have introduced “Booklisting Site Ratings” to our website:\staticpages/booksearch

Just as ABE chose the criteria that suited them (fulfillment) and chose to call it “Bookseller Rating” rather than “Fulfillment Rating,” we chose the criteria that we felt were most important to us and our customers: quality of listings and amount of commission charged.

The main purpose of this article is to encourage others to follow suit. Feel free to copy or link—you would be doing your customers a service. Your own version can be completely different from ours, with extra sites added and others removed as each bookseller chooses. And with your own criteria and awarding of stars.

If you have a blog, then blog it—Steve Gertz of David Brass Rare Books and friends are already hitting back:

And others are on the way.

As I write, I can almost hear the moans:

“What’s the point? We’ll never beat the big sites.”

If that is your attitude, you deserve to be fleeced. Collectively we have the power to force change. True, it cannot be done head on as booksellers are notoriously difficult to gather behind a common policy, but if enough sellers take action of this nature, a slow erosion takes place and one by one customers are weaned away from the high-charging sites. And once they leave, they rarely go back. Education, education, education.

“Why pick on ABE? Alibris does the same thing.”

ABE probably gets more criticism because it was once the best book listing site on the web and was built up by that quality and through the promotion of the participating booksellers. So every adverse change, of which bookseller ratings is only the latest, tends to fuel the sense of betrayal that many booksellers feel. In any case, the Booklisting Site Ratings is aimed against all the high-charging sites, not just ABE.

Get it clear in your head: ABE is a listing site. It owns no stock, and is therefore vulnerable to better or more economical listing methods becoming available, be it Google or a new player emerging. It has made the conscious decision that bookseller loyalty and support is unimportant compared with making money. Like Amazon, eBay and Alibris, ABE has found that taking a percentage of the stock of someone else is very profitable.

Make no mistake—they are right. The path ABE has taken is considerably more profitable than the previous model, but the downside is that it includes the seeds of their own eventual destruction. Customers will find that it is cheaper to shop elsewhere, and as ABE has no loyalty to the booksellers that helped create them, those booksellers need feel no loyalty to them. If a better listing method comes along, they will desert ABE in droves.

Meantime, the best that the independent bookseller can do is to keep on supporting the independent sites such as ILAB, IOBA and TomFolio; and in the UK, PBFA and IBookNet. Give them price preference as they don’t charge commission (or uplift your prices to the commission charging sites). Give your new listings a two or three week start on their sites. Promote their qualities and integrity whenever and wherever you can.

And keep spreading the word about commission charges and Booklisting Site Ratings!

Booklisting Site Ratings

Booklisting site ratings are based on the quality of the listings (accuracy and honesty of listings etc.)

The expertise, ethics and quality of service of participating booksellers.

Booklisting sites with higher ratings charge no commission fee over and above the bookseller’s price and do not allow what are known as megalisters and relisters – booksellers who use ‘boiler plate’ descriptions because they either do not have the book in stock or have not bothered to catalogue it properly, leading to indifferent service for the customer.

ABE (Advanced Book Exchange) Alibris Amazon Biblio Choosebooks / ZVAB eBay IBookNet (Independent Booksellers’ Network) ILAB (International League of Antiquarian Booksellers IOBA (Independent Online Booksellers Association) PBFA (Provincial Book Fairs Association) TomFolio UKBookWorld

Key: No commission charges and strong quality rules Low commission charges and strong quality rules Medium commission charges and strong quality rules High commission charges and variable quality rules High commission charges and weak quality rules

Stuart Manley is the co-owner of Barter Books in Alnwick Station, Northumberland, England IOBA Standard, Fall Edition 2007, Volume 8, No. 4.




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