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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.


What Should Amazon Do with AbeBooks?

Most importantly, Amazon should take its time and look at AbeBooks carefully, recognize its unique strengths (and its many easily-cured weaknesses), and come to the wise decision that AbeBooks should remain a stand-alone website. Some of the main strengths of AbeBooks include the breadth and depth of book and ephemera listings, the superior advanced search functions, the unique wants matching function, the cross-listing of books on websites in five languages, and what remains of dealer goodwill.

Now I’m not saying there shouldn’t be some cross-site promotion—there should. But AbeBooks should fill a niche that Amazon isn’t set-up to properly deal with—used books and ephemera from used book dealers. While Amazon has entered this market and succeeded to some extent, their database built around rolling up everything into ASINs (Amazon Standard Identification Numbers), while perfect for dealing with widgets, is not well-suited to unique items. Several other Amazon policies and practices also cause problems, especially for the rare/collectable book buyers (character limits on descriptions, no books over $2500, etc.). AbeBooks has long enjoyed many advantages for used and rare/collectable book buyers which would be lost if the AbeBooks listings were simply integrated onto Amazon.

If I were Amazon, I would refocus AbeBooks back into serving the needs of used and rare/collectable book buyers and dealers while perhaps offering AbeBooks buyers the option to see new books and/or Amazon inventory (but not as they currently do). How should they do this?

Technical Assistance

Amazon should immediately offer technical (systems/programming) assistance to AbeBooks to start addressing the many recent technical problems with the AbeBooks website (both the general functioning and how the site appears across different browsers), the accounting and e-mail problems, and the problems with database processing of uploads and inventory. I’d also have Amazon get the endlessly-delayed gift certificates back on schedule so that they’re finally ready for this holiday season. The staff lent/rented by Amazon could also assist AbeBooks with the current clean-up of the website and with building automated queries to help AbeBooks staff identify problems on an ongoing basis.

This shouldn’t wait until the acquisition is final. AbeBooks has programming positions open currently (and has for quite some time) and should simply contract with Amazon to fill those positions with Amazon staff now.

Decluttering AbeBooks

Amazon should remove clutter from the AbeBooks website—no more photocopies, no more e-books, no more supposedly free shipping, no more duplicate accounts, no more kitchen appliances, no more slogans and propaganda in listings, and no more over-priced new books and PODs.

Photocopies don’t belong on AbeBooks, especially the high-priced ones currently there which generally can be obtained either free online or free or at little cost via interlibrary loan. They simply clutter searches with things buyers generally don’t want.

E-books could probably best be handled by just forwarding buyers into Amazon—this is an area where their widget-based system is probably better-suited and where they already are pushing their Kindle product. A little advertisement box on the homepage would be all that’s needed.

Free shipping in its current form on AbeBooks is so often not free. This is easy for any buyer to see since duplicate accounts (one without free shipping and one with) make it clear that a fair number of dealers aren’t really offering free shipping but instead just inclusive shipping or reduced shipping. False or misleading advertising isn’t helpful to anyone and the whole concept of free shipping feeds into the race to the bottom in pricing—again something that’s not helpful to dealers nor AbeBooks/Amazon in the long run.

Duplicate accounts are simply a way for dealers to page-hog—something that’s not helpful to anyone, especially buyers.

Refrigerators, microwave ovens, and everything else which doesn’t fall into the basic books and ephemera category needs to be removed. AbeBooks has taken some steps to do this but could do much more. Hopefully Amazon will help as mentioned above.

Slogans and propaganda in descriptions on AbeBooks need to be removed. If this information is seen as being useful to some buyers, then it needs to be moved into a separate field, as it was before AbeBooks revamped the Book Details page, to not clutter descriptions for all buyers.

New Books and Print-on-Demand Books (PODs)

AbeBooks was right that new books and PODs are of interest to many used book buyers but was wrong in their implementation. Unfortunately what AbeBooks has currently is a large quantity of horribly over-priced readily available new books and PODs, too many poorly described new books, way too many poorly or deceptively described PODs, page-hogging by some sellers, books listed for sale that aren’t truly available anymore, no reasonable way for buyers looking for real used books to eliminate new books and PODs from search results, and no way for buyers to easily know for sure which books are actually in hand at a dealer’s premises and which will be ordered/shipped from a distributor/publisher/wholesaler.

Hopefully Amazon will completely rethink this. Amazon could certainly fill these needs in a variety of ways.

Amazon should start by immediately booting off all new book and POD relister sellers who have a consistent pattern of over-pricing on readily available in-print books and PODs. These sellers do no service to anyone here and don’t deserve a second chance. Amazon should review pricing by relister sellers on a regular basis to ensure that any relister sellers on the site are offering value to buyers rather than a negative experience.

If Amazon decides to allow some new book and POD relister sellers to stay, I hope they will also set a very high fulfillment requirement (perhaps something like 98%). I also hope they will require a higher level of detail in all listings—providing all the details wanted by buyers of new books and PODs and without a bunch of slogans tacked onto the descriptions. Since the relister has no inventory-holding costs, it’s quite reasonable to expect them to be able to keep their catalogue accurate, detailed, and up-to-date and to expect them to be able to source their books in a way that ensures deliveries are made on time. I’d also recommend Amazon create a clear way for buyers to see which books are on hand versus books which will be ordered/shipped from third parties (and ideally the location from which the books will be shipped).

An alternative is for Amazon to boot off all the new book and POD relister sellers and keep that inventory on Amazon. AbeBooks could then offer several ways for buyers to find those books: an advertisement on the homepage that simply redirects buyers into Amazon, offering buyers the opportunity at the search menu to include all Amazon results or just Amazon results for new books and/or PODs, or Amazon could re-work the search results screens so that Amazon results appear automatically at the end of search results with a clear dividing line stating that the results which follow are from Amazon.

Another alternative is to boot off all the new book and POD relister sellers and just put Amazon’s own inventory onto AbeBooks, along with their In Stock indicators and all.

Stopping Dealer Exodus

Amazon needs to stem the tide (a small but increasing flow) of good dealers exiting AbeBooks. AbeBooks reached a peak of about 13,500 dealers but over the past year or two that total has slowly and steadily fallen. While changes to help buyers will make dealers happy, Amazon also needs to rethink some of the AbeBooks decisions which directly impacted dealers (and often buyers) over the past few years.

A. First, I’d recommend some rethinking about credit cards. Professional dealers could and should be allowed to take back processing of credit cards. Amazon would do well to add some qualifications to this both to protect buyers and themselves, while encouraging use of the AbeBooks Payment Processing services. One simple idea (not mine) would be to only allow dealers to process cards after they’ve been with AbeBooks for awhile and have a proven track record—initially all orders using cards would be processed by AbeBooks and after a certain point the dealer could opt to change to processing cards themselves. Dealers with a proven track record elsewhere (or who had left AbeBooks previously and then returned) could perhaps be allowed to skip this “time at AbeBooks” requirement.

If this is a non-starter (which it shouldn’t be!), then at a bare minimum the card processing needs to work better for both buyers and dealers. The 5.5% fee to dealers is unreasonable and needs to be reduced. A new card processor should be chosen who fails less often and who can provide exact reasons for rejections, when possible, that can be passed along to buyers and reviewed in aggregate by AbeBooks, so they can address potential problems like multiple orders at the time of the order by providing guidance to the buyer.

All AbeBooks websites should allow buyers the option to choose from a selection of charging currencies. This would ensure that Canadian buyers buying from Canadian dealers aren’t paying double-conversion spreads on their orders (likewise for Australian buyers buying from Australian dealers, etc). This would also allow Irish buyers to place their orders on an English-language AbeBooks site but be charged in Euros and Spanish-speaking buyers could use IberLibro but be charged in US$ (or £ or whichever currency is appropriate). The charges should be processed via AbeBooks/Amazon in the country of the charge, when possible, so buyers don’t get hit with additional foreign and/or ISA fees by their card issuers. Ideally, the card processor chosen should offer services to authorize the charge (but not complete the charge) at the time of order placement. Upon processing by the dealer, the charge is completed. If the charge is reduced or extra charges are requested and approved, the card processor should be able to adjust the charge and complete the charge (they should be able to accomplish this most of the time without re-authorizing but if need be they would reverse the initial authorization and request authorization again). This would help buyers know right away if they’ve made an error entering their details without the annoying practice of putting through the charge before the order is confirmed, and it would help dealers avoid the annoyance of card rejections.

B. The recent decision to charge commission on shipping and handling charges should be reversed. This isn’t good for so many reasons but perhaps mostly because it does exactly the opposite of what AbeBooks says it was intended to do (lower the shipping fees paid by buyers).

C. The order process should be enhanced to allow for automated tax collection (both GST for Canadian dealers and Sales Tax for US dealers). If card processing by dealers isn’t allowed, this is a must and should be a breeze for Amazon to implement.

D. The shipping matrix should be enhanced to allow dealers to opt into a tiered matrix that takes weight into account. For dealers who wish to opt out, the tiered matrix would have a “same” option so all tiers would be set to the same rates. The extra charges process should remain for sets and extremely heavy books.

E. Amazon would do well to try and bring back some of the reseller programs, but I fear many of those companies won’t be interested in forging alliances with Amazon (given the damage done to their businesses by competition with Amazon).

International Focus

Amazon should refocus AbeBooks on international expansion using one brand name and should continue to use one database across all AbeBooks websites. AbeBooks’ foray into Gojaba is likely to continue to be a drain on resources for quite some time so I’d suggest that experiment be ended, though several of the ideas behind it should be used to better AbeBooks.

The multi-character support of Gojaba’s database and website should be built into AbeBooks so that AbeBooks dealers listing Chinese or Russian or Croatian books could use the proper characters to list them and so that buyers using the proper characters to search for them could actually find them.

The idea of expanding more rapidly into other languages/countries with a streamlined website (as Gojaba was doing) is also a good idea that AbeBooks should make use of, but with all of their listings showing on those sites. As business increases the websites can be developed further, but the streamlined websites would at least provide the basic tools so a buyer can search and purchase in their own language and so a dealer can set up and manage their account in their own language.

Wants Matching

This was and still is, even in its hobbled state, a fairly unique advantage AbeBooks has, especially when combined with their superior search function. Amazon should work slowly and carefully on fixing and improving the AbeBooks Wants Matching function. AbeBooks hobbled the function several years ago by cutting back on the number of e-mailed matches to a maximum of two per want per e-mail—a rather odd thing to do given that at the same time eBay (the only site with a near comparable function) was increasing the number of matches appearing in their e-mails for saved searches.

Many more aspects of the service could and should be improved to benefit buyers, dealers, and AbeBooks, but this should be done carefully and only with the input of buyers and dealers (especially those who have large numbers of wants placed).

Bookseller Ratings

Amazon should remove “Bookseller Ratings” from the AbeBooks websites. The description of the ratings has never been accurate, the calculation has never been fair, and the above-mentioned improvements will have removed the bulk of failing dealers from ABE. A website of professional dealers doesn’t need ratings, and a website with ratings certainly doesn’t look like the home of professional dealers.

Search Function

Amazon should be impressed with the AbeBooks search function—both the speed and the ability to enter quite complex searches. This important and rather unique function should only be enhanced as mentioned above and with the involvement of a diverse group of dealers and buyers. This and the Wants Matching function are two of AbeBooks’ strongest assets and extreme care should be taken in altering them.

That said, several things are far past overdue, such as the ability to exclude new books, PODs, and ex-library copies from searches, etc. It is time to create these exclusions and to create and enforce policies which will make the exclusions work properly.

Dealer/Buyer Input

AbeBooks has had both dealer and buyer groups that can be surveyed for information, and it runs message boards that are a treasure trove of good ideas. Unfortunately this free resource has not been utilized in the past. A smart company would make use of it.

After saying all this, I should also say that another part of me wants Amazon to integrate AbeBooks’ inventory onto Amazon and close all the AbeBooks websites. Why? Because perhaps this might be the final kick needed to get many more dealers to finally understand that rather than making another for-profit website the place where we all list books, we might be better off supporting a non-profit website run by people in the trade, rather than continue to be subject to the whims of people who make decisions based mainly on constantly improving profits.




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