Brent James – Advance Book Exchange (ABE)

From: Brent James

Interview submitted to ABE by Barbara Lightner

abebooksEDITOR’S NOTE: Please note that this interview was agreed to by Brent James at a luncheon with Leonard Lanfranco, who was unable to personally conduct the interview due to his ill health and subsequent death. Barbara Lightner kindly agreed to take over.

A list of questions covering many aspects of the changes at ABE was submitted, including asking for written confirmations of many verbal assurances and commitments given by ABE representatives during their meetings with booksellers on their U.K. tour. As you’ll see below, none of these commitments made by ABE agents are confirmed or addressed in this response from Mr. James. We show the response from Mr. James first, and then the original list of interview questions submitted to him.

We will continue working with ABE to try to get you answers by the time of the summer issue of this newsletter, as that will be the last issue in 2002 containing database interviews.

Shirley Bryant, Editor


Before I begin, I would like to thank you for the opportunity to discuss Abebooks in the Standard. As a probing reporter, you have asked insightful and in-depth questions. As many of your questions are at the heart of several hot issues that we have dealt with and are still working through, I cannot, unfortunately, respond to the majority of your questions just yet.

We recently launched two new international websites ( and, tested them in the European market and monitored their progress to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses. We are now moving towards applying the results of this testing to these sites as well as our English web sites (, and the upcoming

We learned a great deal from working through this testing process and received plenty of feedback from our booksellers. At this point, we are still developing and fine tuning our approach, and are not quite yet ready to make public the details of our future plans.

Please be assured that the issues you have identified in your questions coincide with the issues we are currently working for our new web site model. Rather than disclosing partial details of our plans, I would prefer to discuss these questions with you at a later date when our plans are further along and I am able to provide you with the full details. By doing this, I hope to avoid some of the confusion that could result from premature discussion.

I would be happy to speak with you again, through the summer, to educate your members (and ours!) about our upcoming changes. Our Public Relations department can assist you in organizing a similar initiative in a couple of months.

1) First, let me thank you for making possible the special program for IOBA members to search member books only, through ABE. We’ll get to that in more detail later. For now, could you tell us the three most important points you would make to booksellers about ABE? Short answer, please.

We work hard to provide the high level of service our booksellers have come to expect from Abebooks. We have worked very diligently to sell as many of our members books as possible while, at the same time, facilitating not only buyer communication but also assisting buyers to purchase directly from our booksellers. We have never competed with our booksellers from an inventory of our own; we are in the service business, focused on helping booksellers make the most sales possible.

The second point I would like to make is that change is an inevitable part of business. The Internet market for used, rare, out-of-print and antiquarian books has undergone dramatic change in a very short time. In this dynamic marketplace, companies who embrace change will thrive as they adapt to customer/marketplace needs. By listening to the needs of booksellers and book buyers, we are preparing to meet future challenges.
Abebooks has always lent an ear to its booksellers. Listening to booksellers is very important for our success. Our Advisory Group has, and continues to play an important role in representing booksellers interests and in helping us make decisions that affect our booksellers. We listen closely not only to our Advisory Group but to other member booksellers, discuss all feedback and work to incorporate suggestions wherever possible before we make a final decision. We are working to improve how we communicate with our bookseller community, so they are informed about how changes in our business will affect changes in their own. Most importantly, we know we will succeed only if our booksellers sell books on our web sites.


2) What are the three most important points you would make to book buyers about ABE? Short answer, please.

There really is only one message I would like to make to book buyers: we are committed to providing buyers with a large selection of used, rare, out-of-print and antiquarian books. We are committed to making each customer s visit to our web sites a pleasurable experience and we will continually improve all areas of our web sites.

3) Advertising

Abebooks is committed to increasing its profile in the consumer market in a number of ways, one of which is advertising. We are always working to learn more about our buyers and choose the most appropriate methods of promotion based on this understanding.

Currently, we are advertising in a number of print publications in the U.S., Canada and in Europe. We are currently co-sponsoring Minnesota Public Radio’s The Writer’s Almanac hosted by Garrison Keillor, which reaches approximately 2 million listeners every day on over 300 radio stations across the United States. We also attend several major trade shows each year and enjoy sponsoring book-related events. Abebooks works closely with the press and receives regular coverage in print, online and broadcast media.

Information about Abebooks media coverage, press releases and corporate information is available through or our monthly bookseller newsletter, the Abebooks Update, available through our Members Menu.

4) IOBA Search Program

Once we received the list of IOBA dealers who were listed on Abebooks, the entire process took between 2 to 3 days to put into production on both the abebooks web site and the IOBA web site. First, we set-up an IOBA searchable group for our own web site, and then provided IOBA with a piece of code to place on their web site. This allowed the organization to have its own search box on the web site, which it may not have been able to do otherwise. We have also provided this service for other associations, as listed in the Advanced Search page Bookstores option. This type of service is evaluated on an individual basis, but generally non-profit bookseller organizations are accepted.


Original Interview Questions:

1) First, let me thank you for making possible the special program for IOBA members to search member books only, through ABE. We’ll get to that in more detail later. For now, could you tell us the three most important points you would make to booksellers about ABE? Short answer, please.

2) What are the three most important points you would make to book buyers about ABE? Short answer, please.

3) We understand from your tour of Great Britain that ABE will be using a “rocket server” that will provide for an all-text search, and improve search results. Which ABE sites will be able to take advantage of a server like this? When will it be available?

4) What percentage of income have you budgeted for advertising through the end of 2002? For 2003? What percentage for the United States? Canada? Great Britain? Europe? Any other (please indicate)?

5) What percentage of your 2002 advertising dollars will go toward attracting book buyers? What percentage toward booksellers?

6) Will any advertising commitments be specified (in percentage figures or otherwise) in the ABE agreement subscribers will sign off on in order to be able to list with ABE?

7) Our most recent understanding of ABE subscription fees is that they will be based on a monthly fee, plus 5% of sales. If correct, what percentage increase could be anticipated in 2002? 2003?

8) What will be the turnaround time for ABE payments to booksellers?

9) How will ABE handle sales tax when purchases are within state? Who is responsible for in-state sales tax? How will the tax be charged?

10) Will ABE cover chargebacks or will chargebacks go to the bookseller? If to the bookseller, what information will ABE furnish to allow booksellers to challenge a chargeback?

11) Some booksellers use listing services to increase their personal customer base, in addition to selling books to an array of different customers. It would be a negative for these booksellers if ABE didn’t allow easy and convenient correspondence between bookseller and book buyer. Several booksellers have expressed concern over the proposed format in which an Inquiry seems the only way to make contact. Will this continue to be the only way to make contact at the point of a book order? If different for different sites, please make that clear, too.

12) As I’m sure you’re aware, some booksellers have expressed a concern that the ABE agreement is one-sided, and in ABE’s interest only. These booksellers would like to see some bookseller rights, protections and/or guarantees. I think particularly of the concern over having to pay full subscription fees, even though ABE may have had significant down time in a given month. What can you say to these booksellers to alleviate these, and other, concerns?

13) Concerns have been expressed over ABE’s inventory “churning,” particularly because there are so many results that come up for the more common books, many of which have the same pricing. Since it’s realistic to assume that most customers will not use the limiting criteria on searches, booksellers are asking for other approaches. What would it take in time, money and equipment for ABE to have the capability to “churn” the entire database monthly? What other suggestions do you have for ensuring a random listing of books for searches?

14) In speaking of recently announced changes to ABE, one bookseller has said, “I’ve been with ABE almost forever, and hate the idea of having to sever the connection, but I will if I don’t think their path is helping me any longer.” What is the percent of booksellers who could leave ABE before it would seriously affect the bottom line, and drive changes in the new programs and agreements?

15) Many of the ad-on programs have not panned out in terms of sales for booksellers. What is needed to revitalize these programs, and is ABE considering taking other steps in this direction?

16) Concerning shipping reimbursements, it is our understanding that the matrix page will still appear. Sellers can still choose representative shipping amounts or accept the default. It is also our understanding, from discussions your representatives had with dealers while in the U.K., that in the case of a book which will cost substantially more than the established shipping there will be an option on the acceptance page to indicate “heavy”. This information will go to ABE, who will contact the customer to let them know that additional shipping will be required. The customer will then get back to ABE to agree to the increased shipping. ABE will contact us to let us know that the customer has agreed to same and the order will go ahead. There will also be an option for “light” which will work the same way. Presumably the customer can also decide not to follow through on the order at this point? Has this been decided on as a final solution to addressing shipping charge problems?

17) Can (or will) ABE provide accurate, perhaps monthly, sales total for all dealers and perhaps an average per dealer in different countries or participating in different programs, average sales price per book, trends toward types of books bought or times of the month that sales are heavier, and such related statistics as ABE is capable of gathering?

18) Can you confirm that $25 is the maximum commission ABE will earn from dealers on any book sold through ABE (5% of $500)?

19) Tell us about the IOBA search program through ABE. How long did it take from request to implementation? Do you have other sites interested in a similar set-up? How do you determine when such a set-up should be followed through on?

20) Will ABE measure the results of the program? Will ABE make the results known to members of IOBA?

Thank you very much.



The Standard: The Journal of the Independent Online Booksellers Association

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