Pros and Cons of AbeBooks.com for Buyers and Sellers


This is the first in a series of proposed articles taking a brief look at the pros and cons of the various multi-dealer book listing databases. The three largest of these databases—AbeBooks.com, Alibris.com and Amazon.com’s Marketplace—all have two things in common. So far, at least, they have the most traffic, the most books listed, and they generate the most sales; and they are also the sites which have changed the most over the past 11 years, for better or for worse, and they are continuing to change the most dramatically.

AbeBooks.com was originally started as a simple, traditional multi-dealer listing site. Most of the original dealers on the site were experienced professionals, the majority of the customers on the site were collectors or experienced buyers of used books, and even after all of the changes, the bones of this simple listing service still remain. However, as other database services like Bibliofind and Bibliocity were bought out and shut down by the new owners, AbeBooks grew significantly in size, and that growth brought both benefits and problems.

FOR BUYERS: PROS

– Possibly the largest database. AbeBooks now states that it has over 100 million listings from over 13,500 dealers, and it is definitely the easiest database to search. No restrictions on prices of listings (other than a $1 minimum) and no requirements that books fit into an existing database, so ephemera, manuscripts and many unique items can be listed and found here.

– A “keyword” search which is in reality an “almost any word” search (searches title, author, description, publisher information and actual keywords). If you are looking for a book about the Andersonville Prison and the author’s name was “Robert something” and you know it was published before 1880, a search on AbeBooks will give you the title (only one in this case, but sometimes there might be a few different results to choose from). This is a great feature and surprisingly one that AbeBooks does not seem to promote.

– Simple “all in one” search results, easily modifiable. Of the three largest databases, AbeBooks is the only site where all of the results are returned at one time. In other words, there is no need to select several variants of the title or author and click on each one to see 25 books here, or 10 books with this variant. The entire list of 5, 10 or even 10,000 books will be returned, sorted according to your preference. While getting an extremely long list of books might also be a “con,” the fact that you can modify or narrow your searches in so many different ways (including using optional Boolean searches) means that AbeBooks is the most efficient and fastest database to search.

– Ability to save your search preferences. While this is rather limited, you can save the default order for results (highest price, lowest, newest listing, alpha by author or title), Boolean search on or off, etc.

– Want matches. AbeBooks will store want matches indefinitely based on many different criteria, from a simple author’s name or keyword to a want for a signed first edition in dust jacket of a specific title. This was a feature of AbeBooks from its inception, and unfortunately, recent changes reduced its utility. Email notifications are only sent out once a day, increasing the possibility that you will miss a “hot” match, the full description of the books is no longer included, and the all of the books are not shown—just the lowest priced and most expensively priced. In addition, wants are no longer matched on “edits” so if a seller listed a book with an error in the author or title or reduces the price of the book by 50% you will not see a match when the spelling is corrected, or the price discounted. The plus side of these changes is that a buyer no longer gets so many matching emails, or such long ones. In addition, AbeBooks added a feature where you can click on see all listings matching your criteria by newest first. Despite the changes, this remains the most effective want-matching search of any database.

– Easy contact with booksellers. While not as easy as it used to be, it is still the most friendly in terms of direct contact, either through the AbeBooks system (which retains a copy, and sends you a copy of your inquiry) or by bypassing the system and emailing them directly. The “ask a bookseller a question” link is displayed with each book on the “first” results page, and if a buyer clicks on that, the email address is open and available. In addition, there is a link to the bookseller’s homepage (either an AbeBooks homepage or the seller’s own website) under “bookseller and payment information.”

– An international site. While North American dealers predominate, AbeBooks has a significant number of dealers from other countries, and all of their books can be searched at one time in one place.

FOR BUYERS: CONS

– Possibly the largest database. Unfortunately, among the 100 million listings are many repetitive listings, “re-listings” of books not actually in the possession of the seller, listings of photocopies, print-on-demand books and e-books with sometimes inaccurate information, books inadequately described (“unknown binding”) or with little or no condition descriptions.

– Lack of quality control. If a bookseller calls a book club edition a first edition or uses “autograph” to mean that the previous owner wrote his/her name in the book, then these books will be included in the search results for “first edition” or “signed” books respectively. AbeBooks takes a “hands-off” approach when it comes to dealers’ pricing and descriptions, which means that the buyer must exercise due diligence, read descriptions carefully and ask questions before purchasing. AbeBooks has taken some steps recently to clear up some of the most egregious offenses: it added a quantity field so no longer will 20 identical copies be shown individually, and it removed some “booksellers” whose listings consisted of nothing but hundreds of thousands or even millions of books they did not possess. Nevertheless, dealers on AbeBooks are still permitted to upload long lists of new books, where wholesalers or publishers will do fulfillment.

– No ratings or other indication of the reliability of a bookseller. This has been proposed for years now, and it will eventually be put into place.

– Inaccurate search results, when modifying factors are selected. The problem of non-qualifying books has already been mentioned, but it is also true that books which do meet the search criteria are sometimes screened out.

– Inaccurate help fields. Even though it has been almost 3 years since the “keyword search” changed from a keyword only search to one which searches author title and description as well as keywords, this information was changed in the “top 5 search tips” link (which appears only on the advanced search page), but not in the much longer and more detailed “search tips” shown at the bottom of every results page. The same is true of punctuation in searches: the top 5 tips warn you that apostrophes do affect the search results; the search tips tell you that punctuation does not count.

– Shipping rates shown for the country of the bookseller only. This should be a buyer-centric field. After all, a US customer wants to know how much a German seller will charge to ship the book to the US, not how much he charges to ship a book in Germany.

– Changes that are often cosmetic and not clearly thought through and navigational quirks. For example, for many users, the “back key” in search results will bring you back to a blank screen or back two screens instead of one, so in order to modify the search, “more search options” at the top of the page must be clicked. The search results pages were recently changed: the attributes and seller locations became pull-down menus, and were placed at the top of the page (a good change), but the blank field to type in additional criteria became “keyword” only instead of author, title, publisher or keyword (less precise and useful) and the link to the subsequent pages is only at the bottom of the page, necessitating scrolling up and down. Similarly a buyer can now “save” items in the shopping cart, but this can only be done one item at a time, and so is slow and cumbrous.

FOR SELLERS: PROS

(Note: The comparisons below are to the other major sites: Alibris.com and Amazon’s Marketplace. In most cases, the traditional smaller independent databases offer sellers significantly more freedom and flexibility than any of the large ones do.)

– Permits the most direct contact between buyers and sellers of all the major sites, including links to your own website.

– Gives sellers the most freedom to set their own shipping rates and policies, to describe books briefly or at length, and to price books as they wish. Other than the credit card processing fee, all of the shipping fees go to the seller.

– Accepts seller databases in virtually any format, and will customize the upload. Also provides a free database program called HomeBase for booksellers to use.

– Permits other forms of payment in addition to the MasterCard and Visa, which AbeBooks processes.

– Appears to still have a substantial customer base of collectors and frequent buyers, but also has an increasing visible affiliate program with links on many internet sites and appears to be increasing its advertising and publicity. According to AbeBooks, the overall sales on the site are increasing, but these increases are outpaced by the number of books being listed.

– Telephone customer support, including a toll free number.

– A relatively short holding period on AbeBooks ecommerce sales where they processed the payments, paid weekly with a holding period of from 8 days to 15 days for most booksellers.

– An active and often informative bookseller forum.

FOR SELLERS: CONS

– The cost of listing and selling. Depending on the number of sales, the average dollar value of each sale, and the number of listings, AbeBooks is arguably the most expensive site to list on, because the fees are a combination of flat monthly fee, commissions and credit card processing fee (charged on both the price of the book and shipping). Although the nominal 8% commission and 5.5% credit card processing fee is at 13.5% theoretically less than the 15% charged by Alibris and Amazon, the addition of 5.5 % on shipping, the higher flat monthly fees and the minimum fees on inexpensive books can push the total monthly bill higher.

– The “clutter” and “junk” in the database and the lack of quality control both in terms of sellers and inventory.

– Continuing move away from the traditional strong base of “frequent buyers” in an attempt to broaden its appeal—thus the addition of stock publisher photos, “BookHints” and many other features implemented in ways that disregard the traditional buyers and sellers.

– Mandatory use of AbeBooks’ credit card processing facilities at a high fee. What had been a convenience and an optional service for booksellers has become a profit center.

– Limited ability to charge sales tax, to modify shipping fees and even to reduce the price of the book. While at least there is some provision to do so, requesting sales taxes is combined under the term “requesting additional shipping” and there is no way to reduce the price of the book before you accept an order. (These were not an issue before AbeBooks took over all processing of Visa and MasterCard orders.)

– Glacial pace of change. Not entirely a “con” since often AbeBooks’ changes are not positive ones. Nevertheless among the promised features for over a year—and in some cases, many years—are a customer loyalty program for discount certificates on additional purchases, gift certificates, a seller-rating system, and an upgrade to the often-inadequate HomeBase system.

– A tendency to act as if AbeBooks is the only place sellers list books. For example, to opt out of isbn matching and the added muse information, sellers are instructed to use “noisbn” in the keyword field, yet most sellers upload keywords to other listing sites, and some of these other sites display the keywords.

– Sellers must be pro-active on AbeBooks. Often it is booksellers who first identify the problems and malfunctioning on the site, and even when these problems are called to AbeBooks’ attention, sellers are often not notified or the notice only appears on the booksellers’ forum (which not all dealers use). Sellers need to periodically check that their listings are showing up properly both on AbeBooks itself (especially when attributes like “first edition” are selected) and on the meta-listing sites like BookFinder.com and AddAll.com.

– No automatic link for PayPal payments.

– Inadequate follow-up when a credit card cannot be processed. Instead of the order remaining open while AbeBooks follows up with the customer, the order is immediately cancelled.

– For those who use the ISBN lookup to populate fields, there is inaccurate information, especially the use of the “warehouse” location as the place of publication.

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.

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