In the online bookselling Dreamtime about a decade ago, there was Interloc (the larval stage of Alibris), Bibliofind (very clean of limb), and ABE (like fresh Canadian spring water). The Bibliofind list was a great place to talk privately about our profession, and we used to speculate on trends. We envisioned corporations buying these book-loving companies up, and we hoped that one or more of the search services would survive as strong independents and good partners.
Ironically, Bibliofind was bought out and exterminated first by Amazon in a roundabout but purposeful manner, the early Alibris centralized business model sought to hide booksellers from our customers, and the evolution of ABE could serve as a study of creeping corporatism, though to be fair many of our problems are based on The Glut (millions of books dredged up by an army of overnight booksellers), and not solely on the depredations of the 3 As.
And so it was on a quiet first of August before a three day Canadian weekend that we received notice Amazon had acquired ABE, pending final approval, and no it was not another April Fool’s-type jest. Over the years our ABE fees have doubled or quadrupled while our sales were halved or quartered, and we wonder how much of those revenues derived from our hard work and expertise went toward improving the balance sheet and making this property ripe for picking.
This rather seismic event might have raised greater fears and more resentment years ago when ABE was pure, but things have gone so far downhill with mega-lister clogged search result pages, the credit card processing grab, and a score of other professional and technical problems that many of us are hoping equally impure Amazon can save the day. Unless Amazon gets religion all of a sudden about the difference between unique used/out-of-print/antiquarian books and shiny identical new ones fresh from the publisher’s warehouse, however, there’s a good chance we are jumping from a sinking ship to a ship of fools.
I have given up debating enthusiastic Amazon supporters, who believe that the phenomenal branding and number of eyeballs Amazon delivers absolves the company of all sins against our noble profession. I shop there for cheap music and new books, but I usually don’t do my research or important buying there due to all the dumbing down and distractions, and I suspect it is the last choice for serious book buyers who know about the alternatives. Amazon’s customer base is not as sophisticated either. We just heard the following rationale for a refund from an IOBA bookseller: “I was ignorant of the fact that the product that I was buying was a book.” This is what makes the loss or diminution of ABE worrisome. Amazon makes it very easy to order books and it delivers them quickly on the back end, but it also makes it difficult to list books and to find books on the front end. And for “better” titles, Amazon’s dirty little secret is that these selfsame books can often be ordered directly, easily, and safely from independent booksellers, without the big Amazon markup added to cover the costs of doing business there, or added by those who realize that most buyers don’t know about this alternative. “Customer-centric” sounds great at first blush, but it often involves brutalizing your suppliers, undermining other businesses in the quest for monopoly, degrading traditional standards that are usually there for a good reason, and actually increasing prices in unseen ways.
I have two visions of Amazon. The first is of a galactic horn of plenty sluggishly moving through the universe devouring star systems with the same guiding principles that inform WalMart. The other is of the Pythonesque Ministry of Silly Walks that must be their used books department, deep down in the bowels of the rude cornucopia. I picture the office door at an angle, up off the floor a few feet with a whacky doorknob and painted some bright color, with people inside jumping through flaming hoops and putting out small fires all day, which is what they make us do with technical inefficiencies (uploading, etc.) and bibliographic atrocities (truncating descriptions, etc.) far too numerous to list here.
There is a third hopeful vision, long cherished, of our nice books smoothly interfacing with Amazon’s enormous potential. Will they start from scratch with used books and integrate AbeBooks into that, or will they make AbeBooks the premier arm of their bookselling empire? Will they squeeze us for profits, hide our identities, and coerce us into lowering standards, or will they respect the profession and treat us as business owners rather than shipping clerks? Will either company even listen to us? One thing for certain is that IOBA will try to make them listen, as when one of our Canadian members reported on challenging the head of AbeBooks heading for his sports car out on the street after a good but rather restrictive radio interview on hurtful new shipping commissions “like an Ent lecturing Saruman.”
In this issue, three online bookseller insiders weigh in on the ABE takeover; a New Hampshire bookman says farewell to a beloved children’s author; IOBA supports our South African colleagues; a cool letterpress Q & A; and Joe Perlman writes about Great Unexpectations. The Reference Desk performs a strip search; the book review comes with Goodspeed; and we open a new drawer for exciting interviews with up and coming authors. The Tool Box gets into a bind and fights corruption. IOBA Bookseller Profiles say Havre de Grace, MD; go leather in Devon, U.K.; yet bow to royalty in Palm Desert, CA. If that doesn’t stuff you, how about a large slice of Addenda for dessert?
I am late on this issue for the first time (July in October), and will try to catch up, though it’s always so tempting to save untold hours with two little words—“combined issue.” You can help. Send articles about your specialties, send brief pieces, send something. Please see “Solicitations” in the back pages for more information.
PS: Sorry to take care of internal business in a foreword, but it has come to our attention that a good portion of IOBA members are not receiving our Announce List messages, probably because they are being filtered into a trash or junk folder. You can opt out of other lists, like Discuss or TradeBooks, but we ask all of you to make sure you are receiving Announce List messages, as that is our official conduit for important announcements, the annual August renewal notice (for the membership year September through August), voting on board elections, etc. We try to use it sparingly but we need it to reach all of you. Please consider this PS as a ping test. If you received word of this new issue of the Standard through the Announce List, you are golden. If you found your way here through some other means, take action to make sure Announce List emails go into your In Box. We can help you with this if you need it. Thank you kindly. We now return you to more standard programming.