Set the Wayback Machine Sherman

Picture 1I discovered through a blog post by the Wall Street Journal’s Mylene Mangalindan that Amazon had agreed to acquire AbeBooks. I haven’t been to the AbeBooks site or bought anything there for literally years. The site manages transactions between buyers and independent booksellers and was founded in Vancouver, BC in roughly 1995.

Set the Wayback Machine Sherman, we’re going to back to 1996 . . .

You see back in those days, for those who may not recall, Amazon was viewed by many who loved books as the embodiment of evil and the potential end of the traditional book business. AbeBooks was conceived and launched as a direct response to Amazon: a way for independent booksellers to offer books sales online as an alternative. Many people in my social circle, at the time, advocated buying from AbeBooks.

Since then of course many things have changed. Indeed, it’s hard to make a living as an independent bookseller in America, Sherman, partly because of online book sales. But it’s mainly just hard. Yet Amazon didn’t kill the business and embraced independent bookstores — and they it — a long time ago.

The lesson here, if there is one, is that things usually don’t turn out exactly as predicted. And e-commerce didn’t kill the independent bookseller or, more broadly, online commerce didn’t kill traditional retail. As we now know, quite the opposite is true.


3 Responses to “Set the Wayback Machine Sherman”

  1. Chris Silver Smith Says:

    Greg, I’ll beg to differ on this one, just a little bit. It appears to me that the internet has pretty well been demolishing the rare bookstore niche, even if it has not killed retail overall.

    In the last decade, I’ve seen quite a lot of venerable rare book shops suddenly find themselves unable to compete. In some cases, those who embraced online were able to transition themselves into a position of survival, but the rare books market itself has become heavily impacted by the ready access to information.

    One of the big drivers of rare book trade, I believe, has been the perception of scarcity for certain stock. The internet suddenly banged open the gates and allowed people to do price comparison across many different bookstores simultaneously, and also the barrier was lowered so any individual with a book could post it for sale on eBay and other sites. The result has been that margins reduced in many cases.

    It’s a complex issue, since the big behemoth book chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders have also impacted foot traffic to independent shops.

    I wrote an article around a year back on how the Internet is Killing Independent Bookstores, and I think it’s still relevant.

    I haven’t done anything close to a “scientific” study of the matter, but there’s nearly no question in my mind that the rare book trade has taken a serious blow, in large part due to the internet.

    Abebooks was also a part of the blow to some degree — once you see all the different copies available for any rare book, it really demonstrates how scarce or common it is, and you go with the cheapest price, all other things being equal. Book dealers in more expensive cost-of-living areas would tend to have a disadvantage, based on that alone. Also, the overhead for online-only shops is likely lower than that of stores which also have brick-and-mortar shops.

  2. Greg Sterling Says:

    Fair point. It’s really a question of degree. I’m not trying to argue that the Internet hasn’t hurt the book business. It has. I don’t have your level of sensitivity to the particulars. So I stand correct.

  3. Amazon is buying Abebooks - a no brainer « A Fuller View Says:

    […] others may question the deal – and a win-win for both companies, buyers and sellers. I agree with Screenwerk that this would have beenĀ hard to predict back before […]

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