AE: A Perspective on Seven Years
The AED: at first an intruder
No good deed will go unpunished
Seven years ago AE walked out onto the open sun lit field that is books. The day was 3 September 2002. I was a book collector beginning what I expected to be my obituary project. Not that I thought it would kill me, rather that it would be a contribution that might matter in some then yet to be defined way to book collectors into the future. I was 56. I did not know what I was getting into.
The field, that to this layman looked disorganized, was in fact a group of ever-adjusting parts that had no interest to be included in anyone's concept of the future other than their own. There was no embrace of the inevitable. To those connected to the past the net would be an incremental extension, to pure net enterprises, a new world. Think of James Cagney on his way to the electric chair and you can sense the initial enthusiasm of many dealers. They, their associates and associations were preeminent in the era then just ending and they had no interest in a world they did not continue to dominate.
Contempt, distain and disregard however did not kill the upstarts. eBay, Google, Amazon, Abe and Alibris each established themselves as factors. Others failed or were combined. Those that succeeded ran the IPDA gauntlet: first ignored, then pilloried, decried and finally provisionally accepted. I say provisionally accepted because many in the field continue to hope the main players will fail even if they themselves can not succeed. It has turned out that better, quicker and broader methodology soundly trumps tradition. What was first a nuisance became a fistfight and is now an evolving electronic reality.
When AE came on the scene the stage was already set. I expected databases to reorganize not only books but in time all collectibles and to be thanked for playing a small part in effectuating it. I did not anticipate apathy or resistance and quickly encountered both. I expected dealers to both want and need quick access to information. About this I was both right and wrong. Many dealers, from the outset, embraced the AED (Americana Exchange Database) although its footprint was tiny. Others excoriated it. On day one it was hardly more than all of Sabin, Howes and a few other sources: 151,000 records altogether. Seven years later we add twice that many records every year - roughly a thousand new records every day. The total today is 2,156,297. Today about 20% of the dealers active in the rare book business subscribe to AE services.
As their numbers have increased so too has their use of the AED.
In the first few years the test for likelihood of renewal was the number of times a member logged into their account during the year. Below 7 log-ins a year the chances of renewal were small. Between 7 and 22 logs many renewed. For those who logged in 23 or more times renewal was certain. Today a typical member logs on 200 to 300 times and many more than 500. Institutional accounts access the AED, in some cases, 3,000 to 4,000 times.
AE: A Perspective on Seven Years
The AED: today's basic reference
For many we have become their first search. For those who rely upon us as their primary resource and use AE around the clock we provide 7, 24, 365 support. The lights never go out. It's a new world.
Over the past seven years we have seen close up what change in the book business really entails. Almost nothing is untouched, the largest changes truly immense.
The listing sites have grown from specs to behemoths. Abe alone has more than one hundred million items. The market has entered a period of retrenchment. Common books are losing much of their value and most of their salability at any price while collectible material is participating in the economic slowdown and will recover. The dividing line between common and collectible is being defined by online and eBay listings and activity in the auction rooms, the line between common and collectible constantly shifting.
Even so, we appear to be entering a 'collecting era' with collectors establishing themselves independently. Dealers who depend on collectors have done virtually nothing to encourage them and constantly lament that their numbers are dwindling. They are in fact only less visible, not invisible. But, they are subject-centric and much less inclined to be anyone's best customer.
In the year ahead we will tackle the need to encourage new collectors to take up the reins as today's collectors edge into the sunset.
As we begin year eight I want to once again express my profound gratitude to my wife Jenny and our partner Mike Stillman and his wife Diana, to our programmers Weicheng and Madhu, and to our writers and occasional help for all their assistance. To the ever larger numbers who use the AED and advanced services, read AE Monthly and buy or list material we all appreciate your involvement. Our goal is to build a community.