ChooseBooks: Coming and Going
The home page of the ChooseBooks website.
By Michael Stillman
It is an inevitable part of the cycle of new technologies. The technology appears, and within a few years, the market is filled with new companies reaching for the stars. Once upon a time, America had hundreds of automobile manufacturers. But, as time goes on, the process reverses. Smaller participants fade away, either shutting their doors, being swallowed by larger competitors, or combining in a desperate attempt to create sufficient size to survive. Chevrolet, Pontiac, Buick, Oldsmobile, Cadillac combined to become General Motors. Studebaker, Auburn, Kaiser, and Packard fell by the way. When it comes to the internet, there used to be dozens of competitive search engines. Now three or four control 90%+ of the market. How many computer operating systems were there when each computer company had its own? Now Microsoft holds 90%+ of the market. Rapid growth followed by severe contraction is part of the life cycle of new technology. Today, it can happen with great speed.
So, it was no great surprise when ChooseBooks announced last month that they would be closing their "doors." In an October 8 email from the company's president to its member booksellers, they explained that they had not been able to raise the necessary capital to keep the site viable and moving forward. At that time, they planned to completely shut the site down by October 22.
This was sad news, but not exactly earth-shattering for most of those sellers. Choosebooks was a very nice site. It was one of the most user-friendly book sites around. It was easy to understand, worked quickly and efficiently, and claimed to have 8 million listings. Booksellers liked it because charges were strictly on a commission basis. In other words, the dealer paid nothing unless a book was sold. Most booksellers seem to prefer this arrangement.
So what went wrong? For starters, ChooseBooks was a bit late to the game. Abebooks and Alibris were already well-established when ChooseBooks began the chase a couple of years ago. They evidently believed they could provide a superior service, and would grab marketshare that way, but if you look back at that list of car companies that survived and those that did not, you will see that better doesn't always win out. Sometimes larger wins. Those 8 million books sound like a lot, but Abebooks says it has 60 million. The selection they can offer customers is that much greater. ChooseBooks wasn't able to attract enough customers. Without the buyers, income is too small, and without income, extinction is inevitable. Natural selection is heartless.
ChooseBooks: Coming and Going
Finally, with other big names in the internet business, such as Amazon and eBay, muscling their way into the used book field, the challenge became that much harder. The reality is that ChooseBooks has always been in that second tier. It is a very good site, but it is not on the same level in terms of size and strength as Amazon, Abe, Alibris or eBay. And there are several others in this tier. They too will eventually have to make adjustments, either to become bigger or to establish clear, different niches from the others, if they are to survive. Long term, me-too but smaller just won't hack it.
There is a somewhat hopeful addendum to this story. Before the final closing took place, ChooseBooks sellers received a notification that the site would remain open as the company had found a potential suitor. No names were given, but there has been some speculation that it could be ZVAB, a European bookselling site whose parent is said to have made an unnamed American acquisition. ZVAB is internationally a second-tier site, but it is perhaps the largest European one and has shown strong growth. If they are a potential buyer, then perhaps this is a combination that could lift the two sites to the upper tier. A simple combination won't be sufficient to do so by itself. There will still be much work to do and much skill to be displayed. And, we don't know that ZVAB really is the potential investor. Whoever it may be, the work ahead will not be easy. We wish ChooseBooks all the best.