Amazon Cuts The Cord: Now What For Abe and Alibris?
The mighty river is washing away its partners.
By Michael Stillman
Just when it seemed there was enough confusion in the online bookselling world, Amazon decided there wasn't, and proceeded to terminate their well-established relations with the top used book selling sites. The ramifications of their decision immediately spread to Abe, Alibris, and Half.com. Where it all will settle is anyone's guess, but once the stuff hits the fan, no one is ever quite the same.
Of course Abebooks has been leading the way in controversy over the past few months. They have been redesigning their site in a way which, if intended to antagonize their sellers, was certainly successful. On the assumption this was not their intention, the call is still out as to whether these changes will be a step in the right direction. Technical glitches in the implementation have evidently affected sales and raised much ire in the Abebooks community, while an obscuring of direct contacts with the individual dealers has particularly angered antiquarian, rare, and other high end booksellers (see our article from last month: http://www.americanaexchange.com/NewAE/aemonthly/article.asp?f=1&page=1&id=290). The last thing Abe needs at this point is more controversy, but more controversy is just what they have been granted, courtesy of Amazon.
As everyone undoubtedly knows, Amazon is the world's largest online seller of new books. A few years ago, they expanded into used books as well, and quickly developed a huge supply of available titles through cooperative ventures with used book leaders Abebooks and Alibris. Dealers who listed their books on these sites could automatically have their books listed on Amazon as well. A similar program was also instituted with the website of the largest traditional (bricks and mortar) new book seller, Barnes and Noble.
However, on or around September 20, Amazon informed its partners that they would be partners no more. Amazon decided that it would no longer accept listings from what Abe calls "aggregators," sites which aggregate listings from multiple booksellers. They would only accept listings from the individual booksellers themselves. This change is major. While we do not know what percentage of Abe and Alibris sales are actually made on Amazon, we do know that it is substantial, and for some booksellers, it is a majority of their sales. Once the dust settles, we can anticipate some of those dealers may be realigning their loyalties based on how their sales are affected. For beleaguered Abe, the timing could not be worse, as there is much disaffection already within their community. Fence mending will be paramount for them.
Amazon Cuts The Cord: Now What For Abe and Alibris?
Abe responded to Amazon by saying it would go it alone.
The responses to Amazon's withdrawal by Abe and Alibris were polar opposites. It will be very interesting to see which plays their new hand best. First we'll look at Abe, which has already been attempting to make major changes in its business model, and which will now have to make even more.
In a letter to their booksellers from President Hannes Blum, Abebooks tried to put as good a spin as possible on Amazon's decision to walk. Of course they already have some experience with this process, having had to deal with a similar rebuff from Barnes and Noble a few months ago. While acknowledging that some would find this change "disappointing," Abe said that "we believe that in many ways this is also a new opportunity for us all." Then, as if to prove that they really mean this, rather than just putting on a good face, Abe announced that they would in turn be dumping Half.com, the one outside site where their listings could continue to be posted. In order to focus on internal growth, Blum said, "we have decided that the time has come to say good-bye to Half.com as well." Now it can be pointed out that Half has not been a major seller for Abe, certainly not on a par with Amazon nor even Barnes and Noble, but it does give Abe the opportunity to be the one ending a relationship, instead of always being the rejected suitor. And, by making this move, Abe can give credence to its claims that it is choosing to develop a totally independent business model, rather than having such a plan forced upon it. Abe's plan now is to place their entire focus on their own site.
At Alibris, the reaction was totally opposite. At first, they said nothing. However, Abe's comment that Amazon was dropping all "aggregators" implied that Alibris would be out the door too. Alibris was forced to issue a response to its enquiring dealers, though clearly they would have preferred to delay comment until they had more time to speak to Amazon. When they did respond, Alibris made no attempt to spin this as a positive development or give any "new beginnings" type of gloss to the changes. They clearly stated their disappointment and their intentions to try to convince Amazon to change its mind, or at least find another way of continuing the relationship. In their statement, the company said, "Alibris remains committed to helping booksellers sell on Amazon.com and continues to discuss new approaches with them."
Then, in a message that must be intended as much for Amazon management as their own booksellers, Alibris went on to describe all of the time and money they have invested in making the Alibris-Amazon relationship work. "Last year, we successfully built systems that enabled us to manage multiple Marketplace accounts. We recently invested in technology to enable sellers to more easily sell pre-ISBN material on Amazon.com," Alibris noted. They go on to note that they first partnered with Amazon eight years ago. As Amazon has made changes, "Alibris made the investments necessary to accommodate these changes. We helped launch booksellers on zShops in 1998, we were a pioneer seller in Amazon Auctions and on Amazon Marketplace." There is no attempt to paint a happy face on this development as with Abe. Instead, Alibris has chosen to take whatever steps it can to convince Amazon not to scuttle their long-running partnership, and they are not afraid to let their dealers know they are fighting the change, though ultimately this may be a battle they cannot win. Give Alibris credit for being forthright in their response to Amazon's decision, and fighting for what they believe to be in their and their dealers best interests, even at the risk of further publicizing Amazon's rejection.
Amazon Cuts The Cord: Now What For Abe and Alibris?
Alibris' response to Amazon was to say it would seek to strengthen its partnerships.
So, what comes next? For Abebooks, it is a go-alone strategy, at least for now. Abe does still have the advantage of being the largest site in terms of number of old books listed. As a consumer, your chances are still greater of finding an old book on Abe's site than on any other. However, with a restless clientele, and a likely significant decrease in sales once Amazon withdraws, Abe will need to find ways to hold on to its sellers. While the experiences of different booksellers vary widely, at least some have found sales on Abe slow of late, particularly since the various technical problems resulting from their site changes. This could be a critical point for Abe, as they need to smooth over any hurt feelings plus find ways to bring more buyers to their site. It is a challenge.
Alibris, on the other hand, is taking a completely different tack. Instead of going it alone, Alibris is seeking to strengthen its outside relationships. As noted, they are pulling out all the stops in an attempt to convince Amazon to change its plans. But, regardless of whether this succeeds, they continue to look to build relationships with other sites. When Barnes and Noble ended its selling relationship with Abe, it named Alibris as their sole source for used book listings. While we are not privy to what went on behind the scenes, one can only assume there was a lot of active lobbying going on by Alibris. It worked. In a response from A.J. Kohn, Alibris' Director of Direct Marketing and Sales, he states, "I do want to make it clear that we're not going to become isolationists. Alibris is committed to providing sellers with the largest sales distribution channels available." He also noted that Alibris maintains relationships with Borders, Chapters and others. He goes on to say, "Alibris will be looking to further expand our distribution channels." And finally, in total contrast to Abe's course of action in dropping Half, he concludes, "Half.com is certainly high on that list and we are actively working to bring this new channel to our sellers."
It's an interesting contrast between the two sites. You may like or dislike Alibris' strategy, but they seem to have a clear sense of where they want to go. Their site has a certain selling format, and they look to increase sales through outside partners wherever possible. To an outsider, they have a clear, transparent business plan, and seem to be executing it as well as possible considering the very competitive nature of the business they are in.
Abebooks, on the other hand, is much less clear to me. I have always admired their site and the ease with which it allowed me to find books. However, I really don't know where they are going. Perhaps their response to Amazon and Barnes and Noble's decisions represents a carefully considered plan, but they feel more like FEMA's response to the hurricane. Alibris has responded with a clear plan of action, while Abe seems to be groping for a new formula.
Now perhaps Abe has one that is just not obvious to me. There must have been a plan behind the earlier changes they made, though their lack of an adequate explanation and less than ideal implementation left their sellers wondering. In his letter to their dealers, Abe's President says, "Moving away from a reseller model that actively encourages you to provide your unique books to our competition can further secure our position as the world's largest online marketplace for books, but only if we are able to improve our own sites to meet and exceed the expectations of our customers. We are committed to doing this." They better be. Abe can hardly afford another misstep at this point.