This article was regularly updated from 1999 through 2003 and was intended to contain news and information to help book buyers locate and buy books more effectively and for less money online. At this point, the article is little more than a historical footnote as much as changed since 2003. Amazon, Biblio, Advanced Book Exchange (ABEbooks), and Alibris all sell used and rare books online. For better quality books, also visit the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America and the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers websites and click on their book search links.
MOST RECENT UPDATE: July 30, 2003. See below.
Meta-booksearch sites AddALL, Bookfinder, and Bookfinder4u search multiple book databases simulateously. They show books for sale at a variety of sites and prices including links to the sellers. Bookfinder and AddAll are generally accurate, but sometimes fail to locate books, particularly less common titles, when only one or two copies are for sale at all online databases combined.
The best site for searching and buying books online is still Advanced Book Exchange (ABE). Alibris is also worth a look, but prevents you from contacting sellers directly which prolongs sales transactions and can lead to unecessary misunderstandings, disagreements, and returns.
Update posted July 30, 2003: ABE has made it more difficult to browse or view the entire contents of a particular bookseller's online inventory. If, for example, you search ABE for a specific title, find that title, and decide you want to either browse or see all of that bookseller's inventory, here's how to do it:
Update posted June 18, 2003: The new ABE/eBay arrangement seems like more of a money-waste than anything else. Basically, ABE provides its booksellers with a template for listing books on eBay along with other minor upload/download conveniences. In exchange, ABE takes a commission for books sold on eBay IN ADDITION TO eBay's commission. So you pay two commissions instead of one. ArtBusiness.com recommendation: Forget it. If you want to sell books on eBay, do it yourself. Why pay ABE to do it for you?
Update posted April 5, 2003: The best site for buying books online is still Advanced Book Exchange (ABE). Alibris doesn't allow you to contact sellers directly (so that they can make more money and unecessarily complicate your life). Amazon and Barnes & Noble are even more expensive and inconvenient. They both get their books from ABE and Alibris book sellers, don't let you contact those sellers, and hit you up for hefty surcharges in the process. Buy at the source, save money, and know your book sellers.
Update posted March 25, 2003: Barnes & Noble is charging Advanced Book Exchange (ABE) booksellers more to sell books on the Barnes & Noble website. Barnes & Noble is also charging buyers more to buy books on its website. Buy directly from ABE booksellers and save.
Update posted December 13, 2002: The Advanced Book Exchange (ABE), also known as Abebooks, has followed the Alibris lead and redesigned their website to increase profits. Unlike Alibris, book buyers can still order directly from booksellers, but in the spirit of Alibris, Abebooks makes ordering directly from booksellers confusing and obscures the fact that their "Add to Basket" ordering button automatically shunts orders through the Abebooks system, thereby netting the company 5% of all book selling prices (in addition to the money booksellers already pay to list their books with ABE). Booksellers, in turn, make 5% less profit on every ABE-shunted order. Shunt-order shipping options are limited so dealers in rare, expensive, or large sized books; or who ship internationally often have to go around the system to adjust postal rates after orders have been placed. To order a book directly from a bookseller, simply call or email the bookseller, or click the "Ask Bookseller a Question" link and place the order there.
Update posted August 7, 2002: Librarians please note that Alibris charges hidden fees, usually 20% of the price of a book, to order through their "for libraries" option. You can check to see how much extra you're paying in hidden fees by searching for your book first on the "for libraries" search form, and then searching the regular Alibris database using the search form on the home page (or through the "more search options" link also on the home page). These fees are not noted on the library page and are automatically added to the cost of every book that you search for on that page.
Update posted July 31, 2002: The following statements are made in response to Alibris Founder and Chairman Richard Weatherford's remarks (see below). Weatherford is correct in stating that Alibris acts as a middleman between buyer and dealer, but whether they do so from a value-added standpoint is debatable in a substantial number of cases. Weatherford may also be correct in stating that certain buyers prefer giving credit information to Alibris rather than directly to Alibris-affiliated dealers, but by inserting themselves between buyers and dealers, Alibris appears to unecessarily complicate sales transactions while extracting hefty commissions in the process.
For example, suppose a dealer uploads a list of books for sale to both Advanced Book Exchange (ABE) and Alibris. To begin with, Alibris automatically subtracts five cents from that dealer's asking prices before placing those books in the online Alibris database. A book priced at $20 will appear for sale for $20 on ABE, but for sale for $19.95 on Alibris; one priced at $10 will appear for sale for $10 on ABE, but for sale for $9.95 on Alibris, and so on. The purpose of the Alibris "nickel-less" strategy may be to lure bargain hunters away from ABE (and sites like it), and over to Alibris. But what do buyers get for that nickel saved? Nothing. How are dealers in-turn impacted? They lose money.
Let's say a buyer, looking for a book on a meta-booksearch site like AddALL or Bookfinder, locates one of the above dealer's books. She'll see both the ABE "nickel-more" and the Alibris "nickel-less" purchase options. If she chooses the "nickel-more" option and purchases through ABE, she is placed in direct contact with the dealer, asks the dealer any questions she may have about the book, pays the book's asking price plus shipping directly to the dealer, and the dealer then sends her the book.
If the buyer chooses the Alibris "nickel-less" option, Alibris notifies the dealer that the book has been sold, the buyer pays Alibris for the book, Alibris holds that money, Alibris tells the dealer where to send the book, the dealer sends the book, and Alibris later pays the dealer. Any questions that the buyer has for the dealer must be relayed through Alibris; Alibris does not put the buyer and the dealer in direct contact. For that service, Alibris charges the dealer 20% of the book's selling price (10% for books costing over $500) and does not adequately reimburse the dealer's actual shipping costs. Alibris pays dealers once per month which means that dealers may have to wait as long as a month to get paid for books that they would have been paid for immediately had they been sold through ABE (or through similar direct-contact databases like that available through the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America).
Update posted June 20, 2002: From Founder and Chairman of Alibris, Richard Weatherford:
Alibris no longer marks up book prices beyond their dealers' asking prices, and all dealers' books carry their dealers' names. We, as middleman between dealer and customer, charge dealers a 20% commission for selling books under $500 and a 10% commission for books over $500. Since we are responsible for sales, collecting money from the buyer, and sending money to the sellers, we handle email inquiries from customers. If someone has a question for us, we answer it; if the question is for the seller, we pass that along to the seller and he/she supplies an answer. Since most of our customers are not book collectors, they prefer giving credit card information to Alibris rather than to individual sellers.
We have believed from the beginning that we could expand the market for "hard to find" books, and we were right. Alibris has acquired lots of new customers who have remained loyal to us over time. But we also sell lots to libraries and businesses worldwide who have their own customers. So some of the books dealers sell through us are ones they ship directly to the customers, and others they ship to Alibris for forwarding because we provide important, useful services to libraries, businesses, and particularly to those consumers living outside of North America.
Our business is focused on satisfying the customers, as most businesses should be. For this reason we also post a reliability rating for sellers. This is a 5-ribbon display that tells customers how reliable the dealer is in having books that are ordered. Customers hate ordering books that are sold, so we tell them, based upon each dealer's performance, how reliable his/her listings are. We do NOT allow or post comments from customers about dealers.
Finally, there are lots of ways of selling books. Alibris has always worked just like a traditional dealer, buying at a discount from other dealers and selling to its own its own customers. It is called making a profit. We didn't do that as Interloc because we were a listing service then, like classified advertising in a newspaper. The dealers who listed on Interloc were our customers. But Alibris is a dealer, and our customers are the people, businesses, and institutions who purchase books from us. Just like other professional dealers, we take responsibility for the books we sell, do not return books to dealers unless they are obviously mis-described, and pay the people we buy from on time.
Update posted October 6, 2001: Much has changed in the online bookselling world since this article first appeared in 1999. For example, online bookseller Bibliofind, referred to below, no longer exists, and the cost of selling books on ABE has increased modestly.
The following is the text of the original Alibris article:
Something disturbing is happening on the internet. Its name is Alibris, it sells used books, and it flies in the face of much of the good that the internet has created. Unfortunately, Alibris is not only a problem for book people. What they're doing could just as easily be done with antiques, collectibles, fine art, or whatever it is that you cherish the most.
The company's goal is to provide a place where people can buy used books with consistency, ease, problem free ordering, fast delivery, and guaranteed service. Alibris wants to establish itself as a brand name for used books where all this and more is possible-- a name as recognizable and reliable as Ford or GE.
When a book sells through Alibris, the seller sends it to a large warehouse and distribution center in Sparks, Nevada where it is inspected, repackaged, and sent on to the buyer. In this way, all buyers deal with the central Alibris authority rather than numerous individual sellers, each one different from the next. A uniform experience is created and every book ordered arrives just the same as the last. This all sounds like a great idea whose time has come, but the problem is with the way that it's coming.
To begin with, Alibris is extremely expensive compared to the two major online out-of-print book selling services, Advanced Book Exchange (ABE) and Bibliofind. For example, a seller listing 2,000 books on ABE and making $3000 worth of sales in a one month period pays a total of $35. On Bibliofind, that same seller pays $25. On Alibris, if the seller is in possession of the books and he catalogues them himself, he pays Alibris $600. The people who buy them pay Alibris an additional $600 (assuming no individual book costs over $500). If the seller sends the books in advance to the Alibris warehouse in Sparks to be catalogued and maintained by the Alibris staff, he pays 50% of the gross sales total or $1500. For those of you keeping score, that's ABE $35; Bibliofind $25; Alibris, either $1200 or $1500.
A spokesperson for Alibris who wished not to be identified justifies this vast difference by stating that the company is spending substantial sums of money to establish new markets for used book buying, streamline its ordering system, and operate sophisticated distribution centers. Respected Seattle antiquarian bookseller and Alibris supporter, M. Taylor Bowie, adds that Alibris is targeting people who would consider buying used books online, but would not consider entering used bookstores or dealing face-to-face with used book sellers. This, says Bowie, creates sales that would never otherwise take place.
But the major problem with Alibris is not how excessively expensive they are. What booksellers across the nation are up in arms about is that in order to guarantee their customers a uniform buying experience and provide a standardized product mailed from a single location, Alibris must actively prevent buyers and sellers from knowing each other. An additional reason, which the Alibris spokesperson declined to comment on, is that if buyers knew sellers, there would be no need for them to go through Alibris and pay hefty commissions. The beauty of ABE and Bibliofind, by the way, is that since they don't charge commissions, they don't have to put themselves in the position of forcibly suppressing communication between those who use their services. On the contrary, they encourage it.
Isolating people while still giving the appearance of a book selling community is not easy for Alibris. Like Bibliofind and ABE, they list the names, street addresses, and phone numbers of their sellers, but unlike ABE and Bibliofind, not their email addresses. ABE and Bibliofind give their sellers personal web pages so that buyers can learn about their specialties, browse their stocks, and contact them personally. Alibris sellers have no personal web pages and their specialties are described so briefly that it is virtually impossible to go to the book database and tell whose books are whose. Alibris database searches yield only book titles, descriptions, and prices. On ABE and Bibliofind, the seller's name is always included.
The "Community" link on the Alibris website looks inviting, but it's nothing more than a shunt to specialized book news groups-- places where people arbitrarily post email announcements in a bulletin board like arrangement. News groups have nothing whatsoever to do with Alibris. Lastly, any book that Alibris sends to a buyer is packaged so as not to identify the seller in any way.
Here's what else happens when buyers and sellers don't know each other: They can't talk on the phone, can't communicate through emails, can't engage in repeat business, can't learn from each other, can't argue the merits of various books, can't introduce the other to books that they've never seen before, can't develop friendships or loyalties, can't see each others' collections, can't tell jokes over a cup of coffee, and can't resell or trade back purchases to sellers in order to refine or upgrade their collections.
To make matters worse, Alibris prioritizes the order in which books appear on the computer screen when a potential buyer searches their database for a particular title. In order to maintain the uniform buying experience that Alibris so prides itself in, they list their own books and those that sellers have sent to Sparks in advance first. On top of that, they offer a guarantee in the form of a $10 credit towards a future Alibris purchase if these books are unavailable. At the bottom of the list appear books that dealers have at remote locations like homes or shops-- with no guarantee.
As the Alibris spokesperson points out, a transaction takes longer when a seller has to send a book to Sparks for repackaging and resending, assuming the seller still has the book. But it's also true that Alibris makes more money on books that they own outright and those that sellers have sent them in advance. So if you're an Alibris seller who keeps books at a remote location, you're at a distinct disadvantage when trying to sell any title that Alibris has a copy of at their warehouse. On ABE and Bibliofind, by the way, there is no prioritization. It's a free market and the nicest copy at the fairest price is the one that sells.
Looking to the future, the more books Alibris amasses in it's warehouses, the less chance its sellers who maintain off-site stocks will have of selling anything. The more books they amass, the less they'll even need outside sellers. Maybe one day Alibris will amass so many books that they'll totally eliminate outside sellers-- the very sellers who now keep them in business.
To summarize, Alibris takes their sellers' books and markets them as their own. Buyers do not know where their books come from; sellers do not know where their books go. Sellers come away with nothing but money. They have no idea where that money comes from, how to increase or decrease the flow, or how long it's going to last.
Alibris knows the price and title of every single book they've ever sold for each seller; they know the price and title of every single book they've ever sold to each buyer. Alibris knows everything; Alibris controls everything. The name of the buyer is the only true prize in this game and Alibris is the one who gets it. It's worth far more over time than the price of any book that any seller sells to any buyer.
Alibris does not take kindly to criticism, by the way. On December 28, 1998, Barbara Farnsworth, an established Connecticut bookseller and member in good standing of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America, sent an email to Wired Magazine's "newsfeedback" department. It responded to Wired's December 24th, 1998 article entitled "The Amazon of Antiquaries" and stated that by comparison shopping multiple book selling databases like ABE, online shoppers could save commissions tacked on by sites like Alibris, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble. At that time, Farnsworth was listing her books for sale with both Alibris and ABE. By January 10, 1999, her business relationship with Alibris had been terminated and her entire stock deleted from the Alibris database.
The great magic of the internet is that it brings people together. People who would have never met under any other circumstances are meeting online through chat rooms, news groups, mailing lists, and websites. Thanks to eBay, Yahoo, and other online auctions, auction sellers can, for the very first time, meet auction buyers. Thanks to websites like antiqueweek.com, collectorsweb.com, and icollector.com, people can ask questions, post notices, meet with experts, and get to know one another. Through artnet.com, up to the minute news and a full 80% of the worlds finest art dealers can now be browsed and contacted through a single location. People are becoming better dealers and more informed collectors as a result of their online experiences.
Another great benefit of the internet is that it has brought prices down on all manner of goods and services by making comparison shopping easier than ever before. Items that were once considered scarce or rare are now accepted as common. Items that once had to travel through many sellers and many price hikes on their way to the end buyers can now be purchased directly without this procession of middlemen.
Alibris goes in the exact opposite direction on both of the above counts. Their service is designed to stifle communication rather than foster it. Their commission structure inflates prices rather than lowers them.
The important message here is that if a business model like that of Alibris succeeds, other antiques, collectibles, and fine arts websites might also adopt it. The great majority of dealers and collectors have a passion about what they do, regardless of what they buy, sell, or collect and part of that passion involves sharing with others. They are not in it for the money. Alibris is.
Alibris bills itself as the "Ultimate Source for Out of Print Books" and "The World's Leading Source of Out of Print Books." They are neither. ABE and Bibliofind both have substantially larger stocks and many more seller participants. Patronize online resources that encourage sellers and buyers to get together, share knowledge, and contribute to the greater good.
Online databases for used book buyers:
Websites that simultaneously search multiple used book databases: