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Online Booksellers Show Staying Power after 20 Years

AbeBooks.com is celebrating its 20th anniversary this month. Founded in Victoria, British Columbia in Canada in 1996, it was acquired by Amazon in December 2008, but its site remains independently run.

Spokesperson Richard Davies told us this month the site is saluting all of the sellers who joined AbeBooks during 1996 and still remain part of the business today. AbeBooks set up a special anniversary page to celebrate its longtime sellers, some of whom are pictured on the page.

There are 64 so called “Heritage” sellers who joined between June and December in 1996 and remained ever since. The list includes six Canadians, one from Mexico, Australia and New Zealand respectively, with the rest located in the United States.

Davies said the sellers have shown incredible stamina and resilience. “We owe them a great deal of thanks,” he said. “I have been in touch with many of these sellers in recent weeks and it’s motivating to hear their stories – still hungry to sell books, still hungry to find books, still hungry to help customers.”

Davies, who joined AbeBooks in January 2005, told EcommerceBytes the company’s four founders – Keith and Cathy Waters, and Rick and Vivian Pura – had envisioned a website that connected buyers and sellers, and made finding and buying books much easier. AbeBooks.com was initially tested with three local booksellers from Victoria, BC, where the company was founded and remains today. Two of those sellers – Renaissance Books and Russell Books – are still selling on the AbeBooks marketplace.

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What happened to the original four founders of AbeBooks? Davies said they moved on after selling to a German media company in 2002. One of the original founders Cathy Waters went on to buy and operate an antiquarian bookstore in Victoria, British Columbia, for a number of years after leaving AbeBooks.

“Cathy had previously owned a used bookstore and her problems in locating specific out-of-print books for her customers had led to the creation of AbeBooks,” Davies said.

A lot has happened in the world of online bookselling since 1996, so we took the opportunity to ask Davies some questions, including some of the changes he’s seen in ecommerce.

What are the biggest challenges facing online sellers today?

Richard Davies: For us, as a marketplace, we have to constantly adapt to a digital world that is regularly changing. Google’s search algorithms alter on a regular basis and they affect all online retailers who want to see their products listed at the top of a search results page.

Being mobile-friendly is vital – consider India where most consumers simply do not have access to desktop computers and they do almost everything on smartphones.

Customer expectations are understandably high nowadays – websites like Amazon set a high bar in terms of online shopping, especially for shipping.

How has online bookselling changed in 20 years?

Richard Davies: Online bookselling has changed in so many ways since 1996. Google rose to prominence at the turn of the century, meaning that people started to look for a book on a search engine homepage. Price comparison sites like BookFindercame along. All sorts of different marketplaces developed.

We appreciated that sellers want to sell on as many marketplaces as possible – hence our acquisition of FillZ in 2006. Marketplaces made pricing transparent and also revealed the true scarcity of a particular rare book.

Blogs, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and other forms of social media appeared and gave everyone a platform to have a voice.

Smartphones put a small computer in everyone’s pocket and that meant the Web (and online bookselling) had to adapt to small screens. That’s still a challenge.

Online bookselling, for AbeBooks in particular, became global quickly after initially being focused on North America. We saw the development of ebooks from a very interesting position after being acquired by Amazon in 2008 and we are confident that physical books can exist quite comfortably alongside ebooks.

How did the acquisition by Amazon at the end of 2008 change things at AbeBooks?

Richard Davies: We’re still a pure marketplace. The acquisition did not change our commitment to physical books and supporting independent booksellers on a global scale.

Perhaps the most influential change was that we received access to Amazon’s expertise and knowledge. We also gained access to many other subsidiaries such as Zappos, ShopBop and Goodreads, and they also share valuable expertise with us. Within the Amazon family, there are experts on countless subjects and they are all accessible.

With Amazon, why is there a need for AbeBooks?

Richard Davies: There are still books and collectibles for sale on AbeBooks that cannot be found on Amazon or any other marketplace for that matter. AbeBooks was designed to serve book collectors and book-buyers with specific needs, while Amazon serves a vast variety of different customers with different needs.

Also AbeBooks is a global marketplace while Amazon operates a series of regional ecommerce sites – that makes us quite different.

Will booksellers and books be around in 20 years from now?

Richard Davies: Absolutely. People still love physical books. It will be interesting to see how the Millennial generation ages. The Baby Boomer generation loved reading and many of them became book collectors. Winning over the Millennials is going to be a key challenge for AbeBooks.

You can visit the site at AbeBooks.com.

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Ina Steiner
Ina Steiner
Ina Steiner is co-founder and Editor of EcommerceBytes and has been reporting on ecommerce since 1999. She's a widely cited authority on marketplace selling and is author of "Turn eBay Data Into Dollars" (McGraw-Hill 2006). Her blog was featured in the book, "Blogging Heroes" (Wiley 2008). Follow her on Twitter at @ecommercebytes and send news tips to ina@ecommercebytes.com.