Do technical developments that aid in selling used, out-of-print and new books online arise from evolution or intelligent design? The players in this field agree that, for an enormous industry that's not much more than a decade old, they have required a great deal of both. Ingenuity prompted individual bookseller Web sites, then aggregate bookseller sites such as Abebooks and Alibris, and, most recently, third-party software developers have gotten into the act.
The latter have devised methods allowing used-book sellers to easily integrate with the growing number of online marketplaces, which now include such entities as Amazon Marketplace, eBay's half.com, Biblio and TomFolio, not to mention venues in other countries around the world.
Among the first individual Web sites to emerge was Powells.com, out of Portland, Ore. Launched in 1994 after its inventory of technical books was computerized, the site's January 1995 sales were $8,000. By 2003, sales reached 40% of Powell's total sales of used and new books, both bricks-and-mortar and Internet. "To get onto the Internet, we knew we needed a software program," says Darin Sennett, whose title is director of Web stuff. "Today there's a world of software out there to put on your computer, but when we started, there wasn't anything. So we created our own. We built a shopping cart before the concept was even in the vernacular." Powells.com now employs six programmers. "We've looked at other software," Sennett says, "but they're all expensive and they didn't do what we wanted. With our own staff, if we need something, we can add a feature in a day."
Kanth Gopalpur was the force behind the launch of Powells.com and is now CEO of Monsoon (www.monsoonworks.com), a software development company he co-founded in 2002. "I knew how to upload data and download orders," he says, "and we realized that we could build a comprehensive tool that would allow booksellers not only to list inventory for marketplace selling, but also to manage orders and price accurately. Online, there is no set retail price for a book, only what customers will pay. That's a huge mindshift." Monsoon's products appeared on the market in 2003, and booksellers began purchasing software that allows them to control inventory information and to price used books—at the lowest prices offered on the Internet, at an average of the lowest five prices, or at any other parameter they select. "We're constantly evolving," adds Gopalpur. "We have between eight and 10 developers and invested $1.5 million in Monsoon last year."
Indaba Systems (www.goindaba.com) is another software developer, one that grew out of the needs of Better World Books, a textbook reseller founded in 2002. Its product permits each seller to adhere to the differing rules and requirements of the various online marketplaces. Indaba's Web site dates its first working release as March 2003, and among the software's components is a proprietary program called ASIN Assassin, which provides a unique Amazon Standard Identification Number for products lacking an ISBN. An ASIN is a necessity for listing on Amazon Marketplace, which was launched on Amazon.com in November 2000 and has since expanded to Canada, Germany, France and elsewhere, making it the largest online marketplace.
"It's interesting that there are people out there developing this stuff," says Ryan Jackson, manager of Powell's Bookstores in Chicago. "We use Indaba because we like the way it returns orders from all marketplaces to one central database. Third-party software developers can help you move a lot of product, whether it's antiquarian, scholarly, hurts, remainders. Another kind of third-party software helps in book scouting by using PDAs [personal digital assistants] or cell phones. We've had grad students come in who were selling books on half.com. They'd scan 1,000 books in the basement, buy what they wanted and then turn around and resell them. Or they can go to a flea market, scan in a book that's selling for $4 and see that it's worth $15."
Denny Magers, owner of Magers & Quinn Booksellers in Minneapolis, reports that his store developed its own Web site and now uses some third-party software to manage Internet sales. "The hard part is how you integrate," he says. "We've written some proprietary software to help clean sold inventory from our database quickly." Magers & Quinn also employs proprietary software in book scouting. "We take our laptop, log onto the Internet, and when we scan a book, all the information pops up on one page—how many copies we have on hand, when it last sold, what it's selling for on Amazon. We couldn't survive very well without all this technology."
Getting Your FillZ
Yet another enterprise that enables booksellers to list on multiple marketplaces is FillZ (www.Fillz.com). "One big competitive advantage to FillZ," says business development manager Shaun Jamieson, "is that it works in conjunction with a seller's existing system, and because we're Web-based rather than PC-based, we're on 24/7." FillZ, which officially debuted in 2004, also simplifies the complexities of integrating with different marketplaces, in this case, 13 of them. "FillZ is an inventory, repricing and order-management tool," explains Jamieson. "We can set up a pricing strategy for each marketplace and bring all orders down into one user interface." FillZ racked up more than $20 million in sales in 2005.
That's one reason Abebooks bought FillZ earlier this year, but it's not the only one. "FillZ really helps people manage their inventory," says Sue Connors, director of sales and account management at Abebooks, which went online in 1996. Today the company claims a virtual inventory of more than 80 million books listed by more than 13,500 booksellers from 53 countries. Abebooks, like Alibris, doesn't touch a book. It brings seller and buyer together and earns its money from a monthly subscription fee paid by booksellers and a commission on sales. "We bought FillZ because it offers a valuable service. If booksellers are offering the same book on a variety of platforms, it has to be deleted from all the rest when one marketplace makes the sale. Whether it's Abebooks or another marketplace, we want to make sure the transaction is efficiently achieved. If a book isn't deleted, it might be sold twice, which wouldn't bode well either for the customer or us."
Connors points out that Abebooks has no formal connection with services other than FillZ, but the company interacts with all. "We work with Monsoon and Indaba," she says. "Regardless of what software a bookseller uses, we want to make sure the technical aspects work with our programs. Monsoon will contact us and say, 'You're a key marketplace. We want to connect with you correctly.' So it's kind of a three-party relationship: the bookseller, Monsoon and us." To assist its booksellers further, Abebooks developed HomeBase, a desktop book inventory management system, which it has supplied gratis since 1997.
Another aggregate marketplace is Alibris, which burst onto the scene in 1998. "We have over 7,000 booksellers in the U.S., and more outside," says president and COO Brian Elliott. "We're a marketplace for sellers of used books primarily, and we supply them with the software they need. We have 65 million listings from all types of operations, from Powell's to people working out of their garages. We help them sell not only on our Web site but also on other channels such as B&N, Borders, Books-a-Million and Ingram."
The profile of Alibris's booksellers has changed fairly significantly over the last five years, reports Elliott. Many bricks-and-mortar used- book stores have closed and now sell only online, and then there are booksellers who have never had a physical store. "Also, the growth in people selling used books online has meant that prices have declined, just because of the competition. That's one of the biggest challenges: keeping prices updated. Two days after a book is listed, the price can easily change." Elliott agrees with Connors at Abebooks that significant growth has occurred in sales of new books.
WebNotions (www.a1techbooks.com) is a multipurpose corporation with an unusual combination of strengths. Founder and CEO Shinu Gupta reports that the parent company offers A1Books, an aggregate marketplace that took shape in 1995—"before Amazon.com," he says—as well as A1Overstock, a wholesale-only company; and A1Channel: Your Marketplace Gateway!, a service for book wholesalers wishing to list their books on marketplaces around the world. "Everything we do is house-developed," says Gupta, "and everything is Web-based." A1Books numbers some 3,500 booksellers among its offerings. Being a wholesaler as well, Gupta notes that "the whole overstock business used to be hush-hush, but because of what Amazon has done, anyone can see what people are charging."
A1Channel adds another layer of service because it will even handle the physical books. "Since we're already doing it for ourselves," says Gupta, "we can supply that service to other wholesalers." Companies that sign on send the pertinent data and direct bulk shipments to A1 Channel's New Jersey warehouse, from which sold books are distributed. Gupta says that he actively pursues sources at book shows around the world. And, indeed, his global plans include the Internet book market in India within a matter of weeks.
It's clear that another word for "Internet" is "opportunity" for used-book sellers, and it's one that has not yet been fully tapped. As Jamieson of FillZ puts it, "It's really interesting how many booksellers are still not selling online."