A week after the August announcement that Amazon would buy Abebooks I asked Luke Lozier, Principal & Co-Founder of Bibliopolis for his reaction to the news. What I received was well beyond my expectations, a personal reflection brimming with humor, intelligence and insight. I have posted the entire email as received below for your reading pleasure.
On Monday a bookseller asked me, “So where were you when Amazon bought Abe?”
Perhaps that will become a classic question now. I told her that I first heard that Amazon would acquire Abebooks while driving to L.A. on Interstate 5. I received a text message from one of my partners. I couldn’t stop the car to surf the blogs looking for reactions. I couldn’t check my e-mail to see who had already sent me missives. I was the designated driver on an old school road trip and I was already three hours in, so I had a few hours to think about things without any input from booksellers or colleagues. This was a good thing I think. It gave me some distance from the event, both figuratively and literally.
My first thought was probably a common one, that Abebooks would be gone within a year. And Bookfinder. And Fillz. And Chrislands. LibraryThing? Maybe not. LibraryThing is cool. But I decided that there was not enough air in the room for more than one bookselling brand at Amazon.com. It would take some time, but even though the best parts of Abebooks might survive in some way, they would be unrecognizable.
Now that a week has passed, I’ve completely lost confidence in that prediction. After I had a chance to reflect and to absorb input from others (and there has been a lot of input) I’m not so sure my initial instincts were correct.
Amazon.com is named for a river, and rivers can have both tributaries and distributaries. According to Wikipedia, “A distributary is a stream that branches off and flows away from a main stream channel. In some cases, a minor distributary can “steal” so much water from the main channel that it can become the main route.”
What if Abe becomes such a distributary? Is it possible that Amazon will channel used and rare book sales toward Abe instead of the other way around? Slowly at first, but eventually, after some transformation of Abe’s technology, en masse? The headlines in business papers suggested that Amazon was getting back to its roots as a bookseller. What better way than to devote a site to books? A novel approach!
Am I just considering this option because that is where the river metaphor flows? Perhaps. But Abe’s biggest need, if it is to grow, is more eyeballs. Amazon has those eyeballs. Amazon hasn’t absorbed every entity that it has purchased, so Abebooks clearly has a chance. The only thing we know, is that we have no idea what is going to happen. If we don’t consider all of the possibilities, there is a good chance we won’t consider the right one. Also, Abe said they would stick around in their press release. I’ll take them at their word for now.
Much of the reportage about this story remains stuck in a familiar paradigm: suggesting that the landscape of online bookselling is solely occupied by “marketplace” aggregators. In this case Abe and Amazon. Other options are available to booksellers such as dedicated e-commerce websites and speciality portals (by region, by speciality). Our firm, Bibliopolis, has achieved great success for hundreds of booksellers by providing such services (in concert, of course, with “marketplace” selling). These models leverage the Internet as a tool to maintain a bookseller’s identity, independence, and professionalism. Mergers like this one demonstrate precisely why that is so important. In the end, the booksellers will make the market, whateveral it turns out to be.