Letters to The Editor
From David Greif and
Response from Karin Bergasel

#127, 7 September 2009

Hi, Craig,

I have been following the Better World Books debate re Alibris with some interest for several weeks, and as a customer of Alibris I am glad that I was able to opt out of the partnership. In the most recent BookThinker I was very interested in the article on this subject and found myself strongly disagreeing with the forum post from Karin Bergsagel. My primary disagreements are as follows:

1. BWB and many of the other book operations following similar business models hide behind the word "donate." Sure, if you dig down on their site you will find the fine print stating that they are a for-profit enterprise, but I think almost everyone associates the word donate with charitable non profit organizations, not businesses, so the overriding impression is that they are a charity. The whole model reminds me of the donation bins that state attorney generals are constantly shutting down because the "T-shirts for Africa" are actually recycled with a very small amount of the revenues actually going to charity.

2. The actual flow through to charitable organizations at 10% is very likely less than most independent online book dealers. If I look at my own cost of books on an annual basis and estimate that the bulk of my stock comes from library sales and thrift shops, my "contribution" to charity amounts to 15% approximately. Do I go around bragging about how I am a socially conscious business? In a word, NO.

3. Karin states that my resentment is based on the fact that I am jealous of their business model. Well, as far as I can ascertain, their business model is to convince libraries to give them books to sell at below market rates and then remit a paltry 12% back to the library, and even then they still don't make money. Somehow I am not jealous.

4. I do agree that many dealers have a sense of entitlement with respect to FOLs and do not appreciate the efforts of volunteers. While I personally lose a source whenever a library goes to sell online itself, at least I know that they are keeping the money themselves and realizing $.85 on the close to market dollar and not $.12 cents on the price cutting dollar that they would get from BWB.

5. BWB professes to have a great love of books, but in my one experience with ordering from them, the book arrived in an unpadded plastic bag and was consequently bumped on all four corners. In that particular case they sold a book for $6 that I subsequently sold for $60 (patience pays). So the library that consigned the book received $.72 for a $60 book.

I seriously question the wisdom of Alibris entering into this partnership since from where I sit it only serves to make BWB a more viable competitor for Alibris, and with their intentional price undercutting (the shipping charge) will more likely than not steal customers from Alibris.

David Greif, Griffin Books, Stamford CT

Response from Karin Bergsagel:

I believe that Alibris responded appropriately to bookseller's demands by allowing an opt-out mechanism for those who do not want their books to appear on BWB's site. Since BWB is not simply another venue, but a competing seller of secondhand books, it is in a different category from Alibris's current partner sites.

But I deplore the ad hominem attacks on BWB - not only because I think that they are unjust, but because I think that they distract online booksellers from paying attention to what should be far more important concerns about the evolution of bookselling. A lot of heat has been generated by the angry words directed at BWB, but very little light has been shed. Mr. Greif and I could argue back-and-forth about exact percentages donated, but that would simply add to the heat. Instead, I would like to provide some background for my forum posting.

I have a confession to make. Two years ago, I first attended the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar, and during the opening introductions my gasp was audible when three representatives of Better World Books introduced themselves. What were they doing amongst "real" booksellers? I knew absolutely nothing about BWB or its business model at that point, except that I didn't like them or what they stood for - such was the "received wisdom" of online booksellers.

As luck would have it, I was seated next to Ryan van Plew-Cid, of BWB's antiquarian department, for the whole week. In talking to him, and also to Dustin Holland and Rudy Reyes, two other BWB staffers, I discovered that I had known nothing at all about Better World Books. Rather than the representatives of the Evil Empire that I had been expecting, I discovered warm, witty, intelligent, compassionate people, who were passionate about their work. We had books in common, and I liked them.

The following year I returned to CABS, and met more BWB staff, and my positive impressions were reinforced. My conversations that week established in my mind that BWB is a good employer, with loyal employees. There is a long tradition of collegiality in bookselling, and I am happy to think of the booksellers of BWB as my colleagues.

The online bookselling world has little to no tradition of collegiality; cut-throat competition is more the norm, and I am disappointed that BWB has, in my opinion, been made the scapegoat for changes in the economics of bookselling. I think that this has happened not because of what BWB really IS, but because of what BWB represents: the loss of many sources of inventory at the same time that online prices are falling.

The usual damning claim made against BWB is that it "pretends" to be a charity, when it is really a for-profit business. Well, I find it hard to believe that anyone who visits their website and reads about them is going to have any doubt whatsoever that BWB is a for-profit enterprise - it is not in the fine print, but right out there. Furthermore, their literacy partners (Books for Africa, Room to Read, Worldfund, the National Center for Family Literacy, and Invisible Children) are all delighted with their partnerships.

The problem with demonizing BWB is that they are not the enemy. If online bookselling as we know it ceases to be viable, it will not be because of BWB. There are megasellers with far more egregious practices than BWB - if I were to pick a target to go after, it would be the phantom listers of "spidered" books that they do not own, the listers of disguised ebooks and print-on-demand copies, and the venues that allow these practices. I consider them far, far more damaging to the trade than BWB.

But even they are not the real enemy either - the rise of digital media will soon change the face of publishing and of online bookselling as we know it. Anyone who sells books for content should be more concerned about this development. I am sure that Better World Books is seriously considering how they will adapt, and they may not be able to survive themselves.

True, not all booksellers want to look to the long-term - they are more concerned about this quarter and this year. To them I would say what I have said before - if you don't want your local library selling to BWB, then make them a better offer. If you believe that BWB is offering a poor return to libraries, then it should be no problem to persuade your local FOL to work with you instead. And after you have the inventory, surely you can compete with BWB on description and customer service? Remember, small is beautiful - you can go head-to-head with BWB and succeed. Consider the lessons of judo: you can win by using your opponent's weight and strength as weapons against him, while you preserve

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