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Selling on eBay

The Impact of
on eBay Bookselling

by Craig Stark

#127, 25 August 2008

In an April 29, 2008 faux interview conducted by eBay CEO John Donohue, eBay founder Pierre Omidyar articulates his vision of a level playing field, a vision this venue was famously founded on:

"What I meant by level playing field is that everyone should be given an equal opportunity. I didn't want to have sort of artificial barriers placed on newcomers and to have people by virtue of their stature outside of the eBay community somehow be treated better - special deals behind the scenes because they're a big retailer and we want to get them to come on eBay, that kind of stuff. That would have been - is - a disaster. That is what I meant by level playing field."

The video clip is here.

I watched this video three times and each time came away with the impression that Omidyar was implying that this vision was still a driving force at eBay.

Wrong. At least one special deal has become an eBay reality. From eBay spokesperson Usher Lieberman:

"eBay is aggressively using price as a lever to improve the value and selection on Consistent with our goals, we have entered into a partnership with to bring their new-in-season merchandise onto We expect to learn a great deal from this partnership and we will build upon the results."

In-house eBay blogger Richard Brewer-Hay attempted to reconcile Omidyar's comments with this new partnership:

"It's my assertion that Pierre was talking about the conditions and approach to the Marketplace at the company's founding. It has obviously evolved since then and it's pretty clear that eBay has been, and continues to, expand and experiment with new pricing and business models on the site. Again, all geared at providing the best possible buyer experience."


"I asked how this could be economically feasible for to list that many listings in Core; my quick calculation put their 3-day listing fees at $600,000. I was told, both by eBay and, that this partnership was 'economically feasible' for both parties, but that no details would be released."

The blog is here.

Late last year began uploading listings to eBay. Things moved slowly at first, but at the time of this writing a total of 511,601 books now appear on eBay. To put this in perspective, there are 1,163,066 total books listed by all sellers. listings, therefore, represents about 44% of all listed books, and most of these offer multiple copies.

Some facts: sells only new books, presently offering them in 7-day Fixed Price listings, a substantial percentage of which are promoted with free shipping. In recent months their average sales price has been between $15 and $20, their average conversion rate between a pathetic 4% and 6%. Their feedback currently stands at 99.6% with DSR's at 4.8 and higher - presumably qualifying them for a raised search status.

Obviously, given a conversion rate of about 5%, pursuing this business model would be disastrous if they were paying the same fees that you and I are. Lieberman's assertion that an "economically feasible" partnership had been agreed to clearly means that they are paying nowhere near the same fees. One wonders, of course, how this squares with eBay's stated goal of providing the best possible buyer experience. Could be I'm dense, but my conversion rate is usually around 80%, and it seems to me that offering more items that stand a very good chance of selling would improve the buyer experience far more than clogging the venue with books that have 1 chance in 20 of selling. Instead, eBay now offers an additional half million books that are essentially space fillers. Not only does this degrade the buying experience; it also degrades the selling experience. Your books ain't as easy to find now, especially if they're in Stores. Also, as more book buyers experience this "improved" venue, my guess is that many of them will soon be looking elsewhere for books.

So - what is the current state of the Search function? There's been much forum chatter about listings crowding out other listings, especially on the all-important first page set at the default "Best Match," so I decided to do some informal investigating. Since all of's titles begin with the word "NEW," I ran a search with this keyword, and 564,598 items were returned. Subtracting's 511,829 books from this leaves us with 52,769 books (with "new" in the titles) offered by other sellers - about a 10-to-1 ratio. One would expect, therefore, that a search-results page of 50 items would be comprised of about 40 items, all things being equal.

Not so, and this time we come out ahead. Here are the totals for the first 10 pages:

Best match results: 4 out of 50 on the first page, 6 on the second, then 9, 4, 7, 6, 10, 11, 12 and 12. That's 81 listings in the first 500 returned items - about 16%. Of course, these numbers gradually increase as you move deeper into the results until much later pages show most or all listings. I also ran some random searches for items I'm selling and found no evidence of books burying any of them. If anything, this demonstrates that at least some sellers seem to be getting better treatment than

Also, earlier this month, eBay announced changes to Search that will give greater weight to Auctions in certain categories (and greater weight to Fixed-Price listings in other categories). This could help or not, depending, but also included in those changes were exceptionally reasonable insertion fees for Fixed Price listings, which will now be extended to 30 days. The effect of this - I'm not sure how it could be otherwise - will be to encourage listings of lower-dollar books to proliferate once again.

Based on this, it's tempting to think we should be okay for the time being. I often list books in different categories than does anyway, but even if I didn't, it seems that my books wouldn't necessarily be buried in search results - assuming that my buyers are finding me by keyword searches and not browsing. Browsing by category is a different animal altogether, however, and there are many instances where's negative impact on competing books is far greater.

Another point: If you have an eBay Store, consider that results appear after Auction and Fixed Price listings on search pages. Since's listings have nearly doubled the number of books now appearing on eBay, your Store items now stand a far worse chance of being encountered on the first search page or even early search pages than a year ago. As a result, Stores, once my greatest source of fixed-price venue income across nine venues, have become much less productive for me in the months coinciding with's build up, especially after the surge in May of this year.

At present, the introduction of might not be the most terrible thing that ever happened to us, but it seems far more ominous to me that eBay is heading in a direction that will eventually drive most small sellers out for good. is far from the only mega-seller that eBay could reel in, and it would only take a few more to all but bury us under a mountain of underperforming books.

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