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Plotting Your Future in Bookselling
How to Evaluate Alternate Venues

by Craig Stark

#36, 7 February 2005

Most online booksellers I know keep one eye on the venues they sell in and another on potential alternatives, forever searching for greener grass. If the Internet is about anything, it's change, and my gosh, look at how many bookselling venues have come and gone in the past handful of years. For that matter, look at how the big four have changed - and raised fees. And raised fees.

And raised fees.

Evolution is inevitable anywhere on this granite planet, but in Cyberland it plunges ahead at an accelerated pace. Like anybody else, booksellers are aware of this, participate in it, and I'm sure that few of us are at all complacent about where we sell our books today - I mean, Alibris might be fine for our purposes,, Amazon Marketplace, eBay, etc., either singly or in combination, but do we believe that this same situation will be unchanged a year from now? I think most of us would be surprised if something didn't change.

Though I'm not sure it'd be possible to measure this with any accuracy, my sense of things is that, among booksellers at this moment in time, the appetite for a new venue that could produce significant sales at substantially reduced costs is sky high. The reason is simple. And understandably mercenary. Sell a book on a viable fixed-price venue today, and you're probably looking at about a 20% bite taken out of the purchase price. Sell one on eBay, and, when all is said and done, it's usually not much less than this - and worse, it's more labor-intensive to auction books anyway, so essentially it's a wash.

This is why it's so tantalizing when a new venue pops up with substantially lower fees (or no fees at all) and also offers a user friendly interface. It may be even more tantalizing when we see other sellers buy into the idea and begin listing books by the thousands - and this is the moment of truth, isn't it? What happens next, unfortunately, is sadly predictable: silence. Or at best a few scattered sales, and soon those enthusiastic sellers are discouraged and probably kicking themselves for investing so much time and effort in a failed cause.

But here's the thing: when there's a vacuum on the Internet, somebody will fill it. Every time. There isn't a bookselling vacuum - yet - but as the costs of doing business on existing sites increase, the effect is to suck air out of the bookselling jar, and eventually something will pop in. But what? How?

It may seem that the day passed when another eBay (+ or Amazon can gradually evolve into a bookselling giant. Neither of these enterprises started life with massive capital investment, but things we're very different a half a dozen or so years ago. Competition was comparatively minimal. Slow growth was something that could happen right and left. Now that we have a solid club of four players, who would have a prayer of breaking into it without first spending millions in promotional advertising or riding the coattails of a huge, already existing presence in another area? Or both? And, even if somebody did make this investment, wouldn't they have to recover those promotional costs in fees charged to sellers? Wouldn't we then be back to or near the same place we're at today?

Probably. But, given that online real estate is so damn cheap, doesn't it seem possible - still - that somebody could sneak in the back door, launch a venue on a shoestring, charge low (or no) fees, and gradually grow it into something viable for us? Most of us, I think, wouldn't bet on it. Most booksellers would be reluctant to sign on at a venue with minimal traffic, and why would sellers visit in significant numbers unless there were plenty of books available? It's the classic horse and cart dilemma.

But guess what? Something like this has been done. Not a dedicated bookselling venue, but there's an astonishingly plain vanilla, hugely popular website that's become, albeit slowly, a go-to location for sellers of all stripes who once chose eBay.

You may already know what I'm talking about here, but before I spill the beans, hold the thought, and I'll come back to it later. First, I'd like to address a topic that gets continuous (if anecdotal) coverage in book forums across the board - venue evaluation, or ... how do you decide where to sell your books? I suppose it's common knowledge that the vast majority of online bookselling happens at the four venues I mentioned above, and one or more of these would be the logical choice for most of us. But what about those tantalizing alternatives? Are they worth taking a shot at? At any given time there are dozens of possibilities. What criteria (other than a wild guess) can we use to make a decision?

You can ask this question in a forum, as many others have. Somebody might reply with some marginally useful information, but it's not likely. The most typical answer, if it comes at all, is that this or that venue has been tried, but the results, well, haven't been spectacular. Or there haven't been results at all. This can mean one of two things - either the venue is an empty tomb and will soon die the bookselling death, or it's on the cusp of becoming that once in a blue moon venue that will ultimately rise to compete with, maybe surpass the big four. The latter is the one we're looking for, hoping for, but do you want to guess which one it is? Guess with your valuable time? I don't.

In any case, forums are notoriously unreliable for evaluating bookselling success anyway because they're so densely populated with failed booksellers. Successful booksellers - the silent minority - are often too busy selling books to be spending time shooting the breeze, and, even if they are inclined to now and again, how likely is it that they'll share their secrets? No, I want hard information before I take the leap to a new venue, something I can monitor regularly. Is there such an animal available to us?

Yes, and you might be able to tell me what it is. If I asked you to name the single most important piece of information you could have for the purposes of evaluating a website, what would it be? Well, if you're in the business of selling books, wouldn't your success depend critically on how many potential buyers actually saw what you had to offer? That's right - traffic. If there was a source of traffic information, something that would show us exactly where a venue is at this point in time compared to other venues and also where it's been in the last few months or years (to indicate growth - or not), wouldn't this be hugely useful to us?

Enter Alexa. For those of you not familiar with this tool, Alexa continuously monitors website traffic, tracks the number of visitors to a website, what those visitors do when they're there (how many pages they visit, etc.) and, based on what it terms "page views" and "reach," computes a traffic ranking which enables you to compare one website with any other. Traffic graphs are also available which display rankings as far back as two years. Simply type in the url in the search box, and the traffic ranking will appear. Click "See Traffic Details," and this will bring up the graph (with several viewing options) and specific traffic numbers. Type in another website url in the "Compare Sites" box, and the graph displays both simultaneously.

There are tens of millions of websites on the Internet, and while Alexa monitors everything, it delivers results only for the top several hundred thousand - and accuracy falls off sharply over 100,000. The rest receive too little traffic to be accurately ranked. A ranking of 1, of course, is the best. Yahoo has occupied this position for some time. Here are current rankings for the top four bookselling venues:

Abebooks - 2,142
Alibris - 3,031
Amazon - 15
eBay - 11

Note that Amazon and eBay aren't dedicated bookselling venues, and the rankings are correspondingly better because of it. Also, in the case of Amazon, many new books are sold as well as used, and eBay's ranking includes traffic to Booksellers can also sell their books at Barnes & Noble through partner programs at Abebooks and Alibris. Here's their ranking:

Barnes & Noble - 412

As we might have suspected, all of these rankings are high, and though it may be difficult to separate out exactly how much of this reported traffic is comprised of book buyers, it's clear that tons of book buying is happening on all of these venues. Now, what about alternate venues? Who are some of the mid-range players, and where do they stand? Here's a sample list taken from BookThink's BookLinks page:

A1Books - 34,082
AB Bookman - 355,199
Biblio - 18,095
Biblion (UK) - 173,166
Bookbyte - 85,130
Chapitre (France) - 24,304
ChooseBooks - 92,435
HalfValue - 65,234
Maremagnum (Italy) - 283,988
TomFolio - 173,923
Used Book Central - 125,468
ZVAB (Germany) - 50,101

If you're a US bookseller contemplating a move to an alternate venue, you'd have to eliminate the four foreign sites from consideration. This leaves eight possibilities. It isn't the purpose of this article to suggest specific alternatives. A lot will depend on what your needs are, what kinds of books you sell, the type of fee structure you can live with, how much discretionary time you have to gamble with, and so on. But if there are surprises here, this will at least give you some direction for your investigation. You now have hard numbers to work with, something to plot your future with.

Part of this investigation, in my opinion, should involve a close inspection of the traffic graph mentioned above. This will give you a good idea of the direction things are moving in, and if they're heading north, this is a venue to watch and keep watching. One word of warning, however. If you see a graph that looks relatively flat over time, this doesn't mean that growth is flat. BookThink's graph, though spiky, appears to be more or less flat over the 16 months that we've been online, but actual traffic (measured by our own log analyzer) shows that traffic has tripled in the past year. What's happening is that new websites come online by the tens of thousands every day, at a much greater rate than they're abandoned. Some of these rise meteorically and pointedly affect the rankings of everybody else - and disguise growth for them. Look, for example, at the graph displayed for Howard Dean's Dean for America website.

Its current ranking, despite the recent publicity he's received from his run for the DNC chairmanship, is only 116,671. However, during the heat of the presidential campaign early last year, this same ranking approached three figures, almost entering the exclusive top 1,000 websites club - and don't think Dean wasn't aware of it. Several times during his campaign he cited his Alexa numbers in comparison to other candidates.

Ok. Back to that website I alluded to earlier. The plain vanilla one? Go to it, and you'll probably be overwhelmingly under-whelmed by its appearance. To me, it resembles something out of the DOS age, and it's not an especially classy example of that. Graphics are almost non-existent; the color scheme isn't especially appealing; and my or my, what a busy, reader unfriendly layout. But guess what? You could sell a book there at no cost. Zilch. And take a look at this traffic rating:


Before you get excited about this, there are a number of reasons this venue wouldn't be an ongoing, viable alternative for you, but the point is that it points to a very real possibility for the emergence of something similar for booksellers. That's why it's important to keep you eyes and ears open - and to monitor those Alexa rankings on venues that are hovering below the big four, also those that are brand new. In the above list of 12 bookselling venues, there's one in particular that's grabbed some serious numbers in the past few months. Books are actually getting sold there. I'd tell you what it is, but that wouldn't be any fun. This will give you a chance to practice your investigative techniques.

Oh - I almost forgot. That other website, the one with the 83 ranking? Click here if you don't know what it is.

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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