Plotting Your Future in Bookselling

by Craig Stark

#36, 7 February 2005

How to Evaluate Alternate Venues

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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 were 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

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