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EBay: 2006 Review

The Tiger Crouches before It ... Leaps?

by Craig Stark

#86, 15 January 2007

So - what kind of year did you have at eBay? Anecdotal evidence by the boatload suggests that, during an unusually bumpy 2006, many booksellers who had been on board since 2005 and earlier either slashed their Store inventory and/or greatly diminished their participation in auctions or abandoned ship altogether, often immigrating to Amazon Marketplace or Some booksellers, of course, stayed the course, and it should come as no surprise that many booksellers also walked the gangplank for the first time, ready to wrest profits from the creaking giant.

There were three notable events last year that altered numerous bookselling fortunes on eBay:

1. Search Function Changes

For a brief, intoxicating period of time beginning in 2005 and ending in early 2006, eBay modified its search function to commingle Auction and Fixed-Price listings with Stores inventories - that is, all three were, for the first time in eBay history, on equal footing. Needless to say, those of us who had Stores and had long suffered eBay's apparent lack of interest in giving them meaningful exposure were suddenly awash in sales. On the other hand, many auction-based booksellers were just as suddenly up to their eyeballs in competition and experienced significant drops in sales. The latter protested mightily, as you would expect, and some would say eBay listened.

Maybe, but I would surmise that eBay didn't necessarily listen so much as abruptly wake up from the uproar to see that giving Stores inventories equivalent exposure with Auction and Fixed Price listings, given the gaping disparity in fees, was a recipe for disaster. Stores fees had been so low for so long that massive, low-dollar inventories had accumulated, and they now all but buried their Auction and Fixed-Price competitors. True, total books sold increased significantly during this period, but the average sales price dropped, as did - here's the important part - fees collected.

Something had to change. Two things did - and both hurt Store owners.

The first change was an immediate return to the former search function. To give you an idea of how this affected my own business, my April Stores sales were less than half what they had been in March - and that's a big hit to take on short notice.

2. Stores Fees Increase

The second change, however, is what produced something approaching a mass exodus. At mid summer, eBay announced a major Stores fees increase. While this brought Stores fees more or less in line with Auction and Fixed-Price fees, eBay did not, in turn, restore the search function change that had increased exposure for Stores or introduce a viable substitute. Result: Many booksellers stomped off after the grace period or stayed on a month or so to see how things would play out - and then left. Some mega sellers introduced stealth shipping charges to make up the difference. In a matter of months, total book listings plunged to less than half of what they had been.

If - and this was a big if - eBay was still the tiger it had been since the late 1990s, one would have to assume that it was crouching in preparation for a leap.

3. Google Base Store Connector

The introduction of Google Base Store Connector, a free application for publishing eBay Stores listings and Amazon Marketplace listings on Froogle and in some cases Google, was the first and only major positive bookselling event of 2006. I published one of my inventories on November 1, 2006, and my sales increased so significantly in both November and December that the only plausible explanation for it was the increased exposure this had given me - a conclusion, by the way, that was supported by thousands of recorded impressions and clicks in my Store Connector log.

Speaking of major bookselling events, I should also include a personal event: Early in 2006, I bulk uploaded a fixed-price inventory that had previously been listed on Abebooks, Alibris, Amazon Marketplace, and a few other venues to an experimental eBay Store, experimental in the sense that this inventory had no associated photographs or detailed textual descriptions - two things that had, in my mind, always seemed essential for successful eBay selling. Well, it turned out they weren't essential. By year's end, sales from this Store comprised approximately half of my total sales across all the other venues these books were listed on.

Interestingly enough, this inventory consisted primarily of uncommon, collectible books, not low-dollar, ISBN-era books, and one inescapable truth emerged from my 2006 experience: Whatever changes had occurred to alter the overall profile and/or presentation of books offered for sale on eBay, it was still the venue of choice for collectors.

Put up an uncommon, collectible book on 8 or 9 different venues, and its best chance of selling - still - will be on eBay.

Another inescapable truth: For me, Amazon Marketplace was a very strong second for sales in 2006, a rather extraordinary fact given that many of the titles (about 49%) in my experimental inventory didn't appear on Amazon at all because they simply weren't in the catalog. If they had been, I venture to say that Amazon sales would have nearly equaled eBay sales.

Other venues were distant also-rans.


In my opinion, eBay is certainly not a crouching tiger. And I anticipate absolutely no bookselling leap in 2007. However, if your inventory is strong in uncommon, collectible books, it makes good economic sense to sell there. On the other hand, if your inventory is largely lower-dollar, ISBN-era books, success may be more problematic, and I believe that your chances would be much better on Amazon. Also keep in mind that Amazon's catalog of pre-ISBN titles is growing rapidly, and, as a venue for this class of books, it's making up serious ground on eBay.

As I've opined before, if either eBay's or Amazon's grip on the bookselling market is to be loosened, I'll be surprised if the competition that succeeds in accomplishing this comes from below - specifically from less powerful bookselling venues already in place. I think it's far more likely to arrive from the side or above, from a corporate entity with deep pockets, a keen hunger for growth and not necessarily any prior book marketing experience. Yes, Steve Weber's looming monster is a likely candidate, and be ready to jump ship if and when the emerging king of the jungle, Google, leaps.

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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