Used Books and the Internet

According to the Guardian, the internet has given new life to second-hand booksellers. The article profiles a couple of second-hand booksellers and outlines the business models for Abebooks, Amazon, and Alibris. There is a downside, though, from the booksellers’ perspective — there are so many “bedroom operators,” people selling used books on the internet as a sideline out of their homes, that prices have fallen and sales (for any one bookseller) are diminishing.

I was surprised to learn that Abebooks, the largest and presumably the most successful of the three second-hand bookselling giants, was started by a couple who live in Victoria, British Columbia:

That’s where Cathy Waters, owner of Timeless Books, a used-book shop in Victoria, and her husband Keith come in. In 1995, Keith, a Web site developer for the British Columbia government, amused himself during a boring meeting by recalling an incident in which his wife published a request for a novel by D.H. Lawrence, but forgot to include the title. The shop had been flooded with thousands of responses.

It was then Keith realized the entire business was based on the used-book circular, which was in essence a catalogue, and it would be a simple matter of tossing that catalogue into a data base. He and a colleague, Rick Pura, a data base administrator, created one as an exercise in managing records.

The result was a software package called Homebase, and the Advanced Book Exchange started in 1996 with four bookstores. Eight years later, there are more than 10,000.

All of it was done by word of mouth, and without a penny of venture capital.


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