Alibris Jumps in Bed with Better World Books and Takes Their Booksellers With Them

Imagine the shock many booksellers felt when they heard that unbeknownst to them they were now selling their books through Better World Books (BWB).

Yes, the same BWB that has plagued the bookselling world by mastering the art of penny selling; the same for-profit company that parades around in a non-profit guise (see our previous post Better World Books : Are They Better For the Book World).

Alibris has recently entered into a partnership with BWB to provide them with the inventory of their booksellers. That inventory now shows up on BWB and is attributed to the various independent booksellers.

If that alone is not enough to jump the Alibris ship then the fact that there is no opt-out option for booksellers who would not like to participate in this madness is surely to send many of us overboard. [update- as you will see below, an opt out option is in the works]

Alibris has spent a tremendous amount of energy recently courting traditional booksellers. They have been seen at most major bookfairs in the past year walking up and down the aisles promoting their new strategy of paying more attention to the antiquarian and collectible bookseller. They redesigned their collectibles section, they built new tools to help booksellers gauge inventory demand and to help with pricing.

And then this, another slap in the face to the very booksellers that put Alibris on the map and one more exploitative move that has become commonplace in the world of online bookselling.

I asked Brian Elliott, CEO of Alibris, a few questions about the issue. Below are my original questions, the questions re-framed by Alibris and Mr. Elliott’s responses.

Book Patrol: Can you give me a little background on the relationship and how it came to be. I have written more than one piece on Book Patrol on BWB dubious business practices. What kind of due diligence did Alibris undertake before entering into this partnership?

Alibris: Why would Alibris partner with BWB? Some sellers find their business practices dubious – did Alibris do any research into that? Is supporting BWB bad for booksellers? Was Alibris surprised that sellers had a negative reaction?

Brian Elliott: We believe our decision to partner with Better World Books is a good one for our sellers. In this tough economy, the number one thing we hear from sellers is that they want more sales. We’ve been working hard to make that happen and we think these efforts are paying off: our sellers are seeing sales growth over 2008; August sales are up 20% over last year. In July, we launched three new partnerships: Borders UK (a separately owned and operated company from Borders in the US), Akademos (who supplies colleges with online stores) and Coutts (an academic library distributor). Our Better World Books partnership launched this week. We understand that sellers have different perceptions of BWB, different even amongst themselves. We have worked with BWB for years – they have been a good seller with a very high satisfaction rating among Alibris’ buyers. We’ve talked with them about their business practices, donations and charitable giving. Specific questions about BWB’s business should be addressed to them. They are actively involved in this discussion and have already answered many sellers’ questions on our discussion board: http://alibrisdealersforum.yuku.com/topic/2089/t/Open-letter—-founder–Better-World-Books—Alibris-Seller.html

Sellers have also posted their own takes on the broader topic of BWB’s purchasing practices, for example Karin Bergsagel’s post on our discussion board: http://alibrisdealersforum.yuku.com/sreply/9478/t/Open-letter—-founder–Better-World-Books—Alibris-Seller-.html Better World Books’ web site generates a lot of traffic and potential customers, and they realize they do not have the inventory to appeal to them all. Like many other large, warehouse-based sellers they have aggressive pricing and are largely selling standard “reading copy” product. BWB and Alibris have partnered so that Alibris sellers can take advantage of the traffic and customers on the BWB website, and so that BWB can turn visitors into buyers on their website by offering a broad selection. Sellers who want to grow their business are welcoming the opportunity to reach new buyers that they otherwise would not have access to. However, we are sensitive to the sellers who have indicated a strong preference not to be associated with Better World Books. We’ve offered sellers the ability to remove their name from the BWB site and have their inventory aggregated under the Alibris name. We anticipated that there would be some reaction, but were surprised by how strong it has been among a small group of sellers. Our team, especially Dan and Heather, have been monitoring seller response and actively responding to questions and correcting misperceptions.

BP: Alibris has expended a large amount of energy recently courting the antiquarian bookseller, how do you see this partnership benefiting that class of bookseller. We are all for expanding the marketplace for our books but I do not see how partnering with BWB will have any positive effect for a large majority of your sellers. Am I missing something? If anything, I see such a relationship as diluting the brands of your sellers. Also, how is it that Alibris sellers can opt out of participation with other Alibris partners but not BWB?

Alibris: Sellers have indicated that their concerns are that BWB are themselves a bookseller, and regardless of practices, don’t want to support them. Given the number of requests to opt out, will you consider making this change? Are you experiencing many seller account cancellations?

BE: We are working on an opt-out option with BWB, who have been very responsive and accommodating. The technical challenges of coming up with a scalable and manageable solution are not insignificant. Bringing on new business partners requires very complex, custom integrations. Better World Books is using the Alibris Search API to get inventory information, which is the same search API used by many other business partners. Adding an opt-out option could slow down searches for everyone if it isn’t done very carefully. We are in the “back to school” freeze period (meaning we try not to make production code changes during the peak – it’s risky) right now, so we don’t yet have a timeline for making it happen. Both Alibris and BWB engineers are working now on solutions.

Right now, sellers have the option to aggregate their inventory under the Alibris name, similar to how we represent listings on Half.com, so that seller information is not displayed on the BWB site. Despite the change freeze, BWB and Alibris have worked together to make this option available this month.

Some sellers have discussed canceling orders, which we don’t want to encourage. The person who bought the book you cancel won’t know that it was canceled for ethical reasons, they’ll just have a lousy customer experience. The best way for a seller to stay competitive and grow their business is to fill all the orders they get.

The BWB partnership launched yesterday, and of the first two hundred orders placed, only a handful were canceled – nothing above the normal rates. Only two orders went to sellers who had requested to be removed from the program.

We really appreciate sellers’ passion and willingness to speak out. Heather and Dan make sure we keep close tabs on the emails and posts by our sellers. We take what they say very seriously – hence our work to accommodate their requests as quickly as is feasible. An even smaller number of sellers have stated that they may cancel their Alibris accounts if an opt-out option is not provided. We hope these sellers will see that Alibris and BWB are both working hard to accommodate their wishes, and will be patient with us while we work out the technical details.

BP: Why weren’t your sellers notified of the new partnership with BWB? First I heard of the news was from a principle of a company that we do business with who said. “Did you hear about Alibris and BWB”

Alibris: Why weren’t sellers notified of the new partnership with BWB?

BE: Sellers were notified prior to launch – our Seller Newsletter went out last Wednesday in email, although it’s not yet posted on our seller Hub. We announced Akademos, Borders UK and Coutts last month.

Do you feel better?

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