2010 Bookseller Resource Guide
Online Sales Boom
$600 Million and Growing
Used books made headlines in September when the Book Industry Study Group (BISG) released a report on the secondhand book market. Remarkably, all the major online sellers, including Amazon.com, Abebooks, Alibris, and eBay, agreed to disclose their sales. According to Boris Wertz, the chief operating officer at Abebooks, who chaired the study, the “enormous interest…about the size of the used book market” spurred the competitors to release transaction data, so long as the published report kept confidential the sales figures for individual companies. The results? Six hundred million dollars in online used book sales in 2004, a number based on hard data from the biggest players in the industry, with careful efforts to eliminate double counting (a sale on Amazon of an Alibris book, for example). The study estimated overall U.S. used book sales at $2.2 billion.
Susan Siegal, a publisher of regional guides to bookstores and a study participant, observed that the results combine general used books and used textbooks. “It’s two different worlds,” she said. Removing textbooks produces a markedly different result—traditional used book sales reached only $600 million according to BISG, with $350 million sold online. The study relied on survey data to calculate off-line, in-person sales. Wertz wrote in a follow-up e-mail, “I would agree that this seems rather low,” probably because “we are working with rough estimates here and not with hard transactional data.” (By design, the study did not include the antiquarian market.) Nevertheless, Wertz concludes, “It’s the best study done to date.”
The New York Times reported that some study participants believe that the size of the online market and its rate of growth—a staggering 38 percent last year—tolled the end of the traditional used bookstore. Siegal pointed out that the BISG study doesn’t indicate that most online sales actually originate in open shops. “Booksellers,” she said, “have more options for selling than ever before.” Stores sell to both walk-in customers and over the Internet. She conceded, however, that the number of open shops has been declining. “It’s not a dying industry—it’s a changing industry. You have to be a businessperson now, not just a book lover.”