Given the dot.com boom and bust, the long-term impact of the Internet on business largely remains to be seen, but there’s at least one industry where its effect is a huge improvement: the sale of antiquarian books.
Believe it or not, but the impact of the Internet on the sales of used books was far from certain. Would the improved ability to find specific books increase demand and sales sufficiently to offset any decline in prices that might occur if customers could easily shop around? That’s the question Björn Frank and Guntram Hepperle asked at the University of Hohenheim in Germany at the end of 2000. In the abstract to their paper entitled The Internet’s Impact on the Market for Antiquarian Books: Some Unexpected Empirical Results (click here for the whole paper in PDF format)
Though there is a considerable variance in most books’ prices, we do not observe the expected negative correlation between price and share of internet sales (in relation to a seller’s total sales). We find other factors which have a systematic impact on prices, but with respect to the Internet, our main result is that e-business currently contributes little or nothing to driving prices downwards.
I have to say that I’m not surprised. Yesterday a biography of one of my distant cousins arrived in the post from Hoffman’s Bookshop in Columbus, Ohio. The third edition of Memoirs of Mrs. Rebecca Wakefield: Missionary in East Africa was published in 1888 and written by the subject’s brother, Robert Brewin. I only discovered this book two weeks ago in the course of doing some family history research, and yet thanks to the information superhighway I already have my own copy and Hoffman’s Bookshop has another satisfied customer.
Although I purchased the book from Hoffman’s, the transaction was brokered by abebooks.com, which “connects those who buy books with those who sell them, providing abundant selection at affordable prices”. The Memoirs of Mrs. Rebecca Wakefield was only the second book I have purchased in this way, but I’m in the market for a third, and thanks to abebooks.com’s “want list” feature there’s every chance that I’ll find it eventually.
Last week when I was searching for the Memoirs of Mrs. Rebecca Wakefield there was only one copy to be found, so comparing prices was impossible; but in my limited experience prices on the Internet for books in a similar condition are also similar. So the real benefit the Internet brings is the ability to track the books down in the first place. There’s no way I would have found copies of my books without the Internet.
Of course, there’s another benefit. I have yet to set foot within 250 miles of Columbus. In fact, I’ve never been to Ohio at all; and now, fortunately, I don’t have to — at least not to spend time in its bookshops.
Update: For more on the Canadian success story abebooks.com see Giants and behemoths in The Globe and Mail.