November 27, 2004
Brian Elliott, Chief Operating Officer, Alibris, Inc.
The simple Latin translation of “ex libris” is “from out of books come knowledge.” A new twist on that ancient phrase is taking place at Alibris; a fast growing company founded on the concept that “from out of the Internet comes unlimited potential to connect book buyers and sellers around the globe.” In a recent interview with Bargain Book News, Brian Elliott explained how Alibris is transforming the way people buy and sell books.
For those readers who are unfamiliar with the company, what is Alibris?
Alibris connects people who love books, music and movies to thousands of independent sellers around the world. We use proprietary technology and advanced logistics to offer almost 50 million used, new and out-of-print books to consumers, libraries and retailers.
How long have you been with Alibris? Were you involved with the book industry before then?
I joined Alibris in mid-1999, so I’ve been here for over five years. Before that, I was a business strategy consultant working with consumer goods and retail companies, primarily on e-commerce initiatives in the late 1990s. I helped a number of companies start to navigate the world of online retailing.
What does your current role at Alibris entail?
As COO I’m responsible for our overall operations planning and management. I work with the rest of our executive team to help keep the trains running on time, as well as directly managing our sales, marketing and services efforts. I work with a great team.
There is Alibris for independent booksellers, another version for libraries, and yet another for consumers. Can you explain briefly what each one offers and how it works?
Our consumer Web site (www.alibris.com) is used by millions of people to find used, new and out-of-print books, music and movies. The Web site continues to grow tremendously – we were one of the top 100 retailers last year according to Internet Retailer magazine and will grow by over 35% again this year.
Alibris for Libraries (www.alibris.com/libraries) serves the special needs of library customers: shipping consolidation, purchase order buying, list management and special projects as examples. Over 6,000 libraries use our services, including most of the leading academic libraries in the US.
Alibris Seller Services (sellers.alibris.com) gives independent sellers the tools they need to access tens of millions of customers. They can reach customers through our consumer and library channels, but also – very significantly – through our business partners.
We allow the largest book retailers and wholesalers in North America to access our broad selection. Our business partners include Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, Borders, Indigo/Chapters, Ingram Book Group and over a dozen other partnerships. These partnerships continue to grow as well, at times faster than our own Web site. When independent sellers list their books with Alibris, they are able to list through all of those channels at once.
Can you give us a streamlined version of how Alibris has evolved since its founding?
In 1997, our CEO Marty Manley was introduced to Dick Weatherford. Dick was a founder of Interloc, a database for professional booksellers only. Interloc was a pioneering system, and the small company became the first successful online service for booksellers.
Marty and Dick discussed how Interloc might become a large company that could deliver the growing power of e-commerce to independent booksellers while delivering extraordinary selection to businesses and book lovers. In 1998, the Alibris Web site was launched.
We’ve made a number of changes since, and have grown into a sizable, financially stable operation. We’re ten times the revenue we were in 1999, with almost the same growth in sellers and listings. We have a number of long term business partnerships and our customers give us tremendous satisfaction ratings.
How many booksellers do you work with and in how many countries?
We help our booksellers sell more books. We provide access to millions of customers through our Web sites and business partners. Alibris serves thousands of independent sellers from over 40 countries around the world. Our sellers include individuals at home, bricks and mortar stores, warehouse operations, publishers and distributors – a wide range of folks. What’s common is that we and they benefit from the broad selection we bring together to customers.
Since many of our readers are independent booksellers, can you tell us how Alibris directly benefits them? For example, they can use the system to catalog and price books, correct?
Alibris provides sellers with inventory cataloging tools that are simple and easy to use. Sellers can create inventory listings using our Inventory Manager product; our catalog contains over 10 million ISBN and pre-ISBN equivalents from new releases to collectible antiquarian product, enabling rapid cataloging. Sellers can also upload files to us in a multitude of different formats. We then handle inventory management across all of our Web sites and partnerships, making life a lot easier for sellers.
We provide pricing assistance and re-pricing services that help our sellers stay competitive in a rapidly changing environment. The Internet has created a much more competitive and highly efficient market for books, and our pricing services help sellers understand the market, and respond to it in the way that’s best for them.
Alibris also provides a lot of value on the“back end” of the process. Our Seller Hub provides an integrated set of tools for processing orders, checking on payment status and getting performance metrics. We help to reduce seller costs by taking on most customer service inquiries and processing almost all returns from customers. We also absorb much of the cost of returns – our sellers today typically get back less than 50% of the product customers return to us.
How has Internet selling affected the rare and used book market? In what ways has this forced the independents to change how they do business?
The Internet has created a fundamental shift in the used and rare book business; we are all watching a revolution in progress. First, sales are up appreciably – the Internet has made it much easier for customers to find and purchase used books, and so demand has gone up.
Second, pricing has become a lot more dynamic and prices have generally gone down. While the prices of some collectible materials have gone up over the past few years, it is largely a tale of drastic reductions in prices as supply becomes more readily available to consumers. Instead of relying on what is in stock in their local shop, customers can now get instant access to millions of books through Web sites like ours, Amazon.com, BN.com, Half.com and others.
By creating easier cataloging and pricing tools, the market also opened up to a number of other suppliers ranging from people cleaning out their basements to large warehouse operations.
This influx of supply has been largely met by the growth in demand – but only if you price your books to the market. We don’t often like that market price ourselves, but the laws of supply and demand definitely hold true on the internet.
Some booksellers have adjusted to this better than others, but since most of them make most of their sales off books that aren’t collectible, keeping prices current is typically the single largest challenge.
In a Tech Nation radio interview this year, Martin Manley described Alibris as the "Kelly Blue Book of book selling.” Can you explain what that means?
The Kelly Blue Book continually compiles and analyzes data that reflects market prices for used cars. Our Pricing Service is designed to help sellers do the same for used books. We gather current market data from our sellers, Amazon.com and other business partners and analyze the data. We then provide sellers with tools that allow them to access this information in a number of ways and to choose how they adapt their prices in response to that information.
Sellers can look up the market price of a particular book or review their inventory in a number of different ways. The sellers who use it the most effectively, though, have turned on the “automated re-pricing” version of the service – they define the criteria by which they want to manage their prices, and then we re-price the books for them periodically.
Sellers who use the Pricing Service have seen 50-100% growth in revenue in the first month or so of its use; even after “catching up” sellers who regularly use the service to re-price will grow 20-40% faster than their peers.
The Pricing Service we developed for sellers is the same technology that underlies our own books in terms of how we price to the market.
Who can sell books via Alibris? How much does it cost for an independent to become part of Alibris?
Anybody can sell books via Alibris; we prefer professional sellers and insist that sellers meet performance standards in terms of fill rate and customer satisfaction elements.
We have a $20 initial signup fee. We do this largely to prevent fraudulent sellers from signing up and to defray the initial startup costs. We are a very cost effective source of book sales.
On the surface it would seem that Amazon.com would be your competition, yet Alibris obviously works closely with Amazon. Can you explain the relationship and how it works?
Alibris helps sellers and business partners by bringing them together in efficient ways. Sellers who sign up with Alibris have access to our Amazon.com partnership but also Barnes & Noble, Borders, Books-A-Million, Borders, Indigo/Chapters, Ingram Book Group and others. A number of library distributors and other wholesalers use us as well.
Alibris brings to these partners a broader selection than they would build themselves, and provides management of a large and diverse network of sellers. Our inventory management and pricing tools mean that more books get sold and fulfilled than if these partners were trying to set up systems to work with each of these sellers independently – and if the sellers had to try to keep their inventory up to date on over a dozen different Web sites!
Is your web site your main marketing tool or do you advertise? If so, where do you advertise and why?
We generate sales for our sellers through a number of different methods. For our Web site, we do a fair amount of online advertising through sites like Google, we participate in a number of the online shopping comparison sites and we do a lot of customer marketing through newsletters, promotions, bookmarks and other materials. Our customers give us very high marks for our service and the experience – and a high percentage of our customers say that they would recommend Alibris to a friend.
We also generate sales by building our business partnerships. Sometimes this takes the form of adding new partners, but often it is making improvements to current partnerships that help grow sales for all involved. An example would be the changes we made recently to our relationship with Indigo in Canada that allowed them to reduce their prices and improve ship times on their Web site.
Alibris also buys remainders, overstocks, private collections, correct?
We have a warehouse in Sparks, Nevada (next door to Reno) where we hold our inventory as well as process books for a number of customers who prefer shipment consolidation, like libraries. We purchase books on our own account and take some on consignment as well. We have nearly a million books in the warehouse, but like to sell those faster than we put them on the shelves so we don’t intend to grow the number for that sake.
Do you attend trade shows? If so, which ones and why is having a presence at trade shows important to Alibris?
We attend a number of different types of trade shows. We attend book industry trade shows like BEA, CIROBE and The Spring Show to recruit sellers and publishers. We attend some of the specialist antiquarian trade shows and we attend over a dozen library trade shows a year.
Trade shows are a way to recruit sellers and buyers, but more importantly they are a way for folks to put a face or two to the name, and an opportunity for us to get some one-on-one time with our customers. We do surveys of consumers and sellers, but you lose a lot of richness when you ask someone to fill in a form versus engaging them in a conversation.
Is there anything else you would like our readers to know about Alibris?
Feedback is always welcome – from sellers, customers, partners or just interested folks. We’re always working on “what’s next”and looking at how we prioritize the work we do to benefit our customers – sellers and consumers. If you’re a customer, write to us at email@example.com; if you’re a seller, write in to firstname.lastname@example.org with ideas.
Whom should they contact if they want to sell books via Alibris?
You can sign up by going to http://sellers.alibris.com/why.cfm or writing to us at email@example.com.
Maryellen Duckett is a Tennessee-based freelance writer for National Geographic Traveler, Family Fun, and On the Road with Hampton magazines. She and her husband, Randall, are co-authors of the family travel books 100 Secrets of the Smokies and 100 Secrets of the Carolina Coast (Rutledge Hill Press).