Abebooks is something of an astonishing place. According to the 2004 publication A Portrait of the U.S. Used Book Market - or at least that's what they cite for these statistics - 39.2% of Internet book sales are through Abebooks, and 78.8% of Internet booksellers sell through Abebooks.

I suspect that they are not counting "affiliate" booksellers, the many people and organizations out there who sell books on their website through Amazon.com or Powell's Books for a tiny cut of the often-nonexistent sales. Nevertheless, in a market seemingly dominated by one giant retailer, these numbers are very impressive.

Even more so is their method of selling books. Abebooks is a book search site which networks 12,000 used book suppliers across the world, from New Zealand, South Africa, Great Britain, and many other countries. You can search for the book you want in stores all over the world, find the lowest price and see if that book is in good condition, and search that particular bookstore's inventory to see if any of the other books you want are there so you can cut down on shipping.

But that's not all they offer....

Textbook Central

Like the half.com of my.... five years ago, Abebooks has a special section offering college textbooks at drastically reduced prices. Instead of the mysteriously slashed prices and eventual merger with online corporate giants, however, Abebooks' textbook area is an ingenious reshuffling of their normal service. As with the main area of the site, users can search by title, subject, et cetera, and get search results from hundreds of independent bookstores ranked with the lowest price first.

There are several similar but special features in the textbook area. For one, they provide a list of essential texts such as Cliffs Notes, and a way to browse textbooks by academic subject. For another, shoppers are encouraged to resell their old texbooks through Abebooks.

This is not quite like taking them to the university bookstore and getting five dollars for the two books that they still want; you can sell any of your books here, and someone is bound to need them somewhere in the world. The catch is that here, you are becoming a real bookseller just like any bookstore, and so there is a monthly fee of $25.00. On the other hand, a hardy band of college students with no desire to retain what they learned could easily split the fee and sell a dormful of books online.

Special Orders

Special orders are treated strangely in the online world. In a milieu where anything can be (and is) sold, the dominant attitude toward special orders seems to be "Hey, we sell what we sell. You want something else, go to eBay."

Amazon.com, for example, created an auction site to mimic eBay and points many of its shoppers there. They list practically every book out there, whether it is out of print, published only by a small press in Muskogee, or the current number one bestseller in the United States. They carry, however, only a fraction of these. It is very common to see a book on their search results page listed as "Out of Stock" or "Limited Availability," but with an order page claiming "Availability: Usually ships within 1-2 business days." Shoppers who try to order these books often find that they are told the book is back ordered and never receive it, or have their order canceled entirely without warning.

In a normal offline "bricks and mortar" bookstore, one can go up to the counter, ask for a book, order it if it's not in, and receive it in no more than a few days, with no fee for shipping. Online, many such bookstores will still place and fill such orders, and are quite communicative about any changes in the status of the order.

Abebooks does something a little different. Since they are basically just searching the inventories of hundreds of booksellers, they can't really perform special orders on books. But they have come up with an alternative: the Want List. Customers can put any book on the Want List; new booksellers and people thinking about becoming booksellers are encouraged to see whether they have any of the books so listed, and other booksellers are encouraged to check the list as their inventory is updated.

Fun Stuff

One of the nice things about independent stores of all kinds is their creativity and individuality. Despite being a network of stores rather than a store itself, Abebooks is no stranger to this culture. They frequently have unique deals and interesting information on their site.

For example, at the time of this rewriting, they have a segment called "On this day in history." Today it says, "August 10: On this day in 1912, Virginia Stephen, 30, marries Leonard Woolf, 31, at a registry office in London."

They also announce a sale: the Penguin Books folks have released 5,000 collectible editions of their classics series in the United Kingdom, which are all available exclusively through Abebooks. And alongside this, they wish Enid Blyton a happy birthday, along with her 600 books.

And around all this glitz and glamour, they have community forums, a Spanish-language section, areas to browse, and book recommendations on subjects like career planning. Like many online booksellers, they also provide a "reading room" with suggestions and reviews; an affiliates program where a bookstore or reader can sell books through their own site; and online ordering through PayPal.

Unlike most bookstores, however, they also provide a way for small, independent booksellers to reach a wider audience, incidentally providing a much larger pool of books to look through in the process. I guess it's another victory for socialism.

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