Monday, July 17, 2006

A tale of two booksellers

On a July day in 1975, a graduate student at the University of Michigan walked into an office and paid the fee to become a business. His desire was to make difficult to obtain non-domestic books available to students and scholars in biblical studies and ancient Near Eastern studies living in the US. He had no desire to get rich and no delusions of world domination :) His first "catalogs" were mimeographed sheets of paper. Gradually his reach spread; the catalogs became more professional, the number of titles more expansive. Eventually he began to publish, initially reprints, but then original works. The business became better known and scholars in biblical studies and ancient Near Eastern studies would drool over the catalogs, circling the items they wanted (I know I did!). Along came the Internet; it was an obvious move to create an online presence for the catalog business. Today it has a worldwide reach.

In late 1994, when the Internet was starting to become a hot item, another young man had an idea. This young man wasn't interested in serving the academic community, he worked for a hedge fund and was more interested in crunching numbers. He thought that there would be a potential for an Internet bookstore. He managed to convince investors and proceeded to lose more money in 3 years than the first person in our story had ever made in his life. Eventually, through selling at a loss, the Internet bookstore had a huge following. It expanded into other areas and patented an idea that didn't seem like it deserved a patent—one click ordering. Because of the millions of dollars that this company managed to lose, they became synonomous in many people's minds with books. People ceased to even think of other bookstores, it was as if they had disappeared from the planet. This company then raised their prices on all except hot sellers and began making money. But, people didn't notice that the prices had been raised. They started to treat this website as Book in Print. If it wasn't listed there, it didn't exist.

Meanwhile, the first person in our story continued to sell and publish books for the academic community. His prices for published books remained reasonable and all other books were sold at a fair price—a practice that is still going on today. He gets to attend academic conferences around the world and interact with other scholars. He is respected by the academic community and employs about 20 people, including me.

What is the moral of this story? I don't know if there is one. It is just the story of two people with entirely different dreams and purposes. Both have succeeded in doing what they set out to do. Of course, the question is, which would you rather support? That's your decision. I confess I occasionally buy from the other guy, some books are out of the ANE/biblical studies field and bookstores are few and far between in this town.

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