Fear and loathing over barnesandnoble.com selling antiquarian books

When Barnes and Noble opened a mega bookstore in a town, existing booksellers quaked in their boots. Things haven't changed much in cyberspace.

When Barnes and Noble opened a mega bookstore in a town, existing booksellers quaked in their boots. Things haven't changed much in cyberspace.

In a major expansion of its business, barnesandnoble.com announced Tuesday it had doubled the amount of books it's selling online by adding out of print and rare volumes.

The angst was quick in coming. "We view this as a first step in Barnes & Noble's (NYSE:BKS) attempt to corner the antiquarian book business," said Michael Selzer, who operates Bibliofind, one of the first of the out-of-print online booksellers.

The move, however, doesn't mean that Barnes & Noble, which operates a chain of 1,000 bookstores across the country under the Barnes & Noble and B. Dalton names, is suddenly going into the antiquarian book business, or that it has these books in a warehouse somewhere.

The barnesandnoble.com site features an "out of print" link on its home page that takes the user to a search engine maintained through an exclusive arrangement with Advanced Book Exchange Inc. The user enters a book title, which produces listings from antiquarian or out-of-print book dealers across the country. The user then orders the book through the Barnes & Noble site.

Barnes & Noble takes a commission of about 20 percent off the sale of these books, according to Chairman Steve Riggio.

For example, an early copy of Mark Twain's "A Tramp Abroad," offered by the Book Mall in Ventura, Calif., was selling for $154 on Advanced Book Exchange. The same book, offered by the same store, was $180.95 on the barnesandnoble.com out of print store. The user could simply save almost 20 percent by simply buying the book from the ABE book site. Riggio said the price differential was acceptable because some people are more comfortable buying from brand names and stores they know and trust. Moreover, he said, Amazon.com, which also delivers out-of-print books to customers by charging a commission, is levying a "significantly higher" fee for what amounts to the same service.

Amazon was not available for comment.

Still, the move into out of print books has some online booksellers who specialize in such titles nervous.

Fragile habitat
Selzer, who operates Bibliofind, likened the emergence of Barnes & Noble into the market as akin to "the Exxon Valdez moving into the fragile habitat of the Alaskan coast."

Selzer said the antiquarian/out of print market right now is a $500 million business, a figure Riggio concurs with. While hardly huge in comparison to the new-book business, the ability of a large company like B&N to wield its clout is formidable.

Riggio said smaller book concerns online have nothing to be afraid of. "We think the used-bookstore Web sites are fantastic, and that they will continue to thrive," he said.

Riggio said barnesandnoble.com is the sixth largest shopping site on the Web, with 800,000 customers having shopped there, and with more than 30,000 affiliate sites linking in. The site has 4 million books "in-stock."

The company also announced Tuesday an expected move into carrying music and videos. Barnes & Noble stock rose only moderately at the news, in contrast to a much bigger jump when rival Amazon.com said it would move into selling CDs and cassettes.

'Distinct niche'
Also in contrast to Amazon, Riggio said he isn't intending to compete directly with music commerce sites such as CDNow or Music Boulevard.

"We've carved out a distinct niche," he said, in classical, opera, jazz and show tunes. "We sell more Mozart than Madonna."