Written by Emily Glaser | Photos by Anthony Harden
With independent bookshops on the endangered species list and Amazon’s monopolistic presence in the marketplace a constant threat to them, Brendan Sherar’s online marketplace, Biblio, has become a significant lifeline for the booksellers.
Traditionalists may rail against the commoditization and digitization of books, classicists may decry the evolution of e-books and Amazon, but the truth is this: Books have long been big business.
Since Gilgamesh took his first, typewritten steps across the page, books have been monetized. The earliest book collectors, iconic intelligentsia like Aristotle and Plato, paid good money for their scrolls. (Plato purportedly paid a whopping 100 minae for three small treatises of Philolaus the Pythagorean.) At the height of the Roman Republic, personal libraries came in vogue, and the taberna librarii that stocked them did a booming business.
As empires rose and fell, and their missives with them, books transitioned from costly paraphernalia of the educated aristocracy into commonplace commodities. Spurred by early edicts of free speech like the Magna Carta, the invention of the printing press, and the rise of the publishing profession, a veritable industry rose from the papyrus prints of yore.
There’s a simple equation to business: Price is driven by supply and demand. Over the course of centuries, the supply of books burgeoned, and prices dropped. But industry loves scarcity, and a new trade arose to fill the void: rare books.
One of 48 Gutenberg Bibles (the first books printed on movable type) sold at Christie’s New York in 1987 for a then-record $4.9 million. Classics like Shakespeare and Chaucer have sold for upwards of $6 million, while copies of James Audubon’s Birds of America regularly auction in the $8 to $11 million range. And in 1994 Bill Gates himself paid an unfathomable $30.8 million for one of da Vinci’s scientific journals, The Codex Leicester (and shared it with the world as screen savers for Windows 95).
These may represent the apex of rare book collecting, but it’s a broad and profitable enterprise. Rare books (also called antiquarian books) are bought, sold, auctioned, and traded every day, with prices ranging from the hundreds to the thousands and, occasionally, even millions. But booksellers and book collectors are scattered across the globe; connecting them and facilitating their transactions necessitates an astute and nimble marketplace. And that is where our own rare narrative begins.
Brendan Sherar’s personal history with the business of books is multifaceted and extensive, culminating (and continuing today) with the founding of Biblio, an online marketplace that connects booksellers to book buyers, dealing largely in antiquarian finds.
That is a gross simplification of a very complex pursuit. “Rare books” alone are a bit knotty, evading conclusive definition. “Sometimes they’re old, sometimes they’re new and they’re signed, but the way we define [rare books] is as books that people want for more than just their intrinsic value,” Sherar explains. “There’s something that’s tangible about them that people want to have and hold and collect. And then when you talk about the more general books, we think about those as books that people want for the intrinsic value of the book themselves.” So a book is never collectible or rare by definition; it’s a designation assigned to it by an individual need. Again: supply, demand, price.
The community that’s arisen around this enigmatic trade is one of tight-knit traditionalists, certainly, but with the rise of digital marketing and social media, it’s also increasingly one of millennials and aesthetic collectors. With indie bookshops on the endangered species list and Amazon a plague-like monopoly, Sherar and Biblio act as mediators between bookseller and collector, as well as between one millennia of book collecting and the next.
As independent bookshops were pushed to the brink of extinction by the internet, Biblio turned the adversary into its own weapon, using the new tools provided by the internet to defeat it.
Now, back to Sherar’s multifaceted and extensive experience in the business of books.
It began when Sherar was at Park University in Kansas City, studying English and dreaming of writing the proverbial Great American Novel. Most college students are strapped for cash, and, as they say, necessity is the mother of invention. While his fellow students whiled away their hours in beer cans, the self-professed bibliophile found a way to turn a profit off his hobby in the form of book scouting.
The premise of this earliest venture was simple. “I figured out books that people wanted in Kansas City were different than books people wanted here in Asheville,” Sherar remembers. “A lot of the time you’re talking about local authors. So if I’m in Kansas City, for example, I’m looking for John Parris. He was a columnist for the Asheville Citizen-Times for years, and all of his books were out of print. So they actually went for a pretty fair penny here in Asheville, but nobody out in Kansas City cared. I’d stumble across them every now and then for like two bucks, and then come here and get $80 for them.”
It’s the kind of thrifty scheming that’s a hallmark of university-age entrepreneurs: quick flip, quick money. But unlike most collegiate money-making ploys, Sherar’s book scouting evolved into much more. Buried in inventory, the student curtailed his English degree in favor of the book business. (Sherar did recently earn a degree in economics from UNC Asheville, and says “I’ve found I’m a better data analyst than would-be novelist!”) He opened a brick-and-mortar bookstore in Waynesville, Sherar & Paige—named after himself and his wife, Tracy Paige—which operated successfully for a few years. And then the internet arrived.
To say the dot-com era affected the longstanding bookselling business is a glaring understatement. Over the past 20 years, we’ve watched giants like Borders Books topple under the deft tugs of the online vanguard of Amazon and Google. The digital behemoths dealt even harsher, swifter blows to the mom ‘n’ pop bookshops that once populated America’s Main Street—shops much like Sherar’s own early venture.
Rather than slip his neck willingly into the digital noose, Sherar used the rope to climb.
In 1998, the same year Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks turned the synthesized, chirpy “You’ve got mail” into a love line, and “the web” became a household phrase, Sherar purchased the domain name “Biblio.” As he recalls now, “I kind of knew what I wanted to do with it, having sort of toyed with the idea for a couple of years at that point. Once I had that domain name in hand, I knew I was going to go for it, although with my first child on the way, I had to resist the very real temptation to flip the name quickly for a hefty profit.”
The bookish entrepreneur had no programming skills, but aided by a friend, Michael Tracey (who remains Biblio’s CTO today), and, fittingly, books, he was able to set up the metasearch engine Biblio. “It took me a year or so to learn and master—according to my own estimation at the time—Perl, Linux, HTML, and MySQL before I could do anything. Fortunately, running an antiquarian bookstore in Waynesville affords one ample time between paying customers, and therefore ample time to pour over tech books. With Michael’s help, who will always be my senior in all things tech even though we went to the same high school parties, we launched the site—as a metasearch—in October 2000.”
Though a metasearch engine was valuable, it wasn’t Sherar’s truest vision for Biblio. Over the course of the next two years, he shifted the metasearch engine to SearchBiblio, repurposing the Biblio name for a new venture and his long-term goal. In February 2003, Biblio launched as a marketplace.
A marketplace is distinctly different from a metasearch engine, though both facilitate transactions between buyer and seller. A metasearch engine aggregates listings from sites like Biblio and its competitors, whereas a marketplace (as Biblio is today, and has been since 2003) connects the bookseller and customer directly. They’re still the middleman, but a much more conspicuous and appreciable one.
With characteristic volubility, Sherar speedily dictates his laymen’s explanation: “As a marketplace, you have a direct relationship with both the customer and the bookseller (the supplier). So [Biblio’s] relationship with the supplier is [they’re] sending us their list of books for sale, and we’re doing customer service for them and collecting payments that we remit to them, so there’s an ongoing relationship there. And on the customer end, you know customers are actually conducting a transaction on our site and paying for the books right there. Whereas in a metasearch that’s kind of abstracted: Somebody comes, they do a search, and they go off to another site that basically coordinates that transaction.”
Sherar may have been among the first entrepreneurs to digitize the book market with both early iterations of Biblio, but he was certainly not the only one, and his predecessors and contemporaries, in some ways, compromised the marketplace. “It’s taken us a long time to find a place in the bookseller community because of some moves that were made early in the dot-com era in the book industry that really sort of marginalized a lot of sellers and left them pretty disaffected and distrustful of sites like ours,” Sherar says.
Over the past 15 years, the Biblio team has intentionally cultivated positive relationships with booksellers the world over, amending some of those reservations. “One of the things that’s kind of a hallmark of our business is we’ve been very bookseller-centric, in terms of keeping that relationship positive and productive for the booksellers; whereas I think a lot of the markets they work in, it’s kind of the opposite. They’re always the ones who are squeezed by policies or commissions or something like that. That’s generated a pretty significant amount of goodwill for us over the years.”
Since finding their niche and building their customer base through trust and transparency, Biblio’s path has remained fairly straight and narrow—though Sherar and his now seven-person team did make the occasional detour; a mid-2000s venture in direct bookselling found them with a warehouse on Riverside Drive stocked with deaccessioned materials from the Brooklyn Public Library’s special collections, like hefty, 16th century elephant folios. “It was pretty clear to us that we really needed to drop back and focus on what we were really good at, and trust booksellers to be good at what they do,” Sherar concludes.
As noted above, Biblio is a marketplace, and within that marketplace there are three distinct sectors: reading copies, textbooks, and rare books. Combining all three sectors, Biblio serves as a marketplace for approximately 5,500 booksellers (from large textbook sellers to single small-town shops to avid collectors), moving some 80 to 100 million books at any given time. The price of those books can range from a humble dollar bill to a small (or, by most standards, large) fortune. In 2017 Biblio processed, on average, north of 26,000 transactions per month.
Like most similar marketplaces, Biblio pays its bills through commission. The commission schedule adjusts slightly to different scenarios and sales, but averages at about 19 percent. That being said, Biblio also adheres to a self-instituted $40 cap—so even if they facilitate the sale of a million-dollar book (which is unlikely, but a good example for the sake of this argument), their commission would be roughly the same as with the sale of a book priced at $200.
Though they are all books, each segment of Biblio’s marketplace is unique and necessitates a different approach. As Sherar noted earlier, a regular book is desired for its intrinsic value. With reading copies, buyers generally want a decent copy at a decent price. The rise of the internet and digitization—and their byproducts, like self-publishing and e-books—has undoubtedly affected the market for regular books, but even so, it is a notable part of Biblio’s business today, with thousands of books listed on the site for less than $2.
The textbook market is another one that’s shifting rapidly with the advent of modern technological conveniences. Despite competition in the form of other used textbook sellers (like Amazon and CampusBooks) and rental companies (like Chegg), as well as the edacious innovations of the textbook industry itself (more on that later), Biblio remains a familiar name on the textbook circuit. “I think that is driven largely by the prices we charge to sellers,” Sherar points out. “The people who are selling textbooks are pretty sophisticated when it comes to playing to margins, so they look at it and they realize that there’s a marginal advantage to selling a book on Biblio, because they pay a little less. So they cut their prices a little bit to encourage more sales here and fewer on Amazon. Obviously it doesn’t displace Amazon—they’re still the major marketplace—but I think it does help carve out a little niche for us.”
Compared to regular and textbook sales on Biblio, which are dictated by seasonal whims and have generally declined over the past decade, the antiquarian book market on the site has actually swelled. It’s to that market that Biblio owes its comprehensive growth, with profits steadily ticking upwards on the dog-eared pages of collectibles.
As Sherar pointed out earlier, it is impossible to actually define a rare book by any measurable standards, but nonetheless it’s a profitable business. Allen Singleton, COO, notes that there is a “sweet spot” for rare books on Biblio. “It’s pretty unusual for us to sell a book that’s over $10,000,” he says. “That kind of jumps out. It’s fairly common to see sales that are in that $500 to $2,000 or $3,000 range for rare books.” And though he can’t allocate a percentage of the 80 million books on the site that are “rare,” it is safe to say that the profits from those sales make up the majority of profits for the company.
In addition to being lucrative, the rare book market is also, simply put, cool. They may not have a warehouse full of elephant folios, but they do house the digital listings of thousands of really unique tomes. Each of Biblio’s employees can cite a half dozen memorable sales. For Marketing Director Amber Shehan, one that stands out is a $10,000 signed copy of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity that sold through the site shortly after she was hired. One-of-a-kind manuscripts, ancient illuminated prayer books, and the signatures of acclaimed novelists arrive in their inboxes daily (digitally, at least).
Both Biblio’s rare and regular/textbook markets take on a formidable rival in the form of Amazon. “Our biggest competitor is AbeBooks. They’ve been owned by Amazon since 2008, so our biggest competitors in the book market are Amazon and Amazon,” Shehan points out, with a laugh. Like Biblio, AbeBooks deals in a variety of book sectors. Other competitors include Alibris (a site that also hocks now-archaic “music and movies”), and another powerhouse: eBay. While the model is different from Biblio’s, eBay is nonetheless a striking adversary.
Though Biblio performs primarily as a marketplace, they do extend into auxiliary ventures. For example, the metasearch engine BookGilt acts as the modern day offspring of SearchBiblio’s earliest iteration, and Biblio also serves as a kind of foster parent, hosting, developing, and maintaining white label sites for professional trade organizations like the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America and the Independent Online Booksellers Association.
It’s a simple yet complex web that Biblio has weaved. At its core, the system is the same one Plato purchased those Pythagorean scripts through centuries ago, just hastened by the advent and manipulation of the digital age.
A NEW EDITION
Since its inception, Biblio has capitalized on the fundamental incongruities between the archaic business of books and the thoroughly modern digital marketplace, landing the venture in the midst of a mess of juxtapositions. As independent bookshops were pushed to the brink of extinction by the internet, Biblio turned the adversary into its own weapon, using the new tools provided by the internet to defeat it.
Biblio uses a host of modern techniques to sell old things, a profitable contradiction in itself. For example, it is from Google that Biblio currently earns some 95 percent of its customers. But Google also nearly induced the downfall of Biblio.
Shehan refers to it as “The Great and Powerful Google” because the search engine and its algorithms have the ability to grant sites like Biblio prosperity, pardon, or failure, seemingly arbitrarily. Though Biblio sailed through the Great Recession, their own slump came just a few years later, spurred entirely by the fickle mood of Google.
“We were heavily reliant on organic traffic, and you have no control over that,” Sherar remembers. “So one day you can be making bank, and Google is sending you all the traffic, and then for whatever capricious reason, you just disappear. And that happened for us in 2010.” They managed to right the ship and return to Google’s good graces, but then Sherar and his team faced the same situation again in 2013. “[Google] completely lacks any transparency over the ‘why,’ or what really goes into it,” he adds.
When their hits and click-throughs take an inexplicable hit, Sherar and Singleton frantically alter aspects of their site to try to make amends to the Great and Powerful Google. “During those periods, we’ll get together and we’ll go, ‘Maybe they’re doing this,’ and then you burn the chicken bones and we make the changes, and then you just kind of bite your nails and wait three days to see if anything will change,” Singleton jokes. Still, it is a serious situation, and one that was nigh-on impossible to combat.
Recently, Google changed its system to prioritize paid placement over organic—which Biblio has turned to its advantage. “It sounds like we would hate that, because now we have to pay for stuff, but it actually gives us more control over it, so it’s not something that just hits us for no apparent reason,” Sherar says.
Biblio has learned to play the Google game in other ways, too, as they constantly refine their site to be more SEO savvy, like with their rare book guide. “We have had a blog for a good long time,” Shehan says, noting that the blog was always a valuable resource for readers—but not necessarily for Biblio. “We realized the most popular blog posts that we had were some of the ones written on book care, book conservation, book value—so people were Googling and searching and finding those resources, but never going from the blog onto the site.” By migrating those popular articles to the Biblio website into a comprehensive book collecting guide, Shehan ensured that traffic was capitalized on. A pool of freelance writers, including experienced booksellers, collectors, conservators, and librarians, regularly adds to the guide, establishing Biblio as an expert in the field and simultaneously promoting their SEO ranking.
Google is not the only technological tool in their arsenal. Biblio is also actively invested in social media. Like most businesses, Biblio’s social media accounts establish and promote their brand, but they do much more than that, too, fostering connection with old and new collectors. Biblio’s community of buyers and sellers use platforms like Twitter and Facebook to communicate directly: “A lot of our followers help each other find books they’re looking for, just because they enjoy that sort of thing,” Shehan says. And with an emerging network of #bookstagrams and #shelfies, Biblio is able to tap into a new generation of bibliophiles on Instagram. Though many of these millennial book collectors (and booksellers) are more interested in aesthetics, the business is the same: They want to buy books, and Biblio can help facilitate that sale.
Even as Biblio deftly employs modern technology to bolster their business, the foundations of the enterprise remain wholly vested in old fashioned convictions like great service. Multiple employees dedicate themselves to the customer service sector of Biblio, answering the questions and qualms of book collectors and booksellers alike and serving as mediator when problems arise. They also help booksellers navigate unfamiliar technological territory: “There’s a good portion of the antiquarian bookseller world that is not”—Shehan pauses, carefully selecting the words—“technologically savvy.”
And, always, the Biblio staff pays due respect to both parties involved. “We don’t just brute-force-policy the booksellers. It’s their business that they’ve been running for a long time; they’re trusting us to represent them in a way. So we want to have rules that protect the customers, but also allow [booksellers] their autonomy because they’re the experts,” Shehan says. As Sherar mentioned, booksellers have been hoodwinked and swindled by the web for decades, and Biblio deliberately offers them a different experience. The site even offers the bookseller’s contact information, effectively facilitating transactions off-site. “You can browse their inventory on Biblio, but we provide all the information necessary, their hours and address if they’re a brick-and-mortar, and encourage people to go there.”
It is not necessarily an old-fashioned concept, but Biblio’s structure is also strikingly equitable, and its employees are invested in the company, both literally and figuratively. Though founder and CEO Sherar is still a majority shareholder, owning two-thirds of the business, COO Singleton and CTO Tracey, both of whom have long histories as employees of the enterprise, are both shareholder/partners in Biblio. Most of the rest of the staff are also shareholders or have vested stock options.
“I wouldn’t be where I am if it weren’t for the rest of my team, and I’m really proud to work with them and that they also have a stake in our success along the way,” Sherar, who dubs himself the “reluctant frontman,” adds, “If you’ll permit me a moment of reflection, the savviest business moves I believe I’ve ever made have been in investing shares of my company in really smart, really good people. That’s something that founders are often loathe to do, and I think that’s often to their own detriment.”
The Biblio model is soundly modern, but also wholesome in the vein of old-school, small-town shops.
“A narrowing of the market advantages us, because that’s going to make it a whole lot less interesting for a large player like Amazon to really devote a whole lot of energy and resources to it as a segment,” Sherar shrewdly predicts. “There’s a pretty big barrier to entry, in terms of the cost to get into the business we’re in… It just doesn’t make as much sense for new interest to come in and try to take some market.”
“The challenge of this business is you’re constantly having to evolve, and so you don’t get a whole lot of chances to say, ‘Wow, I found a formula that works, so now I’ll just ride that,’ which is a downside. I was complaining this morning about just why can’t things be stable for 10 minutes and, like, coast,” Sherar’s palms land tensely on the table before he sits back with a sigh. “But at the same time, stagnancy’s not really fun either, so it’s fun to be involved in a dynamic business.”
As Sherar points out, being a digital business necessitates constant, swift change and evolution. The Biblio of today is decidedly different from the Biblio of 2003—for example, there are now Biblio sites for the overseas English, Australian, and New Zealand markets (Biblio.co.uk, Biblio.com.au, Biblio.co.nz)—and perhaps even more different from the Biblio of the future.
Though the majority of those impending changes are largely unpredictable, there are a few on the horizon that the Biblio team is already preparing for. One? “The end of textbooks,” Shehan posits. Textbook manufacturers are shifting their industry into e-books and online education, as expected, but they’re also making it impossible for students to cheaply recycle used textbooks. They change the editions every year, forcing professors to assign new books annually. Even from one semester to another, used textbooks lose a large portion of their value because the access code for online materials is applicable for one student only.
The expiration of the textbook sector is one change Biblio’s long anticipated, though, and built into their business model. “We’ve made a really deliberate decision over the years to not take that money for granted or really build it into our thinking for budgeting and how we spend, because it could just be gone tomorrow,” he adds.
What intimidates Sherar is the new, younger emerging market. “I think the demographic shift is probably one of the biggest challenges we have ahead of us, as that traditional collector begins to age out and along with them the booksellers that serve that market. You have new people coming in, and some of them are kind of coming in that traditionalist vein… but I’m not sure all the people coming in have the same sort of expectations for this type of business or model or type of thing they collect, and I think that’s the big challenge for us.”
This new generation of collectors—those interested in aesthetics or nostalgia over content—is a new, complex puzzle for Biblio, but certainly not an impassable one. “That nostalgia thing is real, and people are looking specifically for exact copies that they remember,” Shehan counters. “I think as long as that exists, there will be a market for antiques and collectibles, specifically in the world of books.”
If one thing’s for certain, it’s that the book market will continue to change and, most likely, wane—but even that may be an advantage for Biblio. “A narrowing of the market advantages us, because that’s going to make it a whole lot less interesting for a large player like Amazon to really devote a whole lot of energy and resources to it as a segment,” Sherar shrewdly predicts. “There’s a pretty big barrier to entry, in terms of the cost to get into the business we’re in… It just doesn’t make as much sense for new interest to come in and try to take some market. So I think for us, in a way, paradoxically, if that market narrows a little bit, it may actually help us.”
2017 was the best year for Biblio to date: more sales, more money, more success. Biblio’s adaption to and mining of the unavoidable shift of their markets proves, as the great, early book collector Aristotle once said, “Change in all things is sweet.”
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