Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com substantially mark up out-of-print books they buy from independent booksellers--even though the latter have Web sites.
One supplier called the mark-ups "horrifying," but sales have never been better--even though many independent booksellers have their own Web sites.
"Several of the other booksellers who are selling on the Net and selling to Amazon or Barnes & Noble say the mark-ups are 70 percent or more in terms of what they are charging their customers over what they are actually paying us," said Ann Simpson, owner of 2nd Look Books in Spokane, Washington.
"We do mark up the book for the service we provide of going out and finding the book, notifying the customer, ordering the book, inspecting it, charging it on a credit card, and accepting it if they return it," said Amazon.com's Bill Curry. "All of those are value-added services that save people time and give them greater reliability in their purchase."
Curry declined to say how much Amazon adds to the purchase price of out-of-print books, but said allegations that prices are as much as 100 percent higher than other booksellers are impossible to prove without comparing identical books.
Independent bookstores say they are struggling to run profitable businesses because they are unable to compete with the low prices on Amazon and Barnesandnoble.com. Out-of-print bookstores, however, welcome the exposure and sales.
"You're either moving ahead or falling behind and I chose to move ahead," said Simpson.
Both Amazon and Barnesandnoble.com will search independent bookstores for an out-of-print book if a customer asks. Amazon accepts customer email requests and promises either a price quote or a "no luck" notice within two weeks. Barnes, on the other hand, allows users to search for books and immediately provides results including the condition of the book, the price, and the associated dealer.
Mark-ups reflect added services such as speedy delivery, which most small bookstores can't match, according to Barnesandnoble.com spokesman Ben Boyd.
If a book is too expensive, it's not going to sell, he added.
But 2nd Look Books' Simpson says there's no difference, because her site and many others also take credit cards and offer money-back guarantees. "There's nothing to be gained, if you're willing to do your own book search on the Net, by buying through Barnes & Noble instead of buying direct," she said.
2nd Look Books is a member of the Advanced Book Exchange, a service designed for the out-of-print, used, or antiquarian book buyer and seller. With more than 4,700 members, the ABE provides booksellers with Web sites and converts their inventory into a searchable database containing 6 million titles. Bookstores pay the ABE monthly fees ranging from $10 to $35, depending on the size of their inventory.
The ABE has relationships with both Barnesandnoble.com and Amazon, which independent booksellers are encouraged to join. So far, these partnerships have been "phenomenally successful," according to ABE's Cathy Waters.
"We're here to help our booksellers sell their books and we will look at different means to do that," says Waters. "The bottom line is, we need book buyers. If people are buying the books, our booksellers are happy and they stay with us."
However, some of its booksellers have found that Amazon's mark-ups can go as high as 100 percent, according to ABE.
Waters said both Barnesandnoble.com and Amazon pay an undisclosed sum for the ABE's data. The ABE tracks Barnesandnoble.com sales because the company has direct access to the ABE database, but does not monitor Amazon orders since the latter uses its own database.
Boyd declined to discuss Barnesandnoble.com's financial relationship with the ABE or say how many out-of-print books it has sold since the service was launched in September.
A few test searches seem to give credence to charges of high mark-ups.
A Barnesandnoble.com search for the book Invisible Woman by Joyce Carol Oates, for example, turned up one copy for $130 at Antic Hay Books in Asbury Park, New York.
A search for the same title at ABE found the same book at the same dealer for $30 less. The only difference is the place of purchase--but that, according to Barnesandnoble.com, makes a big difference.
Comparing prices at Amazon takes some extra effort since its results don't provide the name of the book seller. CNET News.com recently emailed Amazon a request for The Letters of Ann Fleming. The price quoted was $127 but didn't include the book's edition or condition.
The same title was available at Alibris.com for $60--meaning Amazon's price is 111 percent more. Alibris offers users a search engine containing books compiled from a network of dealers, and includes a description of the book's condition.
Booksellers say consumers aren't shopping directly at their sites simply because they don't know they exist.
"The book buyer would be wiser to become more sophisticated in their shopping, but let the buyer beware," said Simpson.
Independent bookstores plan to launch a service similar to the ABE's this summer at BookSense.com, a project backed by the American Booksellers Association.