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Bookthink: Booksellers are voicing a great deal of dissatisfaction with the larger bookselling sites. Complaints include numerous technical glitches, too much down-time, slow response to questions and problems, an overabundance of new sellers ... the list goes on. The time seems ripe for better used and rare bookselling sites to emerge. What do you think are the key factors in creating a reliable, first-class site that works well for both sellers and buyers?

Tokman: Every online company is going to have technical difficulties. It is the nature of the business and comes with the territory. If hardware fails, it fails. Thus, I feel it is not fair to criticize anyone for having downtime.

The trick is how quickly you can get back up and running and, if problems occur, how they are presented to users. I have encountered many sites where it was a standard practice to never admit that something could possibly go wrong. If users had problems, it was always the fault of the user for not following some kind of a secret ritual that led to the problem.

Basically this is an avoidance approach: "When something goes wrong, never admit that it is the site's fault; admitting this would make our site look less perfect (i.e.,. God forbid that mere mortals will realize that we are just like them)." This approach is very patronizing, and I am strongly against such policies. Folks using the site are no less (and most times much more) intelligent than I. Just the fact that I happened to learn some specialized information about computers does not mean that I can do no wrong and accidents do not happen to me.

I am a very big believer in open communication and know for a fact that anything can be explained in a clear and straightforward manner. Everyone likes to be treated with respect and with understanding that they are just as intelligent as you are. Stuff happens. That's life. Generally, people will much rather get concise, clear information and a reassurance that whatever can be done is being done, as opposed to getting a run-around or not getting any information at all.

I guess the main thing that I am trying to say is that being available to freely communicate with your sellers and address their problems in an open and clear manner is crucial to the success of the site and its sellers. Sorry for taking so long to get to the main point, but this is something about which I feel very strongly.

Bookthink: Selling sites seem to be getting massively cluttered with low-end, ex-library, and poor condition books that lend to the appearance of a rag-tag flea market. There's also the problem of sellers who are listing books for less than the price it costs to obtain, store and ship them. Do you think it might be time for one of the selling venues to experiment with raising standards, instead of lowering them? If so, do you have any ideas about how this can be accomplished?

Tokman: Yes. I definitely think that current trend in bookselling is the "race to the bottom." I see this in numerous respects: book prices, inaccurately described books, poor customer service on the part of sellers, etc. And, yes, I am convinced that bookselling venues should try to raise standards. However, it is a very complicated matter because it involves "meddling" in the way sellers run their business, something that nobody wants to do.

Well, in my humble opinion, in order to answer this question, we have to first examine reasons for the lower standards. No one argues that internet has had major effects on bookselling. I would go out on a limb to say that no other event since the invention of the printing press has had as much influence on bookselling as the popularization of online shopping (arguably, of course).

Many of these effects are very positive: creation of a global marketplato buyers, sellers having access to dramatically increased pool of customers, facilitation of commerce by means of easier searching and payment processing, etc.

Yet, at the same time there are also negative fallouts from the popularization of the internet. Mainly this involves the fact that anyone can now become a bookseller practically overnight without spending any time to acquire the necessary knowledge and expertise. This would explain most of the problems you mentioned in your question.

At ChooseBooks/ZVAB we are indeed trying to address these issues. We decided that quality is better than quantity, and thus our aim is to build a network of not just booksellers but professional booksellers. By the way, by "professional," I do not mean they have to own brick-and-mortar stores - we fully realize that the industry is changing and many people have home-based internet businesses. What I am referring to is the professionalism of how the sellers treat the customers, how accurately books are described and presented, what is the return policy, etc. - in other words, how professionally our sellers conduct their business. These are all issues that are important to us.

One of the approaches we take is careful screening of sellers. We go out of our way to assure that the booksellers fit within our "professional bookseller" heading. Before new sellers can list or register on our site, we contact them and get to know more about them. We want the level of professionalism on our site to be higher than the current industry standard. This in turn benefits buyers as well. If you are dealing with professional people who know how to describe books and package books, there are fewer surprises, fewer frustrations, fewer returns. Everybody benefits.

Having said this, I am also a realist and realize that it will take time to resolve this problem. I believe that in spite of what the site does, these problems and issues with overnight booksellers will last for a while. Selling books is not easy: finding books, describing them, packaging and shipping them, and answering questions is a lot of work. A lot of people jump into this business because they think it will be easy - just get a shelf of books together and sell them. But eventually the novelty wears off.

Soon they realize there is a lot of competition and a lot of effort involved in doing a professional job. So by natural selection, some will drop out. At first, for everybody who drops out, there may be two who jump in - and this will last for some time. But I am convinced that this phenomenon will run its course and things will eventually get back to normal. People who have devoted their life to bookselling will thrive, and the new people who are willing to learn and educate themselves and realize what the bookselling business is about will likewise succeed.

Bookthink: All businesses need new people. How do you reach the new sellers who need to be educated? How do you raise the standards to encourage professionalism?

Tokman: This is a very good question and goes hand in hand with the previous one.

I already mentioned the careful screening of new sellers that want to register. But, by itself, that is not enough. So what does one do? On one hand, and for obvious reasons, we would like to have as many sellers as possible and continue to grow. On the other hand, we want to maintain the highest quality standards.

We can take the negative approach and, as complaints come in, reprimand sellers, suspend their books, or kick them out, etc. (in other words constantly be a Bad Policeman with the Big Stick). I am sorry to say that in some instances this may be necessary. But it is not something that we want to spend our energies on and not a very efficient way to operate.

I like to take a more proactive role of education and information. Some of the problems with poor book descriptions, poor customer service, etc., come not because sellers are maliciously trying to mislead customers, but rather due to lack of knowledge (as I indicated in my answer to the previous question).

Thus, we at ChooseBooks/ZVAB make ourselves freely available to answer questions, provide information, and offer assistance to sellers. Often we are asked questions that pertain not only to ChooseBooks/ZVAB but also to general bookselling. We are always glad to offer this general information since we also benefit by increasing the knowledge level of our sellers.

Occasionally, we are informed of a problem that a buyer has with a particular seller. Instead of a rating system that lacks the personal touch, we contact the seller and offer our assistance in resolving the problem at hand and also offer our advice on how to avoid problems in the future.

At the end, we want every seller to have ample opportunity to succeed, since their success is intimately tied to our success. Some of the problems are easier to monitor than others, but we are doing our best and constantly looking for ways to improve knowledge exchange. This leads to us being able to accept more educated and professional sellers.

Bookthink: Michael, you have the reputation of having always offered dependable, courteous, and prompt technical service and advice to your booksellers. What else do you think ChooseBooks/ZVAB offers its sellers?

Tokman: We are in a competitive market with all the various listing sites out there. I believe that sooner or later, it will become a niche market. We are striving to be a leader in the rare, antiquarian, used and out-of-print book market and do it in our own way-with quality, patience, stability. A clean, simple site: you search, you look, you find the book you want and buy it - end of story. Come back again later and buy more and get the same customer care, superior service and respect. Nothing flashing, no gimmicks or things that divert your attention from book buying.

Also, as a result of ChooseBooks/ZVAB merger, we are in a unique position of being a truly international site. There are many cultural differences between North America and Europe in the way bookselling is done. We are constantly looking for ways and implementing whatever features are possible to facilitate cross-country (and cross-continent) commerce.

Basically, we have a clear vision of our goals. Along with our sellers, I am certain we will be successful in achieving it.

Bookthink: You reported that more 90% of the sellers that were with ChooseBooks prior to merger have stayed with the site through the transition. Some 1900 sellers chose to stay with you. This says a lot about the loyalty of your booksellers and we wish you continued growth and success over the months and years ahead. Thank you, Michael, for taking the time to do this interview.

Visit the site at either http://www.Choosebooks.com or http://www.ZVAB.com .

Post Script:

Old Scrolls Book Shop has been with ChooseBooks since its original launch in 2003. In a recent sample three month period we have had our inventory on ChooseBooks/ZVAB (8/01/05 to 10/31/05) we sold seven books at an average price of $11. Two books went to Germany, one to Switzerland, one to the Netherlands, and three to U.S. customers. This closely parallels our results for the same three-month period on Biblio (seven books, average sale price $12). We have approximately 6,000 books listed.

Other sellers' results may be different than ours. Although these results may seem trifling when compared to our sales numbers for the same time period on Abebooks (85 books sold) and Alibris (125 books sold), please bear in mind that the larger sites have been established for a much longer period of time. Also, ChooseBooks is temporarily not being searched by AddALL and BookFinder while work is being done on their site, and an advertising campaign will be launched when the site is finished. This should help boost sales. ChooseBooks does not charge listing fees, we have had no technical problems, no communication problems, and no returns. I enthusiastically place our inventory on smaller venues where customer care and bookseller service is excellent, as we anticipate their growth and want to be a part of a brighter future for the used & rare book trade.

Catherine Petruccione
Media Editor for BookThink and Proprietor, Old Scrolls Book Shop

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Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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