BOOKTHINK: I know there has been quite an uproar over this issue, especially from many brick & mortar booksellers, understandably, because most of them are already invested in, and set up for, processing cards. Have you lost sellers from that category because of the change?
CONNORS: I can say we did lose a few sellers after the announcement. But I can also say that we've had some of those sellers return, and we are very happy to have them back.
BOOKTHINK: Do you think it's possible that, as more independent actions are taken away from booksellers - some booksellers think there is a trend in this direction - such as customer contact and ability to process their own credit card transactions, sites which go that route might find their seller base changing? Might they be left with booksellers who don't care about being knowledgeable and offering professional service to their customers because they don't want customer contact or the responsibility of handling transactions? The question, really, is this: As it gets easier for booksellers to let the site handle everything, does the site then evolve into a repository for booksellers who are just in it for a brief time, who just want to check their site once in awhile and collect the cash?
CONNORS: We don't ever, ever want that to happen. We don't want to lose our professional booksellers, so we are not going to do anything we feel is going to jeopardize that. Just the contact - allowing the contact between buyer and seller, really is all about customer service. We at ABE can't offer that because we don't have the book, and we are not the expert. That's what our booksellers are: They are the experts on the book, they are offering that superior service, and they are independent professional business people. We want to facilitate that communication. We want to make it an experience so that a customer sitting behind the computer feels like they are in the bookstore, but they don't have to fly over to England or fly across the states or wherever the book is, even if it's down the street. They can have that personal interaction with a professional bookseller and conduct a business transaction and have all that full service by going through our site.
We are out there marketing the service, and we're out there building the technology, but at the end of the day, the customer is walking into your store, and they are expecting professional service. , So for us to take that away would be a disservice to the customer and the bookseller. It wouldn't make any sense to turn into this giant engine isn't going to benefit any of us. We know that our uniqueness is our core rare, antiquarian, used, out-of-print category - we know that. That's what makes us different: We're independent book stores, we have people who love books, and we have collectors that come to our site and are faithful and send kudos and congratulatory emails about our booksellers each and every day. For us to say, "Forget all that, we're going to shut down that contact and that service," would mean that we're destined to not be in the business of selling fine books.
BOOKTHINK: For many years, Abe has been the go-to place for serious book collectors and professional booksellers. Has the focus of the site changed more toward newer sellers, newer books, cheaper books?
CONNORS: That's a question that we are asked quite often. One of the reasons we are asked this is because a couple of years ago we launched into new books. For many years we had a limitation that we didn't allow new books on our site. Now that sounds great, except that when we surveyed our customers and asked them if they buy new books, as well as used books, the answer was "Yes." And when we asked them where they bought them, the answer was, "Not on Abebooks, but we sure would love to be able to buy them there." So they were going elsewhere to buy new books and we knew that we had to bring new books onto the platform.
It didn't mean our focus was changing. We just wanted to add new books to the mix. Our focus has remained the same - our core, again, is antiquarian, used, out-of-print & rare books. As far as going after and acquiring new booksellers on our site, we are looking for the niche market - for instance, we need more textbooks to serve the student market, or more books in the cookbook area. We aren't recruiting everyone with a harlequin romance novel to sell on our site. We are very particular about who joins our site, and we are not in an anxious mode to increase the number of sellers. We want to retain our core customer group, and we are focusing on retention. And going international is a lot of our focus, as far as acquiring more booksellers and getting more books on our site.
BOOKTHINK: Can you give us an idea of the average book sale price on Abebooks and also speak to the frustration of some sellers in trying to compete with $1 sellers. It throws a monkey wrench into the works for sellers who are trying to be selective about books, put high quality books and service online. Even though it may cost a little more, when the customer gets the book, they are going to be happy because the book is clean, well described, and safely packaged.
CONNORS: I can't give you exactly what our average sale price is, except to say that it is in the double digits. We sell books for $1 every day, but we also sell books for thousands of dollars - every day. And our average book price hasn't been declining. It has remained steady. It's one thing to have a selection online that includes $1 books, but it's another knowing our customer base. Our customer base is the older, affluent, well-educated, steady book buyer who loves books. It's not the very low-end booksellers we are trying to attract. I believe it will be helpful in the future when we can showcase the booksellers who take the time to have quality listings. This will come in the form of seller ratings, and showcasing a little more about the booksellers, including their association affiliations and things of that nature.
BOOKTHINK: How has the loss of your selling partnership with Barnes & Noble and Amazon affected sales?
CONNORS: Closing the partnership with Barnes & Noble and Amazon meant we could focus more of our efforts on actually fine-tuning our marketplace. All the things I've been talking about - seller tools, re-doing our infrastructure, coming up with ways of improving our search - were really difficult when we had to constantly maintain partnerships with these other sites. They are great business partners, no question about that, but the bottom line is we'd much rather facilitate a sale through Abebooks than from another market. We had a very small number of sales coming through those channels, so the benefits far outweighed the drawbacks in that closure. From our perspective, it was a wise decision, and this has given us the resources to do all that we've wanted to do.
BOOKTHINK: Do you have any new plans for attracting buyers to your site, aside from the coupon promotion you mentioned earlier?
CONNORS: There are all kinds of new enhancements that are going to be coming out - improvements on the coupons, improvements on bringing new buyers. Our big focus in marketing is in bringing new buyers to our site. The international expansion, a huge advertising campaign that went with our tenth anniversary, our contest with a drawing for a prize of a trip for two to ten cities around the world - we had a heavy advertising campaign around that. It's been in the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, U.K., and we've been in the New York Times, The New Yorker, The Guardian, so it's all about really getting out there into the advertising world not only off-line, but online. And again, getting into the different blogs and Yahoo and Google. It's all about heavily marketing our site to bring book buyers but staying true to our core, being all about books, and continuing to promote that we are the world's largest online marketplace for books and independent booksellers.
BOOKTHINK: You allow sellers to set their own shipping fees on the site. Recently there was a lot of discussion about the "Free Shipping" banner on the home page at ABE which leads potential buyers to those booksellers who offer free shipping. Can you tell us how this has been working out and give us your take on how you see shipping fees entering into the equation on selling sites?
CONNORS: One of the reasons we did that is that we are very proud of the shipping matrix that we've come up with. This gives booksellers the opportunity to compete on shipping. Booksellers don't necessarily have to compete on the book price. So the thought was, why not offer shipping at what you're paying and use that as a mechanism? We have to compete with other sites, and some of the other sites are offering free shipping, not on their booksellers' books, but only on their own books. We wanted to offer our booksellers a chance to compete. We have this really powerful tool, the shipping matrix, and we let booksellers set their own prices. We have some booksellers who have always offered free shipping, and we never promoted them. We hadn't done anything with that. We didn't even display the shipping, so we thought, why can't we give them a tool to join an optional program to promote their books in a free shipping group and see how that works? Definitely, there are some improvements we can make, and we have plans for that - for example, by giving you the option to perhaps segment off a section of your inventory for free shipping instead of all of your books if you so choose.
The free shipping promotion has worked extremely well. It's a very steady program, and we have very high standards for the sellers that enter into the program. A lot of customers are pleased with the free shipping and are very, very happy with it. The majority of the booksellers who have participated seem to be happy with it, and some of them are doing exceptionally well. It's not for everyone. There are different segments of booksellers out there, and where it may not make sense to have free shipping on one type of book, it does make sense on another. In the future we want to be able to give you the tools to offer a catalog of books where free shipping is available.
It's interesting because we do have different promotions available for booksellers. In our newsletters, we say, "Hey, if you want to be featured on our home page, let us know." We don't get a lot of people taking advantage of that, and it's free! We try to encourage people to let us know if they have a book they want to have featured, to see what's coming up and let us know about it. We'd like to have a look at it and include you.
BOOKTHINK: Tell us about the recent acquisition of BookFinder by ABE and what effect it may have on booksellers.
CONNORS: We acquired BookFinder in November of 2005. It's an online price comparison shopping site for books. It continues to operate independently, and the acquisition has had no effect on booksellers whatsoever except in a positive light. BookFinder was recently revamped to include the shipping price on all of the listings. The advantage, of course, is that it is actually showing the seller's shipping price on each listing.
We've known the owners of BookFinder for many, many years and have had a very strong relationship even prior to the acquisition. One of the exciting things coming up is that BookFinder will be at Frankfurt Book Fair this year, and we will be rolling out the international platforms at BookFinder. So you'll be hearing more about it. That's another advantage for our booksellers - more promotion of all the sites under the BookFinder banner.
BOOKTHINK: What do you think your site does best for booksellers?
CONNORS: I would say it's that we bring in high value customers. That's one of the biggest benefits for booksellers in a book-focused marketplace. We also offer flexibility for booksellers through things such as the shipping matrix, the marketing and other tools that we offer. So those are the biggest benefits. It's our customers. We don't just bring in one-time customers looking for an inexpensive book. We have high value customers that are heavy buyers. From the buyer's side, I would say it's our vast selection of quality books from quality booksellers.
BOOKTHINK: I would add the frequency of your reimbursements to booksellers is better than from a lot of other sites.
CONNORS: Ah, there you go. That is a big one. I love it that you remind me of that. I just take it as a given - of course we pay you. It's your money!
BOOKTHINK: Given that Abebooks has to please book buying customers as well as booksellers, how would you respond to those who say Abebooks is not responsive to the needs of its booksellers?
CONNORS: I'd say that we are very responsive to the needs of booksellers. But we have to balance the needs of book buyers and sellers, as you say, but not just one group of booksellers. We have different segments with different needs and requirements. And we have to make sure that we are doing the best job for everyone concerned. The bottom line is that we want to make the books findable so the customers coming to the site can find them and buy them.
We do listen. We go over and above. We do everything we can to hear and communicate with our booksellers through our Forums, our monthly Roundtables -we'd love it if more people came to the Roundtables. We love to talk to people. It's something we really encourage people to join in on. We have the Bookseller Newsletter. We go out on the road. We're always visiting at different book fairs, and we're going to be doing more of that this year, so you'll be seeing more of me and my team. We have our 1Q and 1A - we have a very strong customer support team with our 1-800 number, and we measure the quality of that service on an ongoing basis.
The Bookseller Advisory Group has over 800 members who have joined, so it's a very strong group, and its membership is climbing. We encourage more people to join because we are constantly going out there with new products and services we are going to be offering. Right now, in front of the Bookseller Advisory Group, we have a policy discussion, we have HomeBase for Beta testers, and we are coming out with our new Browse that we want to get advice on. So these are things that, if you become part of the Bookseller Advisory Group, we are asking for your feedback, and we want it and value it.
We can't always implement your suggestions because sometimes not everybody agrees. Sometimes people will think we didn't listen, but it's not that we didn't listen. It's that we can't always go forth with what one group says or what a couple of individuals say. We try to do what's best for the business, and what's best is to make it a thriving site that we can grow internationally and bring more sales.
BOOKTHINK: What advice would you offer to online booksellers who want to succeed. What do you think is most crucial to success in today's marketplace?
CONNORS: From my perspective, there are a couple of key ingredients. Make sure that you clearly describe your books and that you are careful in describing them. Include pictures. In the online world, people don't have the benefit of touching the product. What they want to do is to be able to get as much essence of that book as they can just by looking at the listing. Offer superior customer support, be responsive to their questions, and make sure you describe and carefully detail your books. That is your marketing, your opportunity to showcase your book.
Make sure your book is priced competitively, and that doesn't mean it has to be the lowest price. It's just using common sense, and it's all about what makes sense for that particular book. The last thing I'll add is some wise advice I heard from a bookseller recently at Book Expo Canada. He said, "I've been listing online for over ten years, and I'm here to tell you that the rules have changed when it comes to online bookselling: It's all about unique."
BOOKTHINK: I'll agree with that. What do you think is the greatest challenge in the years ahead for Abebooks?
CONNORS: The most important aspect to focus on is that it's all about the booksellers. So I would say it's keeping really true to our course, keeping on focus and making sure that in the future we continue on with books and that we continue to have a loyal, professional bookseller base. Without the books, we really don't have a site, so without the booksellers, we don't have books.
The other side of the equation, of course, is continuing to go out there and find high value customers, and making sure that the collectors - that core group of book lovers and bibliophiles that already know and love us - remain loyal to us. The only way to do that is to make our booksellers happy and be responsive to their needs, then market to the right audiences and grow our business. We've been very successful over the past ten years, and really it's expansion of this vertical - if you want to get into the business-speak - it's just expanding and growing the book market and getting more into the niche markets and growing internationally. We've only just begun. We have a very strong base in North America, in the U.K., Germany and Australia, but there's a lot more we can do.
BOOKTHINK: What do you think about the future of books in this world of technology?
CONNORS: I can give you my personal opinion. A lot of people say, "We are in the computer technology age and people are now reading online and they are reading hand-held devices." The bottom line is, we still go home and curl up with a good book at the end of the night. I still read to my son - he's seven years old - and I have read to him since the day he was born. He loves books and begs me to read to him. Every single night I curl up with him whether it's with one of the books I loved as a child or something that's just come out by Robert Munch. It's time well spent. It's something that people really love, and it's a passion, a pastime. And really, reading books in and of itself is a technology, so why replace it? Nobody wants to bring a computer to bed.
BOOKTHINK: Thank you for taking this time to answer our questions, Sue. Is there anything else you would like to add?
CONNORS: I'd just like to say that I'm always here, and if readers or booksellers have any questions, I'm available to talk with by phone or e-mail. That's what I'm here for - I'm a person who is available behind all this technology. And I'd like to thank you so much for the opportunity to do this interview for BookThink.
BOOKTHINK: Thank you, Sue. It's been my pleasure.
Questions or comments?