BOOKTHINK: I think we all enjoy that. I don't think the bricks & mortar used book store will ever completely disappear.
ORAM: I hope not. I know there is tremendous pressure on bookstores these days.
BOOKTHINK: I think by combining Internet sales and walk-in traffic, some can make it work.
ORAM: I've heard a lot of people say the same thing. Booksellers enjoy the interaction with customers; you aren't going to run a bookstore very long if you don't like direct interaction with customers. They want that, and they know they aren't making a lot of money on the walk-ins, but it's part of their life, and they don't want to be all business all of the time. I admire that.
BOOKTHINK: Are there any changes in store for Book Sale Finder?
ORAM: We are always trying to make it better. Unfortunately, I'm a little slow sometimes to put changes in because my "real" job interferes. But Helen works full time, six or seven days a week, doing things on the site. I want to automate it a bit so that people can enter their sale information. On the other hand, it's really important to us that people don't feel that they are dealing with a computer all the time. Helen is here, and she has personal relationships with all sorts of people who visit our site and who advertise sales on our site, and that's really nice. We want to make sure we keep that. But at the same time, we want to try to add new things.
Just last year we added Google Maps to our site. We're proud of the fact that we actually find the library or wherever the sale is at and get the exact latitude and longitude and plug it in exactly where it is on the map, not just the town - and that's a little time consuming.
BOOKTHINK: I don't think I've ever used that tool. I usually just go to MapQuest, plug the library address in, and look up directions.
ORAM: Yes, I've got to get more people into using the Google Maps feature. Plus we are going to be doing some other things in that area. I have some ideas on making Google Maps work better and faster for our visitors so they can get good directions to sales on the site. One nice feature is that, when viewing the current sales in a given area, you can also click another button and get all the other non-profit book sales and stores in the same area.
BOOKTHINK: Right. A lot of times people drive a long ways to get to sale, and it's nice if they can manage to hit a few other book spots in the area.
ORAM: One of the things we're struggling with is how to help - how to advertise the (for-profit) used & rare book stores on our site. People have asked us over the years to put up advertising for their store. We could put stores on the site for a fee, but I'm not sure we would be giving them enough value just by doing this. It's important to us that, if someone is going to pay us for something, they receive some value for it. So one of the things we are struggling with is how to help used & rare books stores and how to work that into our site in such a way that they actually receive some valuable advertising.
BOOKTHINK: One possible answer might be for a book store located in the same area as a sale to advertise during the time leading up to it - have it linked to the same area as the sale.
ORAM: We are on the same wave length there. That's exactly the type of thing I'm thinking about doing, but I have to figure out how to do it on the site without having intrusive ads with a cluttered appearance. It's something we are struggling with all the time. We are supported by advertising, and it is a balancing act to keep the site orderly and useful and still give value to our advertisers.
We try to keep navigation simple for our visitors; a couple of clicks and you get the information you want. It's easy to get away from that if you aren't careful. I'm not a professional web site designer, but I do want to re-design some aspects of the site and make it a little more user-friendly - yet still keep the advertisers. I'm actually turning away advertisers right now because I don't want to crowd the site with more ads. I'm thinking of doing rotating ads for a couple of our spots. This is a good problem to have, but a tough one to solve.
BOOKTHINK: It's nice that you consider whether it's actually going to help your advertisers to advertise on your site. How many sites do that?!
ORAM: It's always been our policy to have a better-than-your-money back guarantee for advertising. We tell the advertisers that they don't have to pay until after the ad has run and they don't pay us unless they feel the ad was worth the money. Because of that, though, it means that I'm not going to take ads that aren't going to work. I know what works on the site.
Helen and I are struggling with what we can do to help used & rare booksellers. We have on-line booksellers who want to advertise with us, and I'm reluctant to begin selling them display ads. At this time, I offer them a classified space, but I'm not sure that's as valuable as it could be. So I'm trying to think of ways to really bring value rather than put their name up there with 400 other names.
BOOKTHINK: It's possible that you'll get some ideas, some feedback from this interview.
ORAM: I hope so. I look for feedback. Effective advertising for the online book selling community is not really available anywhere. If they have ways that they think they could attract people to their site, I'd love to know.
BOOKTHINK: Do you get much feedback about sales?
ORAM: We get a lot of feedback from visitors to the site - and it's almost always positive. But as for reports on the sales, occasionally somebody will say, "We went to this sale and it wasn't what you said it was." They rarely blame us. If we get a complaint about a sale, we remove the sender's name and forward the comments to the sale organizer so they will know about possible problems, and it gives them the opportunity to make corrections. Generally, they appreciate the comments.
BOOKTHINK: And book sales are different every year. The operation may be run in a consistent way, but volunteers change, and, as for quality, it's usually dependent on who happened to donate books that year - unfortunately, sometimes dependent on who got divorced or died or whatever. Of course, there are some areas that seem more fertile for good book hunting, like larger cities or college towns.
ORAM: Absolutely. And there are other random things that occur which are fun. A few years ago there was a sale in Ojai, Ca. Remember Larry Hagman, "J.R." in the TV show Dallas? He donated his mother's record collection - his mother was Mary Martin, a famous actor herself - to the Ojai library sale. Wouldn't you have loved to be there for that? We want the libraries to tell us about unusual donations so people will know about them. There's a sale in Connecticut I've been to a couple of times that always seems to have a lot of uncorrected proofs - and I love uncorrected proofs.
BOOKTHINK: It's amazing what you still can find. Last summer we went to an FOL sale in Ohio. Of course, we planned our whole route by your site. We didn't realize that there was a "preview sale" the night before, though we were in town and could have attended. But we got in line the next morning, and there were herds of people in there. You know, sometimes you look around, and you think everything good must be gone. But it's almost never true. About an hour into the hunt, I picked up a first edition of Gerald Ford's A Time for Healing. People had passed over it with their scanners, but nobody had examined it. I opened it to look it over, and it was signed by Gerald Ford on the half-title page on a Presidential Bookplate, and the book and jacket were both in fine condition.
ORAM: You're kidding! That's a great story. Most people feel that if they don't get there in the first hour of the first day, it's over.
BOOKTHINK: I have actually found great things on the last day that have been totally overlooked. I think people get so excited; they feel pressured to hurry through the books. Also, after an hour or two, they lose their focus and they aren't really seeing what's in front of them anymore.
ORAM: I may use that as an example of why people shouldn't give up on book sales after the first day. It's a great story.
BOOKTHINK: You're welcome to use it.
ORAM: That, by the way, is another area we are looking to improve on our site. We are looking at ways of putting information on there so book dealers and book scouts know what to expect when they get to a sale - whether the library is going to allow scanners, credit cards, or whatever else might be important to know.
BOOKTHINK: I was also wondering - I know this can be touchy - but perhaps it would be an idea to put some sale etiquette guidelines on the site.
ORAM: That's one of the things we'd like to look at addressing.
BOOKTHINK: Perhaps you could survey some of the libraries and see what they see as problematic.
ORAM: A survey is on our list of things to do this year. A forum might be a way to address the subject. Most dealers act professionally. As we've said, the people organizing and running these sales are volunteers, and they don't deserve problems.
BOOKTHINK: I feel bad when there is boorish behavior at book sales. It doesn't happen often, but it's embarrassing for other dealers who try to be considerate when somebody doesn't abide by posted rules or even behave decently.
ORAM: My fear is that I could put something out there on book sale etiquette, but the people who are rude aren't the ones who will read it or pay any attention to it.
BOOKTHINK: Have you seen the number of library listings increasing?
ORAM: Yes. When we first started we had about 20,000 page views per month; ee're now up to 200,000 per month. Last year we had about 6,000 sales at 3,000 locations. It's hard for me to remember, but when we first started I think we had about 800 to 1,000 sales listed.
One thing that made a big difference - and something we are very proud of - is our Sale Mail feature where we send personalized e-mails to our readers informing them of upcoming sales in their area. The person tells us what distance they are willing to travel and every week we send out e-mails to all these people telling them about any sales in their selected area. That has worked out very well for us. We send the Sale Mail out on Tuesday night, and we get the most hits on Wednesday. Everybody's at work, looking these things up!
BOOKTHINK: A lot of people probably don't take advantage of this feature, including myself. I go to the site every few days to see if anything new has popped up, but Sale Mail sounds like a great idea.
ORAM: We have some people who spend the winter in Florida or another southern state and will switch their location down there, then switch their location back up north for the summer. Other people might have two or three book stores, and they have us checking the radius of each of their book stores for sales each week. Every week now we are sending out 15,000 e-mails notifying people of upcoming book sales in their selected area of interest through Sale Mail.
BOOKTHINK: That's a lot of people depending on you.
ORAM: It's hard to get by our technical providers - to convince them it's not spam. But we're not sending out one "newsletter" to 15,000 people; each e-mail is personalized depending on what geographic area that person is interested in. We are proud of that, and we know that has made a big difference to our site traffic. People really seem to appreciate the service.
BOOKTHINK: I'm sure that is a problem, getting around the whole spam issue. That must get tougher all the time.
ORAM: We have a good relationship with our customers, and they let us get through their email blockers. We have been sending Sale Mail for six years now, and the subscriber list is constantly growing.
BOOKTHINK: You are providing a great service for all of us who are constantly looking for places to scout for books.
ORAM: Funny, but I'm actually a user of our site. As I said, Helen does all the work, so I don't see what she's putting in. So like everybody else, I wait eagerly for Wednesday morning to see what book sales are coming up. I look forward to my Sale Mail. Occasionally I'll say, "Hey, let's go to this one." Then Saturday comes around and we've got too much work to do!
BOOKTHINK: Did Helen have another career before Book Sale Finder?
ORAM: She raised the boys. They are now 39 and 36. That pretty much pegs us, huh?
BOOKTHINK: It's amazing what we can do later in life now, isn't it?
ORAM: It is. We were young parents, so we just turned 60. This is what we plan to do in retirement.
BOOKTHINK: And isn't it great to have retirement not be "retirement"?
ORAM: It is. I love working on the site. I'm anxious to get to the point where I am able to spend more time on Book Sale Finder. We have a lot of plans for the site, both functional and technical, and we are looking forward to implementing them.
BOOKTHINK: It has been a real pleasure to talk with you, Tom - and informative.
I'll say it again: I don't know what we'd do without your site! I love it when Spring arrives - I'm sure you can sympathize with that, living in the Northeast - because it's harder to travel to sales in the winter. We do it, of course, because we're nuts! But it's lovely to look forward to Spring and more pleasant traveling conditions. I just take my calendar and write down all the more attractive sales from your site, and that's how we plan much of our year.
ORAM: I'm glad to hear that, and I hope we can make it easier for you and others to do. Once again, if you or any readers have ideas about how our site can make improvements, we do want to hear about it.
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