The Blind Men
and the Elephant
by Craig Stark
#125, 21 July 2008
Ultimately, perception is everything. Many writers have addressed the topic of perception over the course of history, but perhaps none more memorably for me than 19th-century American poet John Godfrey Saxe, who penned "The Blind Men and the Elephant."
It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.
The First approached the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
"God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!"
The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, "Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me 'tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!"
The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
"I see," quoth he, "the Elephant
Is very like a snake!"
The Fourth reached out an eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
"What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain," quoth he;
"'Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!"
The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: "E'en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!"
The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Than, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
"I see," quoth he, "the Elephant
Is very like a rope!"
And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!
So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!
Reading this may serve as a gentle reminder of what we booksellers have experienced over the past year and a half with our own perceptions of Nebraska Book Company, a Lincoln, Nebraska-based corporation heavily engaged in the business of buying and selling used textbooks - and of course a topic of many heated discussions on book forums. Like the six men of Indostan in Saxe's poem, we've been able to "see" only a small portion of the elephant, either by way of selling books to NBC or hearing about other booksellers' experiences.
This "seeing," however is necessarily blind on two counts. First, even if we've had direct experience with NBC, say, getting whacked with the elephant's tail - which could be in the form of receiving a refund request, an A-to-Z claim, etc. - we've still only seen the tail and not the elephant it's attached to. Sure, we can extrapolate from the NBC tail to a sort of idiosyncratic elephant on the basis of our past experiences with other elephants, but we still don't know enough about this elephant to deal with it properly. It could be Dumbo, Jumbo or the Rogue Elephant of Aberdare Forest. Until we do know, we won't know whether to fight, flee or feed it peanuts.
Second, if we base any of the above extrapolations on reports from other booksellers, well, we've just introduced countless additional elephants into the mix - and we can't see them either!
Whether you're the third man of Indostan, who took "the squirming trunk within his hands" and "saw" a snake, the fourth, who "felt about the knee" and "saw" a tree, or any other Indostanian who has formed a perception of Nebraska Books based on whichever elephant part you've encountered, I'm betting that it can't hurt to at least introduce you to the elephant itself and begin a conversation that could potentially benefit everybody in the long run. Nebraska Book Company is a major buyer in the online used textbook marketplace; collectively, we booksellers represent a major seller; so it just makes sense to talk when problems come up.
Last week I spoke with Barry Major, Chief Operating Officer of Nebraska Book Company, and Nate Rempe, Vice President of Internet Services. I'd like to thank
Sue Riedman, Vice President of Corporate Communications, for ably facilitating the interview that follows.
SUE: I thought we'd start with Barry and Nate introducing themselves, Craig, so you are aware of who they are in the company, and then you can take it from there.
BARRY: Good morning, Craig. I'm Barry Major, the Chief Operating Officer of the company. I oversee all operations both on the wholesale side of the company as well as our retail division and Internet strategy. Nate works for me and is Nebraska Book Company's Vice President of Internet Services. Before we get into the detail of your questions I thought a little about our company might be useful. We're a Nebraska-based company that has been in business approaching a hundred years. We started in business here at the University of Nebraska as one bookstore located off-campus serving the students. We were a small company for many years, and then after World War II the demand for textbooks really increased and somebody came up with a good idea of buying books back from students at the end of the term and having those books available for the next term to sell to students. So, we got into the wholesale business doing that, and the company kind of flourished at that point. Now, almost 100 years later, we're 265 plus bookstores located in about 40 states coast-to-coast, including schools like Penn State, Florida State, Texas A&M and the University of California Berkeley. We're scattered all over the country, a lot of big schools and a number of small schools. So, that's kind of what we've done. I've been in the company nine years, and when I got here the Internet just wasn't anything. Everybody was just starting to use e-mail, in fact, so it's come a long way from a technology standpoint. About six years ago or so we decided to get into the Internet business, and we put all of our bookstores online. The Internet continued to thrive and students started to go to the marketplace to buy and sell, so we entered into that environment as well. Nate is an expert in the Internet space, and we brought him in to take us to the next level.
On the wholesale side, we serve about 2500 bookstores, buying and selling used textbooks, so we're a major player in the country. Our wholesale business has about a 30% to 35% market share, which makes us as big as anyone. When we started into this particular venture and began getting some negative comments on the Amazon forum site, it was frankly very painful. We're an honest, Midwest company who works hard to support our customers and serve college students, so I was not happy with one comment, let alone a number of them.
BOOKTHINK: This raises my first question, Barry and Nate: Do you have a pretty clear sense of the level of controversy that's out there? I've been involved with online bookselling since in the 1990s, basically when it all started, and I've never really seen anything quite like this. I think I mentioned to Sue that my gut sense is that this phenomenon is perhaps mostly a function of you operating on such a large-scale and that you're bound to get some complaints, but it has snowballed to a point where I think it would be a good idea to stop guessing about what's going on and get your side of the story.
BARRY: Yes, we want to put this in perspective. We don't take any of these comments lightly, but we know for a fact and will try to get this across to you in this conversation that this "controversy" represents a very small percentage of the sellers we've purchased from - in fact, we'd probably have outrage if we stopped buying because we believe the vast majority of these sellers appreciate the new business we are providing. The volumes are very large, so it is difficult to have 100% satisfaction, but I will tell you that we strive to keep it very close to that.
BOOKTHINK: I think it would help if you could give us some indication of the number of books you purchase in a given month from third-party sellers. The reason I'm asking is that there will always be, obviously, a percentage of less than competent or inexperienced booksellers out there, sellers who have problems describing books, problems packaging them properly, and so on. I think if sellers had a better sense of the scale you purchase books on, these seemingly endless reports on book forums of bad experiences with your company might be put into a more accurate perspective and perhaps illustrate that your interactions with sellers are more in line with what could be expected to occur in the general bookselling environment.
NATE: The number of purchases is, on average, in the thousands daily. However, I think a more applicable number to this conversation is the percentage of books that we buy that arrives damaged or incorrect.
BOOKTHINK: That would be a useful number to have.
NATE: Right now we're hovering at about 3.4% of what we purchase shows up incorrect.
BOOKTHINK: Now, are you talking about the books that don't match catalog entries or these plus those that are damaged as well?
NATE: That would be what we'd call incorrect, meaning that it was not the correct edition per the ISBN that we bought on the listing page on Amazon and it did not pass our human-based evaluation process upon receipt. So, if we went to Amazon and purchased McConnell Economics seventh edition and edition four showed up or the instructor's edition showed up or the international edition, that would be an incorrect book.
BOOKTHINK: Do you keep track of the percentage of damaged books you receive?
NATE: The number of damaged books received is smaller than the number of incorrect books received. Damaged receivables hovers around a half a percent, on average, of all books received.
BARRY: Very small.
BOOKTHINK: That is small. That's definitely in line with what any buyer would likely experience, probably better.
NATE: It's important to remember that all we're looking to do here is resell these books to college students who need them. We clearly understand we're buying used books, so we don't have outrageous standards when the book comes in - for example, highlighting and comments in the text is completely acceptable. We just don't want books with the front cover ripped off, water damage, staining or pages falling out.
BOOKTHINK: Can you tell me something about your purchasing system? Is it automated? Or do you have people actively participating in the process?
NATE: There is automation there, but there is a human factor as well. The purchase process is based on intelligent automation and learns over time. So, we may be a little less apt or more apt to buy from a seller depending on how that seller has performed with us and with the marketplace in general. It's certainly not going out to the marketplace, plugging in an ISBN and buying blindly. We've honed this proprietary system over the past year and a half to evaluate the comments, look for incorrect editions - essentially taking each listing through a number of evaluation steps, about eight steps in total for each listing - before purchase. The receiving process is where the human factor comes into play. We rely on both automation and trained staff to, among other things, identify a correct book despite a mismatched ISBN and make a fair evaluation of condition.
BOOKTHINK: To clarify then - you do investigate the comments sections of descriptions?
NATE: Yes, absolutely. You wouldn't imagine what we would buy if it there wasn't some sort of comment evaluation element in the process. Amazon policy is very clear about not listing international, teacher and complementary editions. It doesn't matter if you say "this is an international edition" in the comments. You're still misrepresenting that book on the listing page per Amazon policy because it's a different edition. Regardless, there are still, as you know, many of these types of listings littered throughout the marketplace.
BOOKTHINK: I'm sure you're aware that the Amazon catalogue is essentially a nightmare, and there are necessarily going to be instances where it's clearly not a question of a seller misrepresenting a book. It could be that you're using a listing service off-site, you type in the ISBN number in a data field, and a catalog entry is matched to it. Maybe your book is a softcover and you don't mention this in your description field, and your company is looking for a hardcover - and maybe the catalog entry states "Unknown Binding."
NATE: If we are looking for a trigonometry hardcover book, and we run across a listing that seems to fit our criteria from a price and seller standpoint, but the listing comment says the book is actually a soft cover, we will not purchase that title specifically because of that wording.
BOOKTHINK: The reason I'm asking this is that this is one of the complaints that I've seen often on book forums - that a seller will have been aware that they have listed a book that doesn't match the entry, but they have explained the mismatch in the comments, and it was purchased anyway.
BARRY: I'm going to jump in here and make an assumption. Nate, correct me if I'm wrong. This system and process is constantly evolving. Where we may have started with 20 keywords, it may now be 1,120 we look for. Let's assume that somebody uses a word in their comments to identify a mismatch which isn't a real common term, and so our system misses on that listing. Later, we can identify that term as being used and add it to the "dictionary," so to speak.
NATE: That's exactly right. We look for things like torn covers, water damage and staining - anything that's going to deter a student from picking a book up off the shelf in one of our stores and buying it. It's the very obscure descriptions that we sometimes miss. Here's a real-world example. We had one seller that had listed in her comments that she spilled strawberry milk all over the inside of the front cover. Now, obviously, I'm not looking for "strawberry milk" in the comments, and, in fact, we also weren't looking for "spilled" at the time, which we are now, so we purchased the book despite our inability to resell it. You buy from so many people, Craig, that it's impossible to determine every possible scenario until you've been there and done that. The good thing is that those scenarios are really anomalies. The vast majority of sellers use common terms like "stain" or "water damage" or "damaged" somewhere in the comments, and we avoid those listings.
BARRY: In that particular case, I'll bet you anything that young lady was going overboard to make sure the buyer knew exactly what they were getting.
BARRY: So it's very painful for us to see somebody like her get her book rejected by us at receiving. To make matters worse, we aren't able to return the book to her on Amazon. It's like a double nightmare, but we are working tirelessly to avoid these scenarios because it's a bad outcome for both parties. We want the book, and sellers want the sale. When the outcome is negative, we do feel quite bad about it.
We're here because students need used textbooks. It's an incredible demand. For every book we sell there are four requests, so the demand for used textbooks is astronomical. That is what's driving this. Our customers want them, our bookstores can't stock enough of them, and there are sellers on the Internet selling them. If the price is right, we'll buy from them and sell them to our customers - a pretty straightforward and logical model.