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BOOKTHINK: What about condition? What grades do you buy? Do you go all the way down to acceptable, or do you cut it off at a higher grade?

NATE: Most of what we buy is good condition or better. If we do buy an acceptable book, it has to be from a seller whose profile has been proven and has a good history with us and with the marketplace in general. Acceptable books - if you read the acceptable description on Amazon, it describes, generally, a used book that we should be able to easily resell in a college store. We do buy some acceptable books, but the moons have to be aligned right for us to buy them.

BOOKTHINK: And the grading system you use - you're using the Amazon system and not your own internal criteria?

NATE: We use the Amazon system. That way everybody is on the same page.

BOOKTHINK: This brings me to my next question about returns - and speaking now specifically about books you have rejected, you have, I take it, a no-return policy?

NATE: Actually we do return books - but only on half.com. 100% of the reason why we don't return books on Amazon is because we have been unable to get return shipping address information and a guarantee of return shipping reimbursement, both of which makes a return process possible. We have no way to get a return address for a seller from the Amazon system. We don't know where to send the books unless we were to do some sort of evaluation of the return address on the package that comes in, and Craig, believe me, having seen that firsthand, it's nearly impossible. We run into everything from handwriting issues to having no return address at all. We get phone books; we get photocopies of books, all kinds of crazy stuff. Sending books back without knowing it's going to the right place and without assurance we will be reimbursed with the four dollars it costs to ship is just not doable - especially when we're talking about huge volumes. This is basically the core reason why returns don't work for us on Amazon. Now, we are working with Amazon in attempt to find a resolution - a controlled way for a buyer to return a book to a seller on the Amazon marketplace. They do an excellent job facilitating the searching of books, the buying process, the initial financial transaction, but are missing a returns process that works for large sellers. At this point in the game, we simply don't have what we need to return those books.

BOOKTHINK: What do you do with them?

NATE: Incorrect and damaged books go through our standard disposal process. They are recycled and put back into the paper industry for the creation of new books.

BARRY: Craig, to answer the question about policy, it's really not our policy that's the problem. We are not able to have the same policy on Amazon we have with half.com - and that is to return books that are not what they are purported to be. What I can tell you is as we're getting bigger doing this, Amazon is paying more and more attention to us, so we may start to make some headway in getting a better returns process through Amazon's marketplace. However, when they're a multi-billion dollar business, and we're Nebraska Book Company in Lincoln, Nebraska, they do pay attention to us, but it's not on the top of the priority list, unfortunately. Who knows, maybe this article will help?

BOOKTHINK: Would you be able to set up some kind of system to communicate directly with the seller and get that address? Send an email and request it, for example?

BARRY: Nate, tell him the steps we put in place to deal with that, and we could come back to that, Craig.

NATE: On the address side, we have spent significant time brainstorming about possible solutions to the return shipping address problem - which, again, is only one part of the total problem. Unknown delays in getting the address from a seller, the hundreds of thousands of possible different ways somebody could send us an address, no standardization in the data all pose unbearable challenges. Amazon has a seller's return address in standard format, available at time of purchase. It has been frustrating for us that we can't get access to the address. We work with half.com daily to achieve a workable returns process. They have an automated way for us to get return addresses. They provide return shipping reimbursement, and we ship back books that come in incorrect every day to sellers. It's a really nice, smooth and reasonable process for both the buyer and the seller. We hope to get to the same place with Amazon.

BARRY: Nate, talk a bit about the 800 number, our opt-out process, the things that we put in place to try to help these sellers.

NATE: Sure, we do have an 800 number that sellers can call in for help, and we monitor that every day, except for weekends.

BOOKTHINK: And what is that number again?

NATE: It's 800-869-0366, extension 8150.

BARRY: Now the extension number is critical there.

NATE: Yes, 8150 is where they need to get routed to. The staff monitoring that extension has the knowledge and the tools to assist sellers.

BOOKTHINK: I'm also seeing a number of complaints of sellers calling that number, getting voice mail and not having calls returned. I suppose in some cases this could be a failure to use the extension.

NATE: Nebraska Book Company is a very large company. Getting routed somewhere other than extension 8150 can certainly cause some confusion. We return every call that comes into extension 8150, in 24 to 48 hours, unless they call late on a Friday, and then it might take us until Monday until we can get back to them. A lot of people get to voicemail. I don't know if they're looking for an actual person to speak to, but we do monitor and return every single phone call that is received. Again, we have dedicated staff that monitors that phone number. That's what they do every day is monitor the message queue and respond to messages. What we're not doing is throwing a phone number out to sellers and not being responsible about monitoring and returning calls.

BARRY: The goal is for sellers who call in for assistance to leave the conversation feeling a sense of resolution and understanding of the process.

NATE: Yes, that is the goal.

BARRY: I'll stress this again. We're taking steps to minimize the number of problems and work toward resolutions in each and every case. However, the reality is that the number of cases is very, very small in comparison to the number of transactions - not to mention those sellers who actually have an issue likely don't end up being upset in the long run. Even further, in the end, sellers can opt-out if they remain unsatisfied. I think it's important to identify we take these steps on our own accord because we feel a sense of responsibility to the seller community.

BOOKTHINK: When someone calls the 800 number, does it always go to voice mail, or are there hours when you can speak to somebody immediately?

NATE: Sellers call in, leave a message and are called back. A voice mail message actually gives some information to try to answer some frequently asked questions. They can call in and listen to that message. If they still have some concerns, they can leave a message, and we certainly will call them back.

BOOKTHINK: Okay, and the opt-out procedure is what?

Nate: The opt-out procedure is one of really two ways. They can go to our opt-out site in the event they've received an order from us and automatically opt out from any further purchases instantly. If it's a seller that hears through the grapevine about some of these crazy comments on the forums, they can give us a call at the 8150 extension, and the staff monitoring that number has a tool that among other things can provide that immediate opt out. We do discourage sellers opting out without first giving us a fair chance to prove ourselves as buyers.

BOOKTHINK: Now, last month there was a lot of forum chatter about large numbers of cancellations - purchases being made by Nebraska Books, canceled shortly thereafter, and sellers shipping books, presumably most of which were in a condition that you would accept - and then of course not getting them returned. Was there some kind of glitch?

NATE: We have been buying on Amazon for a good amount of time, a year and a half or so, and we never had a cancellation up to that point, ever. Toward the end of May, we had a slight overbuy where we bought more books than we had intended to buy, and we worked with Amazon on a solution to make sure it had the smallest impact possible on the seller community. What we ended up doing was not canceling the books but just requesting that, if the seller had not already shipped the books, that the books be canceled. All books that were not canceled and were shipped we kept; we made good on. We're not going to be pursuing any type of refund from sellers because we bought more than we wanted. All the cancellations that occurred were sellers doing the canceling on behalf of our requests.

BOOKTHINK: This all seemed to cluster around about a month ago. Was there a particular problem going on then?

NATE: It was actually only one day, May 20th. The overbuying started very early in the morning, and when we got in at eight o'clock CST in the Midwest, we saw the problem and corrected it.

BARRY: Craig, I'll give you a little color on that. There are about 50,000 active titles in the college industry. That's a round number, and we track those 50,000 titles continuously. So, we have a data file with 50,000 titles. Obviously we don't search Amazon and half.com every day for 50,000 titles. On the 20th of May, the file that was sent to Nate's group was a lot more than we intended to have in the file. So we were buying stuff that we had no intention to buy. We saw it immediately and stopped it, and we basically told the customers, if you've already shipped it, fine, we'll buy it. If you haven't shipped it, we would appreciate it if you don't. And I thought that was very fair. If somebody got that message and hadn't shipped it and went ahead and shipped it the same day, we bought it. We didn't return it. We didn't cancel their order. So there are probably some people out there that had books ready to go out the door and they got upset because they couldn't send them. We apologize for that. But we made good on any order placed that was not cancelled by the seller.

BOOKTHINK: Are you buying on just Amazon and half.com or other venues as well?

NATE: Right now we're just on Amazon than half.com. Through the mechanism of Alibris.com being on half.com we do every once in awhile have an order that flows over to Alibris.com.

BOOKTHINK: Something that some sellers seem to have some discomfort with is the multiple buying IDs and addresses you use. Is this a tracking system?

NATE: Correct, this is a tracking system. Obviously, it is not in any way some sort of mechanism to hide who we are or where we're located. As you know, there's no standard bar-coded shipping label that can be printed on Amazon or half.com that would allow us to uniquely identify a book as it arrives in our receiving center. So, a great mechanism for us to associate a unique package with a unique marketplace order is to use a unique name and a suite number in the shipping address. It's a viable tracking mechanism for all sellers in all situations using all types of shipping materials.

BOOKTHINK: I think it would be very helpful if you could offer some suggestions for sellers who receive orders from you. What steps can they take to ensure that what they're sending out isn't going to be rejected?

NATE: I think that one of the main things is to list on Amazon using the ISBN. Listing by title seems to be one of the main issues we run into, and I think probably a majority of what we receive as incorrect is because we have sellers that look at the title only and list a book incorrectly with no comments explaining the title is a mismatch. They believe they are listing the correct book on the correct page, but where in fact they're not. This is something we have been working on with Amazon - to improve the amount of feedback a listing seller gets when they're listing a book in regards to title meta-data. For example, on the Amazon "confirm listing" page where it actually asks sellers to confirm the listing prior to it going out to the marketplace, there isn't a smaller amount of text on that page than the ISBN. It is literally about a seven or eight-point font - very hard to see. There is also no cover image and limited bibliographic information available. I believe people are potentially missing that fact that they are listing the wrong book.

Another important thing is not listing teacher's editions on the marketplace - I mean, aside from being against Amazon policy, those types of books are going to be books that we reject, every time. We can't sell instructor's editions to a student. Giving the student the answers to the math quiz looks bad from the University standpoint and from the bookstore standpoint. We can't buy those books to resell them and certainly are not looking to buy them.

BOOKTHINK: International editions would be an automatic reject too, correct?

NATE: Correct. Again, we are unable to resell international edition titles.

BARRY: Clarity on the condition of the book is a big thing. Obviously, packaging it correctly, making sure the label is right and getting it out the door quickly is important. There are certain limitations on how quickly, according to Amazon, you have to get the book to the buyer.

NATE: Craig, you can read Amazon's policies to find out what we're looking for. What we're asking isn't anything that's outside of what every seller really should be doing anyway.

BARRY: There are power sellers out there, Craig, people who are in the business of selling. We are a new source of business for these buyers.

BOOKTHINK: No doubt.

BARRY: The sellers that have a good handle on the marketplace selling process- have provided dozens and dozens of comments that speak to Nebraska Book Company being world-class. Comments like, "I've shipped hundreds of books to Nebraska and never had a problem." There are a lot of comments similar to that. It's painful to see some sellers have problems. It's a very small fraction but painful nevertheless.

BOOKTHINK: You've both been very helpful answering my questions. Is there anything else you'd like to add?

NATE: Generally, the concept that we are trying reiterate to sellers is what

Barry said, we are a Midwest company trying to get additional used books for college students, and certainly we're not out to scam or hurt anybody's business. We are actually trying to inject some commerce into the marketplace and have a positive impact on the marketplace buying process. I don't know how you say that to the mass seller community, that Nebraska Book Company is not the bad guy. We'd love to work with these sellers - and do on a daily basis. Everyone that calls in - the policy is to always help the seller. Again, I don't know how you frankly say that to the seller community, but we want to continue to work through this new approach in marketplace buying and selling. We're trying extremely hard to make all elements of this work for everybody from a 90-year-old who is selling a few books to a 30-year-old professional seller.

BARRY: We really appreciate this, Craig. Sometimes it's hard to talk to folks who write articles because you don't know really where they're headed, but you've been very straight-up with us, and we appreciate that. I think your article will go a long way toward helping the seller community understand Nebraska Book Company and the process we're are going through here to make each marketplace transaction as smooth as possible.


Barry and Nate, I greatly appreciate you taking the time out to talk to us. For a brief profile on NBC, go here.

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