<<< Continued from previous page

Given that Amazon frequently, blissfully and seemingly randomly simply changes actual Titles sent up to it to those (wrong) ones it considers to be the "correct" ones, we safeguard the user a little by automatically including the actual Full Title in the Description/Comments field (for Amazon only, of course), so at the very least the true title is delivered to the potential customer down there, whatever idiot substitute Amazon has made in its main display. Same with a few other fields Amazon regularly reports incorrectly at its own un-guessable whim.

There are quite a few other fancy little features as well. You can send an email directly from the database, and when you do that the system gathers up the whole description and inserts it into the email edit box, which you can then edit before sending. The database will also auto-insert into the email text box the url link to the picture or pictures of that particular book being inquired about, the url being that at our WBM server where the picture is stored.

I could rabbit on here forever, but I think it will be clear from the above that when I declare that the main single strength of our database lies in its having been designed and built from go to whoa by booksellers, and not programmers as such, I ain't whistlin' Dixie.

BOOKTHINK: Given this level of sophistication, are we looking at a steep learning curve to get this thing working for us?

WELLER: Yes, and No. Let's take the No first.

To get our database skipping away at its basic to medium-power levels, to import your existing data into it from HomeBase or wherever, to start using it for uploads to all sites including Amazon, and to start making use of reasonably straightforward search and replace routines - for example, changing all your condition box data from "VG" to "Very Good" if you'd like to do that - that'd be a No. No real steep learning curve once the familiarization process is done - say allow a half day of test and play for that.

There's a 100-page manual which comes with it, and the WBM members who use it are all keen and willing to provide hands-on assistance to new users via our Members Forum, so the support load for new users is pretty widely spread.

We have some genuine and self-confessed computer dummies in the WBM, and several of these have jumped into our database with very few problems whatsoever. And they love it.

Now - the Yes bit.

For some of the more advanced routines such as the global price adjustment example I gave earlier, that can take a little time to grasp and implement.

Using multiple copies and juggling records between each, say, from home to work, can have its challenges, and installing and configuring the various network options which come with it is something we recommend members who are not IT-literate get their local IT guy or techo to assist with, at least at the installation part of things.

The secret is, you can start small and grow big with it, and most of our members now using it spent three or four months sort of feeling their way into the more complex and advanced stuff, whilst heartily enjoying the huge new power at their fingertips in all its straightforward and everyday functions.

I'd be simply lying if I were to suggest that you can create great power in a piece of software, right down to writing and exercising your own programming scripts inside of it (which our members can do, if they want to), and that every single aspect of that was a simple one-click affair which Aunty Jill could fire up and rattle away at deep level after an afternoon's playing with it. But to install it, bring in your old data, enter new data and edit the old using bulk edit routines, and start uploading straight away to all your sites - that'd be a NO from me to your question.

BOOKTHINK: Biblio.com has been working pretty hard of late to solicit sellers - and to some extent buyers. Not so long ago they announced that BookHound, another database application for booksellers, would be made available at no charge to registrants on their site. Is your initiative also a marketing tactic for attracting new members?

WELLER: Biblio is an interesting site all round, isn't it? I like the guys there a lot, and a great deal of what they are trying to do, although I got a wee bit angry at them when they swooped on our credit card processing a la ABE.

I guess offering a free BookHound was a marketing move for them, yes, and quite a clever one. One of ABE's hidden strengths was that any of its listers could download HomeBase free of charge, and simply start listing. A bit like eBay with its Turbo Lister. I guess Biblio felt a keen need to at least match that sort of rusting-on process used for so long by ABE, and to such effect.

BookHound is light years ahead of HomeBase, and is a good, clean, efficient engine. No, it isn't as powerful or overall effective as ours, but it is not crippled and broken, as is HomeBase in some ways. BookHound is FilemakerPro based, as is ours, and therefore comes automatically with many of the more powerful search and replace routines which one finds in our thing.

Now, as to your question: Is the release of our WBM-BB database as Freeware perceived by us as a marketing tactic?

I have to admit that whilst I have always felt a keen need and desire to promote our WBM group, I have never really seen any need to market it in the sense you mean. Promoting implies bringing something to the attention of an audience, whereas marketing implies going beyond that and trying to effect a "sale" of a "product." But perhaps I am just splitting hairs there.

Yes, I think that as a great many booksellers take advantage of our free release of database software - and I think a great many will -- then that will create a growing pool of booksellers around the world who will automatically gain a window thereby into the more sophisticated bookseller routines we offer.

And it probably stands to reason that the vast majority of those who take up the free software will be our type of bookseller, since our software is designed more for the careful and scrupulous bookseller than for the slap-dash, list-'em-in-a-hurry and bang-'em-online type of seller. Whom we'd really rather not hear from.

In actual fact, the latter would probably find it rather irritating to be reminded every five minutes that one or one million of their listings were "accidentally" deficient in that they had nothing entered in Binding, Edition, Condition, DJ Condition, Publisher and/or other database-recommended boxes or fields.

So to rephrase your question just slightly, if I may be so bold: Do I believe that, as booksellers around the world start using our WBM-BB as a freely provided and powerful listing resource, this will likely lead some of them at least to come sniffing around all the rest of our services and group-shared facilities, and that amongst those sniffers some at least will decide to jump on board our ship as full members?

Yes, I do.

BOOKTHINK: You have claimed publicly that the WBM customer search engine is better and more powerful than ABE's, and yet many consider ABE's search engine to be the best in the bookselling business. Can you justify these claims with examples of specific performance in your site's search engine which out-perform ABE's?

WELLER: Let me just state here that ABE has been making some efforts to improve its search engine recently, and some of the things we introduced two or three years ago at the WBM site they have now implemented at ABE, or have indicated they intend to implement. So I make that claim a little less fervently now, although I still believe our search-engine methodology remains superior to theirs. And most everyone else's.

Specifically, we have introduced automatic cross-searching across a wide range of common search confusions. "Mac" and "Mc" is just one such. If a seller has entered Author as "Macdonald" or as "McDonald" and a customer makes a search for either of these, all combinations will be returned in the search. The same applies with all the cross-Atlantic spellings - "colour" for "color," "theater" for "theatre" and so on.

A really annoying feature of search engines at nearly all sites is the exclusion set which occurs on the various uses of the apostrophe. A search for "O'Brian" will not show you anything entered as "OBrian," for instance - or vice versa. A customer search for "The Travellers Story" will usually not return "The Traveller's Story," which is obviously what is being sought. But all such combinations will be returned to the searcher at our WBM site.

There's a whole lot more than just those examples, but they should suffice.

We are now working on rather a clever new matrix that will convert "vols" to "volumes" in both directions, and will convert Roman numerals to "ordinary" digits, so that a search for "booktitle volume 20" will pick up books entered as "booktitle vol. xx," and vice versa.

We are also slowly building what will be a very large common exception list for common errors made either by seller or searcher - for example, "steinbeck vs stienbeck," "hemmingway vs hemingway" and a great many others which research has shown are common errors made by searchers, and sometimes by listing booksellers as well.

Just as with our database, I think our superior performance there comes from everything at our site being ultimately planned and designed by booksellers rather than programmers. Many of the clever little tweaks I have mentioned above are really bookselling-specific, and simply would not occur to a programmer. And should not be expected to.

BOOKTHINK: You have often publicly stated that you consider the online market for bookselling via the internet to be either just beginning or not really having begun. And yet many booksellers who experienced robust sales a few years ago more recently have seen their sales slow, in some cases dramatically. Can you support this opinion with any real data or hard logic - or, as a developer of WBM, are you simply expressing optimism so as not to discourage booksellers from trying you out?

WELLER: Well, if it is optimism, it is for all online selling sites, and not just book sites, or booksellers.

I think there are three methods of testing the truth or otherwise of my assertions. The first method is by looking at the hard data of retail sales around the world, combined with analysis of growth or otherwise in computer usage and thereafter access to and usage of the Internet.

Most credible analysts of retail activity estimate that online retail sales now account for about 8% of total retail sales, up from about 6% just two years ago. In terms of compound growth of 33%, that is a fantastic percentage movement in a short time-frame. But in terms of overall gross dollar sales it still places the Internet as a sales medium in its infancy - and on the last two years growth number, an infancy which is almost certain to see a continued growth spurt over the next decade or so.

Whether you think we'll get to 20% by 2020, as I do, or adopt the more radical and less-likely view that something like 25% or even 30% is achievable by then, the fact remains that online retail sales are likely to continue soaring in overall terms, and in-store sales likely to decline in the same proportion. Helping drive all of that is, of course, is the fact that vast segments of the world's population in China, India, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and elsewhere are only just beginning to come online at all, let alone start shopping furiously through cyberspace.

The second method of testing lies in analyzing the sophistication, or crudity, of the online mechanisms currently servicing online purchasing. An infant market will tend to be clumsy, disorganized, relatively uncontrolled, largely unsupervised by regulatory consumer authorities, and more or less left to its own devices for its main players to "set the rules." A bit like the early economy and society in America's Wild West, in other words, before civilization bore its way across from the East, and more refined parlors replaced the brawling saloons of the early days.

Now if we look at the purely bookselling aspect of online retail selling, it just doesn't come much cruder! You have sites like Amazon, ABE and others displaying millions of book listings which many people consider to be blatantly illegal under distance-selling or sight-unseen or mail-order regulations and laws in various jurisdictions around the world. You can buy books which proudly declare "Binding Unknown," and all sorts of other ridiculous things. Amazon cannot handle displaying a book with no certain date, and ABE and other large sites carry millions of Print on Demand listings with huge prices attached which falsely declare or very strongly imply that they are "first editions, published 1924" and so on.

Amazon frequently re-applies false titles, authors or bindings, or volume sets, to listings uploaded with the correct data uploaded in all those fields. Several sites offer "free shipping" circuses to their customers where exactly the same book appears twice at their site - once at a lower price with shipping to be added, and then again with the higher combined price applied and a huge "free shipping" banner draped over the higher-priced item. p> Not all the above is outright illegal everywhere, but some of it is, at least in some jurisdictions. If this sort of nonsense were attempted in a Wal-Mart store, their whole chain would be quickly fined out of existence, or simply shut down by the consumer regulatory authorities.

So this very badness of all these big sites, and the very slapdash manner in which they operate in all these ways, is pretty conclusive evidence that we are looking at a market segment very much in its commercial infancy. As Sthis online marketplace starts to really bloom and blossom in volume of retail trade terms, you will see all these practices cleaned up and changes forced upon the way it is permitted to do business online, and ways in which it is not.

For an interesting insight into this early sort of activity, you could go read this article that just appeared in the UK.

The third method of testing my hypotheses is purely anecdotal, and based on my experiences running a large and very busy secondhand bookstore seven days a week. My customers- and I have thousands of them, with whom I talk regularly -are just beginning to feel their way on the internet, or so they tell me. There is a "hard core" group of them who use it frequently, and a few who are shop-a-holics for all sorts of stuff on eBay and even some bookselling sites. But the vast majority are just beginning to toy with this adventure, and a great many express extreme nervousness about it. That nervousness will likely fade as they gain more experience - in fact, it invariably does.

But collectively, they very much represent a market about to happen, rather than one which has in any way peaked. And they far outnumber the regular internet shoppers - I would estimate by a factor of about three to one.

You can take your pick as to which of those three analytical methods gets us closer to the truth of the matter. Since they all shout out the same story loudly and clearly. I don't think it matters too much which one you use.

BOOKTHINK: Assuming a rosy future for online booksellers then, do you or other members envision WBM growing to the size of an Abebooks - or even an Amazon? Are you working towards that? If everything you do is better than those bigger sites, wouldn't this be inevitable - sooner or later?

WELLER: That's neither our intention, nor our hope. Not in the slightest degree. Which is pretty lucky, really, because it sure ain't gonna happen, and we don't intend doing anything so foolish as to try and make such a thing happen. The WBM is not going to take on Microsoft, either. Or Google. Or eBay. All are safe from us, they will be relieved to learn.

What we do believe, most of us, is that the online bookselling marketplace is set to fracture and splinter in many ways over the next decade or so. The existing rather primitive hegemony exerted there by just two large sites - Amazon with its string of subsidiaries and eBay - and a couple of medium-size but relatively small competitors (Alibris, Biblio, et al) is already beginning to crumble at its edges, although we expect the core of that dominance to hold more or less indefinitely.

We believe that increasing opportunities will open up for sites like the WBM and other quality-based micro-sites to expand their market niches significantly, yes, and we intend to provide our members with an enduring vehicle to permit them to take full advantage of that splintering process which we predict. So you could call us fairly aggressive niche market anglers and players, if you like.

In the areas we have selected as our defining features - quality of our members, quality of our listings and quality of our software routines and tools - we'll play the game as hard and tough as we know how, and we'll attempt to win bits and pieces of market share from all the bigger sites around that significant niche we have targeted. Those are achievable goals, albeit limited ones. And we are in the process already of achieving them.

But at the end of the day, we are all booksellers, mainly smallish ones, and we are rather fond of what we do, and what we did before even the WBM came along - that is, curating our bookstock and dealing with our often irritating but mainly delightful customers. None of us has the mindset, or the impetus, of a Jeff Bezos. We are all too busy with our books to manage becoming another Amazon, even if the faint possibility of that appeared to emerge from the mists.

Which it won't.

BOOKTHINK: We appreciate the time you've taken to answer our questions, Guy, and best of luck with WBM.

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Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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