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The Blind Men and the Elephant

An Interview with Nebraska Book Company

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.

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 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 - 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 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 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 or other venues as well?

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

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 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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