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BookThink's Guide to Online Bookselling

Chapter 6
Trust, the Sine Qua Non of Bookselling

by Craig Stark

#155 25 April 2011

When I first started selling books, I took frequent road trips and looked for inventory in, among other places, used bookstores. Most bookstores weren't selling online then, and there were many opportunities for arbitrage. I recall visiting a Tampa, Florida bookstore one day - it was nineteenninetysomething - I found a few local history books, and I took them up to the counter to pay for them. I don't recall how we got on the topic, but I quietly mentioned something to the proprietor about having bought some books online. Well, this mild-mannered Dr. Jekyll suddenly transmogrified into a monstrous Mr. Hyde, and I stood amazed at the subsequent tirade that went on for minutes, not moments.

The essence of what he was saying - make that shouting - was this: No one in their right mind would ever buy a book of significant value sight unseen. The entire notion of selling books online was absurd, and it would never come to anything, let alone affect open shop bookstores. If you were involved in the book trade as a buyer or seller back then, I'm sure you'll recall that this was the prevailing thinking among booksellers. Online bookselling was an experiment, at best, that was doomed to fail - oh, with the possible exception of selling new books, which Amazon had recently started to do. There was no arguing with him, so I didn't; and I certainly didn't tell him that I was going to sell the books I was buying at his store online. I'm sure he would have refused to sell them to me!

The rest is history, of course - and that bookstore, of course, is no longer there - but in all points of view there is usually some truth, and there was truth in his as well: Trust has been, is today, and doubtless will remain a huge issue in online bookselling. The Latin phrase "sine qua non," which translates to "without which it could not be" applies in spades. If you can't establish trust with buyers, you're essentially done. Transactions take place between one human being and another. Today, as always, buyers and sellers must still come together on the basis of some sort of mutually perceived trust to make sales happen.

Unfortunately, the first word that comes to mind when assessing the present state of online bookselling isn't "trust." In fact, if anything, it's "mistrust" - or a dangerously close synonym. Why? I could list dozens of reasons, but most of us know what they are. Those of us who trade online know them more intimately than we'd like because we've actually experienced poor customer service, inadequate packaging, mis-described or misrepresented items, etc., not once, but multiple times. Sadly, these failings are not the exception.

And what about you? We can look at this any way you like, shine a light on any aspect of your business. Is your customer service as good as it could be? Is it friendly? Really? Even when a customer sends you an angry email or makes an unreasonable demand? Is it prompt? Books out the door daily? Followed immediately with an email providing a tracking number? Wait - do you even use Delivery Confirmation? Or is this whole process of fulfilling sales more often based on convenience? Do you take the trouble to package books safely before giving thought to what it might cost you in time or money? And what's really going through your mind when you describe your books? Are you making a deliberate attempt to communicate an accurate sense of what you're selling - and by this I don't mean making books look worse than they really are - or are you thinking more in terms of what you might put in your pocket if you can justify listing something at a higher grade? Attitude colors everything, and, though it comes into a buyer's view in varying shades, sometimes it colors things with a somber hue of mistrust.

But let's assume that you've got it going on. You get it done the very best you know how and are always looking for ways to do it better. Still, maybe this doesn't change what's happening around you. No matter how well you conduct your business, perhaps, those deadbeat booksellers are bringing you down anyway, no doubt chasing away buyers in droves, costing you who knows how much money ... right?

If we hear something often enough - and boy, have I ever heard this one kicked around - there's a temptation to think it might be true. But sometimes you hear things a lot because they're just, well, easy to say. And they're easy to say because those who say them may be more interested in excusing their own failings instead of taking charge. This makes them easy to hear too. Easy to believe. It's easy to blame incompetent booksellers for mucking up the profession. Easy to blame venues for not policing them. Easy to get discouraged because of it. Easy to give up what you love doing - no, wait. Maybe not that?

But some booksellers who come to bookselling loving bookselling are leaving anyway because they're not making enough money at it. It's those incompetent booksellers, damn them. No barriers to entry. Or the competition. Wow, just too freaking much of it now. Or thrift shops or FOLs that used to offer quality inventory have now wised up and started selling their stuff online. Or, if not that, started over-pricing their junk. And don't forget about that ridiculous contraption Amazon came up with. What's it called? A Kindle? Man. If nothing else ruins bookselling, that will. Or - I can't believe I almost forgot about this - penny sellers!

I have the privilege of knowing a lot of successful online booksellers whose incomes increase every year. With some coaxing, I could probably get some of them to share some of their numbers with us. And, of course, maybe there are times when it helps to demonstrate that things are actually possible by presenting real-life examples. But if you've had a so-so or bad year, I'm guessing that you could care less about this. Who wants to hear about somebody else who's doing fine? The thing is - the perfectly understandable thing is - you want to make it yourself.

But this may have become a tough task to take on. For one thing, you might not be a beginning bookseller. You may already know tons and tons about books, bookselling, and so on. And still - still it's not working. Meanwhile, you're getting worn out trying. I wouldn't presume to offer a single solution that would work for all of you. The profession is too complex to admit universal remedies. However, that doesn't mean that there aren't things almost anybody could do to help their cause, perhaps significantly. In this chapter, I'm going to present one you may not have thought of.

If you don't mind, however, I'd like to start with something that might make you lose your lunch: Opportunities for succeeding at online bookselling are greater today than they ever have been. Inspired? I didn't think so. But let's look at an earlier statement and see if I can put this in a convincing context: Transactions take place between one human being and another. Think about this for a moment. Think about it especially in terms of what bookselling was in the open-shop era, when so much happened face to face, and what it is now in the internet era. Today there are still two human beings involved, but what's the actual perception? Buyers certainly know that they're human beings, but do they perceive sellers as human beings? Or are they nothing more than "Add to Cart" buttons clicked en route to a PayPal payment? And you sellers know that you're every bit as human, but what about your buyers? Are they anything more than "Sold, ship now" emails?

Trust - how very much easier it would be to establish it if buyers and sellers perceptions could be altered by humanizing the people they interacted with. Now, think about how many opportunities you pass by to humanize yourself online - and I'm not talking about your shop cat, the adorable animal that's prominently featured on your website About Us page. I'm talking about you. You, after all, are the seller.

Moan and groan about the state of bookselling, other booksellers, venues - whatever you like, but it won't help make next year the best year you've ever had. One reason that online bookselling opportunities are greater today than they ever have been is that many of your competitors are doing little or nothing about establishing trust in advance of sales; fewer still are taking deliberate steps to humanize themselves - and thereby build trust. This can be as fundamental as wording an Amazon Marketplace description so as to show that you actually possess the book you're selling and care about describing it properly. It can be as complex as posting a web page detailing your credentials as a bookseller, along with testimonials. It can be everything in between. And should be. There are countless strategies, tools, etc., available for closing the gap between the person-to-person bookselling that happened in pre-internet days and the person-to-computer bookselling that prevails today. In the face of growing fraud/incompetence/whatever-negative-thing-is-going-on among your competitors, succeeding will depend critically on your ability to leave plausible footprints in this virtual world.


    1. Descriptions

    Chances are good that your buyer's first encounter with you will be by way of coming across one of your listings; and you have, as they say, only one chance to make a good first impression. If building more of yourself into your descriptions isn't overly appealing to you - don't we have enough to do already? - I'd ask you to at least consider what a huge difference even an extra moment or two could make in elevating you above your competitors. If you haven't ventured out as a buyer lately, you might be surprised at how bad it's gotten - how ineffectually your competitors introduce themselves.

    Example: Let's say that you've decided to go hunting for inventory on Amazon - for an early, perhaps 1936 printing of Gone with the Wind,. Either from experience or reading the Gold Edition you know that, if you can get your hands on any 1936 printing in reasonably good condition for a few bucks, you can probably score $50 and up (usually up, up, etc.) on eBay, and more if it has a dust jacket. How difficult a process do you think this will be? If you've attempted to purchase collectible fiction on Amazon before, you already know that you're in for an adventure. The process will be nearly impossible, even though there may well be multiple copies available that meet your criteria. Hidden copies, that is.

    To begin with, if you conduct a search for the title (and specify the author, hardcover format, and a publication date before January, 1937), dozens of separate catalog entries are returned, many with more than one offering from buyers. Here's a promising entry on the first page:

    Gone with the Wind (June, 1936) (Hardcover)

    With prices starting (at the time of this writing) at $2.68, surely we can find some possibilities here. Clicking in, I'm presented with the following fifteen descriptions on the first page:

    1. Modest sunfade/discoloration on spine/cover.

      No publication data. Pass.

    2. Hardcover cloth 1936 edition, has wear to spine & edges, text clean very nice condition, fast shipping.

      What does "1936 edition" mean? Nothing to me. Many editions of GWTW were published years later and state "1936" on the title page verso. Pass.

    3. Good overall with moderate wear; No dust jacket;

      No publication data. Pass.

    4. 1936 Macmillan 6th printing (November) hardcover / no dust jacket. Book is in fair condition. Gray cloth over board covers have moderate edge and corner wear. Corners are bumped with some fraying. Spine is heavily rubbed and ends are chipped and frayed. FFE has a name on it. Pages are clean with moderate age tone. Binding is sound and shaken. This is a reading copy only! It isn't pretty but it is readable.

      Ah, finally, some publication data. But wait - 6th printing? Macmillan archives show the 6th printing as July, 1936, not November, when the 24th printing first hit the streets! So how can this be? Well, one possibility is that the seller mis-read the copyright page, which states,

      Set up and electrotyped. Published June, 1936.
      Reprinted June (twice), July (three times),
      August (six times), September, 1936 (four times),
      October, 1936. (six times), November, 1936.

      Perhaps "six times" was interpreted as a 6th printing? But who wants to guess? Besides, this looks like a sorry copy anyway. Pass

    5. Blue hardback, no dust jacket. Spine a little loose but overall clean inside

      No publication data. Pass.

    6. Former library copy. Some binding tape on outside. Nice picture on front.

      No publication data, though the "picture on front" description certainly rules out a ca. 1936 copy. Pass.

    7. Spine needs repair, book is in ok condition but far from great

      No publication data. Pass.

    8. The spine is ripped approximately 2 inches from the top of the book. The pages are clean and in good condition.

      No publication data. Pass.

    9. cover , binding and pages show little to no wear. no dust jacket.ships daily

      No publication data. Pass.

    10. No dust jacket. 1936 edition the MacMillan Company. Deckled edge. No loose pages. Gray cover. Binding side of cover worn. No writing or other markings.

      Another meaningless "1936 edition" description, and in any case, "deckled edge" suggests a book club edition, published years later. Trade copies were trimmed. Pass.

    11. hb; 1938; 1037 pages; bottom edges of spine binding a little rough with one tiny tear at the top; names inside on first blank page (this page is attached but a little loose);

      1938 is outside my 1936 window, and also note that the first 1938 printing was the 42nd overall and numerous ca. 1938 printings followed. Even if I wanted a 1938 printing, I'd be guessing again. Pass.

    12. No DJ. MCMXXXVI Printing. Clean, no writing or marks.

      A Roman numeral 1939? This can only mean one thing - a much later book club edition. Pass.

    13. New York; MacMillan Company; 1936; Reprint; 8vo 8" - 9" tall; Good with no dust jacket; Boards have minor soiling. POS (two different ones - both with dates in pen). No DJ. Edge wear. Spine is slanted.; Clean, tight bright pages. December 1936. Good reading copy.; 1037 Pages; Mitchell, Margaret; Gone with the Wind; AVAILABLE; Hardcover;

      Pausing here. "December 1936" suggests that I might score an actual ca. 1936 trade edition. And the price - $10 - is okay, but I'd be taking a considerable chance on the condition. "Reading copy" isn't comforting. Pass.

    14. Hard cover:1936, probably book club edition. Gray cloth boards. no dust jacket.Creased spine with edgewear. Last owners name on ffep. Text is clean, tight, with no underlining. This book has been gently used.

      Uh ... pass.

    15. The book states "Copyright MCMXXXVI (1936), BY THE MACMILLAN COMPANY". The binding is tight, the page edges are rough cut, and the pages are clean except for a previous owners on the first fly page. The cover has edge wear particularly on the corners where it is through the cloth. There is no dust jacket.

      What's that echo I hear? Book club edition! Pass.

So - of the 15 potential copies, only two appear to be ca. 1936 trade editions, despite the fact that all appear under the umbrella of a catalog listing which suggests a 1936 printing - and both of these appear to be in very poor condition. I've wasted my time looking.

But here's the most important thing to take away from this example: This frustrating result is typical of the state of online bookselling today. Go to any major venue and try the same thing. I guarantee that you'll be hard put to find what you're looking for, and, even if you do, condition may not be fairly represented.

And yet, think about this for a moment. Is this as seemingly dire for your own business as you think it is? No doubt there will be some buyers who will be so put off by their experience that they'll simply stop looking on Amazon and never return. But some will keep looking, and somebody will inevitably come across one of your listings - and buy it. They'll buy it because it shines, because you've taken a few more moments of your time and done what any reasonably competent bookseller should do: You've described your book with a clear, positive statement that communicates what it actually is.

I realize that almost none of us have much time to burn on descriptions, but I'm going to list what I think - ideally, if time permits, and realizing that some books require more attention than others - should be included. The closer you can come to including all of them, the more you'll stand apart from your competitors, and the more likely, other things being equal, you'll make the sale and they won't.

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