Close this window to return to BookThink

A Bookseller's Guide to Sellathon
Part I: Introduction and Auction Titles

by Craig Stark

#41, 18 April 2005

If you visit forums, especially the eBay forum, you know that there are good-intentioned, experienced booksellers who consistently offer helpful advice and information about selling books on eBay. Unfortunately, there are other booksellers who perceive eBay as a megalithic, corporate giant that not only doesn't care about the little guy but also seems deliberately intent on making life miserable for him, step by fee-raising step, to the advantage of - this is the group that's most often mentioned - the more profitable high-volume sellers. If you also read a popular email newsletter (I won't mention its name) that began life as an aid to help sellers make it on eBay, you also know that it's devolved into a near messianic adversary, determined, it seems, on delivering us from eBay's clutches and transplanting us in an alternate venue.

This hostility doesn't stop with eBay. You'll also be told in most forums that the online book market is glutted with inventory, that it's effectively impossible to make money anymore. The Golden Age of Bookselling, a brief, intoxicating period several years ago when you could put almost anything up for sale and make a buck on it is, to hear them tell it, over. If I didn't know better, I'd think that these sellers were victims of forces they had no control over.

The problem with these perceptions is the same as it is with all perceptions that emerge from failure: they're wrong.

Personally, I love eBay. It's my favorite place to sell books, and I make good money there. There was a time last year when I did back away some and waited for the dust to settle during the category - what's a nice way to put this? - "restructuring." My concern was that sellers wouldn't be able to find my auctions as easily and that my business would suffer. As a result, for several months I focused more on fixed-priced venues and listed less on eBay.

Two things happened, neither of them good. First, my overall sales went down. I discovered that I couldn't make up the deficit of less eBay income by sending more books to fixed-price venues. Second, it wasn't as much fun. One of the things I like best about eBay - why it's so much more captivating than other venues - is how things always have the potential of getting crazy. Last week (and Pam can attest to this) they got crazy three times on one of my selling ID's. One, an unremarkable booklet published in the early 1900's sold for over $200. (I probably would've listed it on Alibris for $30 or $40.) Two, a set of books I featured in issue #1 of 50/50 that typically sells for $40 to $60 inexplicably sold for almost $200. Three, two vintage, topically-related books I listed as a pair sold for well over $200. (Fixed-price comparables were, respectively, $10 and $30.) That's $600 that I absolutely could not have predicted would end up in my pocket.

Yes, some of this is luck, but I've been doing this long enough to know that much of it isn't. There are other factors involved as well: presentation, feedback, etc., not to mention the many small decisions I make dozens of times a day on things like category selection, auction length, start times, title wording, opening bids and so on. Until recently, most of these decisions were guesswork for me most of the time. Over time, with experience, I did get better at guessing, but the problem was that my guesses were forever based on precious little information and were, therefore, still guesses - and by their very nature guesses aren't always right.

Well, those dark times are essentially gone for me now, and all this for less than five bucks a month. If you're a regular BookThinker reader, you know by now that I only recommend products and services I use myself and derive significant benefit from. There are plenty of vendors out there who will happily take your money, only a few that repay the investment - and Sellathon is one that has repaid my investment in spades.

For those of you not familiar with Sellathon, ViewTracker is a sophisticated auction counter that's triggered by a block of code that you insert in your listings. It returns much more than visit totals - in fact, it tells you almost everything you ever wanted to know about your eBay auctions and then some. Here's a list (taken from Sellathon's FAQ) of data the current version delivers:

  1. The sequential number of the visitor. (Is he the 14th visitor or the 126th?)

  2. The date and time the visitor arrived at your auction.

  3. The visitor's IP. (By clicking the IP, you'll see ONLY those visits originating from this IP.)

  4. The visitor's geographical region (for example, "New York, USA").

  5. How much time the visitor spent looking at your auction.

  6. If the Reserve Price was met when the visitor arrived.

  7. If the item has received a bid yet.

  8. If the current visitor is the high bidder, a bidder who has been outbid, or no bidder at all. Also, if the visitor is watching this auction in "My eBay"

  9. Whether the visitor browsed a category, searched a category, searched all of eBay, used eBay's Product Finder Utility, came from "See Seller's Other Items", or some other page.

  10. If browsing, which category he was browsing in. If searching, which category he was searching in (if applicable).

  11. If searching, what search term(s) did visitor use?

  12. If searching, did visitor search "Titles Only" or "Titles and Descriptions"?

  13. If user found your auction through the "View Seller's Other Items" link, and if so, which auction did he come from?

  14. Which page of auction listings did the visitor find your auction on?

  15. Did visitor elect to view Auctions Only, "Buy it Now" items only, or both?

  16. What search preferences/options did the visitor select. Some examples include: Show/Hide pictures, Sellers that accept PayPal, Price Range, International Availability, Regional Searching, Gallery View, Show Gift Items, etc.

  17. How did visitor sort results? For example, High Price to Low Price? Ending Soonest?

If you stop to ponder this, it's apparent how some of this information could significantly impact how you do things on eBay. No doubt an entire book could be written on using ViewTracker, but I'm going to narrow my focus to bookselling - how ViewTracker can make you a better bookseller - and divide this into a two-part series. Today I'm going to discuss what ViewTracker tells us about book auction titles. Next time I'll get to everything else.

Auction Titles

There's simply no danger of overstating this: auction titles are hugely, hugely important. If you don't write good ones, if you don't help potential buyers both find your auctions and click into them, you're finished, even if your presentations have the allure of Odysseus' Sirens. I think I've always known this to some extent, but until ViewTracker opened my eyes to what I was doing - rather, doing wrong, I thought I was ok at titles.

However, for years I'd been laboring heavily under the assumption that most of my buyers found my auctions either by searching my descriptions (not by keywords in my titles) or by browsing the specific categories I'd placed them in. This had several consequences. First, I wrote titles designed more to intrigue a browser's interest to click into them than to supply all-important keywords, and second, I took serious pains to include as many pertinent keywords as possible in my descriptions, sometimes going overboard.

In my opinion, the most important thing you need to know about your auctions is how buyers are finding them, and ViewTracker does this with illuminating precision, monitoring both arrival methods and search terms used. Here's the awful truth that was delivered to me shortly after I subscribed to ViewTracker: 75% of my buyers were finding me by searching titles only, not titles and descriptions, and most of these searches were done globally, via all of eBay, not by searching in more specific categories - not even in the general book category! And this number is low. Most sellers report even higher percentages. Mine is lower, I've discovered, because I so often sell uncommon items or items that for one reason or another are most effectively found by description searches - for example, local history books containing specific genealogical information.

Well, hmph. Who knows how many potential buyers I've lost over the years because I was focusing on the wrong things. It's scary. And all the money I've spent in fees listing in two categories. Again, ViewTracker stunned me with this: only about 25% of my auctions are found by category searches. This isn't to say that categories aren't important - sometimes they can be - but category selection has nowhere near the importance I thought it had, and double listing is only occasionally a good investment.

Titles, titles, titles - they're almost everything.

As for search terms used, my assumption had always been that many buyers were sophisticated at searching. I'd imagined them using complex search strings that would unerringly match them with my books. Yeah, right. Want to know what the most common word used to find my local history auctions was last month? "Book"! True, this word is often used in combination with other terms, but my gosh, for years, I never ever used this word in titles - and how many buyers did that cost me???

Want to know the second most common term? "History."

Want to know the third? A tie between "genealogy" and "photographs."

Sophisticated? Not.

What this means for me is this: if I'm selling a local history book with photographs, I make an attempt to get all four of the above terms in my title. Allowing for spacing, that's 35 characters right off the top, and that only leaves me 19 to nail a geographical pointer. More often than not, therefore, I have to leave something out or abbreviate. And it hurts to do this because I know it's costing me lookers.

Title writing reminds me of poetry. Every word has to count and count big, and if you do nothing else with ViewTracker, at least make repeated visits to these two areas in the Auction Tracking Center: Arrival Methods and Search Terms. Study the data especially as it impacts how you write titles, then make the necessary changes and watch how it improves your sales.

In Part II, there will be more ViewTracker surprises - and more opportunities to increase your eBay sales.

For more information on Sellathon, click here.

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

Copyright 2003-2011 by BookThink LLC