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An Interview with Michael Tokman

by Catherine Petruccione

#58, 19 December 2005

Oh, the power of books! Michael Tokman, a professional with impressive credentials (Ph.D., Immunology) and an Ivy League faculty position, ultimately chose books for his livelihood -, to be exact. In 2001 Michael's success as a bookseller evolved into the more technical world of hosting a bookselling site - one that grew much faster than he had envisioned. Suddenly there were more sellers listing books online than there was equipment to handle the volume and traffic, and trouble loomed ahead. Enter ZVAB, a well-established German company with a desire to expand their bookselling site into the North American market. The two sites merged this year, and Michael became general manager for North American operations.

Michael came to Ithaca, New York, in 1989 for graduate school at Cornell, and there he remains with his wife Marina and two sons, Jeffrey and Joshua. "Oh, so you never heard about the 'black hole' here?" he grinned at me the day we met. "Once you come to Ithaca and stay for a certain length of time, you are never going to leave." I understand why: what a lovely black hole it is! Nestled at the foot of Cayuga Lake and bounded by beautiful hills and gorges, Ithaca is bathed in academia and ethnic diversity that flows down from Cornell University and several local colleges.

Ithaca is also a likely place to find a scientist and a bookman. With his charming Russian accent, gentle manner and warm smile, Michael has a way of making you feel like an old friend the first time you talk with him. I sat down with him recently after spending a few hours at the Tompkins County FOL sale.

Bookthink: Michael, tell me a little about your background.

Tokman: Well, after earning my Ph.D. in Immunology at Cornell and doing a two-year post-doc at Guthrie Research Foundation, I came back to academia, as faculty. I loved working in the lab, performing experiments, teaching. But after a while, I found that I wasn't as happy with the obligatory bureaucratic aspects of the job. At the same time, I also loved books and in fact had a growing book business while working for the university.

I have been a bookseller here in Ithaca for about 15 years. I went through various growth stages, starting with placing mail-order catalogs in AB Bookman, to having a brick-and-mortar shop, and finally to A-ha! Books, a brick & mortar and Internet store I have been selling on since 1994.

As my book business grew, I made a very hard decision to leave academia and devote my life to books. That decision I do not regret. Even though I still love science, there is as much joy and satisfaction in the bookselling business (not to mention the fun and interesting people that one meets).

I vividly remember nights spent camping out in line before the opening of the sale you just attended, along with a host of other booksellers, making friends who met each year to sit up all night sharing stories. I remember one woman who took a break to go to the bathroom and lost her place in line because the "enforcers" came around for a roll-call before she returned. That's how strict the rules were (and still are! - C.P.).

I am sure every bookseller has amusing anecdotes similar to mine. It comes with the territory and makes book business a pleasure.

Bookthink: And how did you develop the idea for starting a selling site yourself?

Tokman: Do you remember Bibliofind? The idea for a site came to me when Bibliofind was purchased - and, for all intents and purposes, killed. People wanted another site that addressed the needs of the booksellers.

I talked to a lot of booksellers before I started creating ChooseBooks, asking them for feedback on what features they felt would be useful to them, what they would want to see on the site, what was important for them. Booksellers as a lot are very independent and set in their ways. Thus I wanted to get as much information as possible from booksellers' perspectives.

After that, everything else was easy [he laughs]. I was lucky to find Poney Carpenter, a very talented software developer, and Kate Lindemann, a marketing specialist who happened to be a fellow bookseller. Without these two people, ChooseBooks would not have happened.

Together we carefully analyzed the information that booksellers generously provided and spent countless hours discussing features, marketing plans, administration, tech support, etc. A year and a half later, ChooseBooks was born.

Bookthink: There have been recent changes in the look and features of the site. Tell us more about the ChooseBooks/ZVAB site, and any changes planned for the near future.

Tokman: The merger of ChooseBooks and ZVAB resulted in a truly global bookselling venue. Most sales on ZVAB are from German-speaking countries (Germany, Austria and Switzerland), while at ChooseBooks we targeted North American markets. Since the merger, the two sites are now one and the same. Whether visitors come to or, they will search the same database that includes books from both ChooseBooks and ZVAB sellers.

The only difference is the language. While will bring visitors to the English language site, will remain a venue for buyers and sellers who prefer German. Both sites have the same features, the same look and feel, and the same superior service. We decided to keep the names different to accommodate users' language preferences. English speakers will instantly know what ChooseBooks is all about, while ZVAB is practically a household name in German speaking countries. Our new system automatically detects the language setting of the visitor computer and brings up the appropriate web page.

This accommodation is beneficial to everyone. Sellers will benefit from new customers on both sides of the Atlantic, while buyers will have a much larger range of products to choose from. Just as an example, while visiting Germany, I confirmed my expectations that people there love to read, and books are an important part of their culture. What surprised me, however, was the popularity of English language books with German folks. A very large number of people in Europe are quite good in English. (I would say that many more people in Germany speak English than people in the States speak German.) Not only that, but they welcome an opportunity to speak and read in English, making them the perfect customer base.

This is the basic background. As to new features, recently we made a number of improvements, such as expanded search results sorting. Now buyers can quickly find specific items of interest by sorting search results by author's name, title, date of publication, etc. Additionally, you can access our "browse by categories" feature directly from the right-side menu of our home page and from the top menu of every page of our site. There are also improved services for registered users (information on order history, shipping and billing is now saved, making repeat buying easier). These changes are just a first step towards our goal of making ChooseBooks/ZVAB faster, more user-friendly, more efficient and, most importantly, a global bookselling venue.

But that is not all. Technical features are only one part of what we are trying to accomplish. I am a strong believer in providing educational information to both buyers and sellers. Perhaps this comes from my academic background, but it also makes sense. As people learn more about a particular subject, their interest in that subject grows. If we educate people about books, their interest in books will increase. They will rise from book lovers to book enthusiasts to bibliophiles (which, pragmatically speaking, will lead to more book buying).

To this end, we are devoting a special area of our site to educational information about books - preservation of books, information on collecting, articles on what is happening in the book industry, etc. These are the things that attract buyers to the site. You can have a strictly commercial site, but we would like to give people something extra-knowledge and information about books.

The other thing that we obviously want to do is to promote the new site to buyers. No matter what kind of technical features and gizmos you have, without orders it isn't a viable site. When ChooseBooks was on its own and new, we relied heavily on grass-roots marketing and whatever else we were able to do financially. Now with the merger we have the means to promote the site much better than ChooseBooks could ever do alone. With ZVAB we have the funds to advertise and penetrate the market to the point where buyers will know us as the place to go for antiquarian and used books.

Bookthink: Currently sellers must be capable of processing their own credit cards. Will this change in the future?

We will be ready to accept booksellers who do not process their own credit cards very soon. In fact, we are currently finishing the testing phase and have already admitted a number of sellers who do not process their own credit cards to the site as testers of this new feature. Once our testing is done, we will migrate the rest of ChooseBooks sellers that rely on our credit card processing feature.

Bookthink: What kind of feedback are you getting from other booksellers? How are sales doing?

Tokman: Before I answer this question, let me provide some background statistics and information.

Because we have not yet finished with the complete integration of ChooseBooks and ZVAB, we have not yet started promoting our site in the North American markets. We do indeed plan a substantial marketing campaign (which will include both online and conventional marketing venues) within two to four months once our technical integration is finished.

Also, as I already mentioned, ZVAB is a market leader for antiquarian books in the German-speaking countries. Currently we receive 4,000 to 5,000 sales per day from predominantly European buyers - which is disproportionately large, given that we host many fewer sellers and much less inventory than some of the larger sites.

Given this, I spoke with many ChooseBooks sellers when we began migrating old ChooseBooks accounts to the new ChooseBooks/ZVAB system. The feedback I got (and am still getting) is overwhelmingly positive. Many sellers are pleasantly surprised not only by the number of orders but also by the dollar amount of an average sale. It appears that on the average, European buyers tend to purchase higher ticket items.

Obviously it is good to know that we are delivering sales. But more importantly, it is even better to know that so far these sales are coming only from European buyers. It is an indication that once we begin our North American promotional campaign, the number of sales that we generate will be substantially higher.

And before you ask: Yes, I also heard from four sellers that were somewhat disappointed since they did not receive as many orders as they have been hoping to get. Yet, the fact that only four sellers were disappointed vs. large numbers of sellers that were happy was reassuring. I am very confident that once we introduce our site to a larger, more diversified buyer base, everyone will be satisfied.

Bookthink: Many of the established bookselling sites seem to have a blurred vision of their mission - for example, sites where sales of new books have now become a prominent part of the picture, or where a site's own books sometimes dominate the page. What is the vision of ChooseBooks and ZVAB? What is the business model you plan to follow?

Tokman: I am very happy that you asked this question because despite the unavoidable technical changes and restructuring turmoil associated with ChooseBooks/ZVAB merger, our business model and longer-term vision remain crystal clear and unchanged. I would say that it's an anchor that holds everything in place for us.

In a nutshell, ZVAB was launched quite some time ago and developed a very good reputation as a place of choice for rare, antiquarian, used and out-of-print books. This reputation was achieved primarily by attracting professional booksellers, offering quality products, and providing superior customer service. Although ChooseBooks is much younger, we strive to achieve the same goals and we share the same philosophy.

Our vision of the new ChooseBooks/ZVAB is to continue concentrating on traditional rare, antiquarian, used and out-of-print book markets. We are working to combine a conservative, professional and stable business model with state-of-the-art technology. Our focus has always been, currently is, and will continue to be on professionalism, quality and service (directed to both book buyers and booksellers).

I realize that on the surface this sounds a bit old fashioned and may imply stagnation, given the ever changing ways of internet commerce. However, this is not the case. There is substantial evidence to support the model we selected. Online shopping has now been around long enough that its novelty has worn off. In addition to the convenience of buying on the web, more and more buyers are now looking for the same services, personal touch and quality they receive in their local brick-and-mortar stores.

Well, this is exactly what we are trying to achieve: a well-focused marketplace emphasizing quality, professionalism and extra services.

As to the examples you mentioned, we will not be carrying our own inventory or be in competition with our own sellers anytime in the foreseeable future. We do have a link to a new-books site, but since it is not our primary product, this link is provided more as a courtesy to buyers (in case they are also looking for some new book titles). Thus it is not located on our home page - rather we decided to place it on the "More About Books" section.

Bookthink: Booksellers are voicing a great deal of dissatisfaction with the larger bookselling sites. Complaints include numerous technical glitches, too much down-time, slow response to questions and problems, an overabundance of new sellers ... the list goes on. The time seems ripe for better used and rare bookselling sites to emerge. What do you think are the key factors in creating a reliable, first-class site that works well for both sellers and buyers?

Tokman: Every online company is going to have technical difficulties. It is the nature of the business and comes with the territory. If hardware fails, it fails. Thus, I feel it is not fair to criticize anyone for having downtime.

The trick is how quickly you can get back up and running and, if problems occur, how they are presented to users. I have encountered many sites where it was a standard practice to never admit that something could possibly go wrong. If users had problems, it was always the fault of the user for not following some kind of a secret ritual that led to the problem.

Basically this is an avoidance approach: "When something goes wrong, never admit that it is the site's fault; admitting this would make our site look less perfect (i.e.,. God forbid that mere mortals will realize that we are just like them)." This approach is very patronizing, and I am strongly against such policies. Folks using the site are no less (and most times much more) intelligent than I. Just the fact that I happened to learn some specialized information about computers does not mean that I can do no wrong and accidents do not happen to me.

I am a very big believer in open communication and know for a fact that anything can be explained in a clear and straightforward manner. Everyone likes to be treated with respect and with understanding that they are just as intelligent as you are. Stuff happens. That's life. Generally, people will much rather get concise, clear information and a reassurance that whatever can be done is being done, as opposed to getting a run-around or not getting any information at all.

I guess the main thing that I am trying to say is that being available to freely communicate with your sellers and address their problems in an open and clear manner is crucial to the success of the site and its sellers. Sorry for taking so long to get to the main point, but this is something about which I feel very strongly.

Bookthink: Selling sites seem to be getting massively cluttered with low-end, ex-library, and poor condition books that lend to the appearance of a rag-tag flea market. There's also the problem of sellers who are listing books for less than the price it costs to obtain, store and ship them. Do you think it might be time for one of the selling venues to experiment with raising standards, instead of lowering them? If so, do you have any ideas about how this can be accomplished?

Tokman: Yes. I definitely think that current trend in bookselling is the "race to the bottom." I see this in numerous respects: book prices, inaccurately described books, poor customer service on the part of sellers, etc. And, yes, I am convinced that bookselling venues should try to raise standards. However, it is a very complicated matter because it involves "meddling" in the way sellers run their business, something that nobody wants to do.

Well, in my humble opinion, in order to answer this question, we have to first examine reasons for the lower standards. No one argues that internet has had major effects on bookselling. I would go out on a limb to say that no other event since the invention of the printing press has had as much influence on bookselling as the popularization of online shopping (arguably, of course).

Many of these effects are very positive: creation of a global marketplace which offers convenience to buyers, sellers having access to dramatically increased pool of customers, facilitation of commerce by means of easier searching and payment processing, etc.

Yet, at the same time there are also negative fallouts from the popularization of the internet. Mainly this involves the fact that anyone can now become a bookseller practically overnight without spending any time to acquire the necessary knowledge and expertise. This would explain most of the problems you mentioned in your question.

At ChooseBooks/ZVAB we are indeed trying to address these issues. We decided that quality is better than quantity, and thus our aim is to build a network of not just booksellers but professional booksellers. By the way, by "professional," I do not mean they have to own brick-and-mortar stores - we fully realize that the industry is changing and many people have home-based internet businesses. What I am referring to is the professionalism of how the sellers treat the customers, how accurately books are described and presented, what is the return policy, etc. - in other words, how professionally our sellers conduct their business. These are all issues that are important to us.

One of the approaches we take is careful screening of sellers. We go out of our way to assure that the booksellers fit within our "professional bookseller" heading. Before new sellers can list or register on our site, we contact them and get to know more about them. We want the level of professionalism on our site to be higher than the current industry standard. This in turn benefits buyers as well. If you are dealing with professional people who know how to describe books and package books, there are fewer surprises, fewer frustrations, fewer returns. Everybody benefits.

Having said this, I am also a realist and realize that it will take time to resolve this problem. I believe that in spite of what the site does, these problems and issues with overnight booksellers will last for a while. Selling books is not easy: finding books, describing them, packaging and shipping them, and answering questions is a lot of work. A lot of people jump into this business because they think it will be easy - just get a shelf of books together and sell them. But eventually the novelty wears off.

Soon they realize there is a lot of competition and a lot of effort involved in doing a professional job. So by natural selection, some will drop out. At first, for everybody who drops out, there may be two who jump in - and this will last for some time. But I am convinced that this phenomenon will run its course and things will eventually get back to normal. People who have devoted their life to bookselling will thrive, and the new people who are willing to learn and educate themselves and realize what the bookselling business is about will likewise succeed.

Bookthink: All businesses need new people. How do you reach the new sellers who need to be educated? How do you raise the standards to encourage professionalism?

Tokman: This is a very good question and goes hand in hand with the previous one.

I already mentioned the careful screening of new sellers that want to register. But, by itself, that is not enough. So what does one do? On one hand, and for obvious reasons, we would like to have as many sellers as possible and continue to grow. On the other hand, we want to maintain the highest quality standards.

We can take the negative approach and, as complaints come in, reprimand sellers, suspend their books, or kick them out, etc. (in other words constantly be a Bad Policeman with the Big Stick). I am sorry to say that in some instances this may be necessary. But it is not something that we want to spend our energies on and not a very efficient way to operate.

I like to take a more proactive role of education and information. Some of the problems with poor book descriptions, poor customer service, etc., come not because sellers are maliciously trying to mislead customers, but rather due to lack of knowledge (as I indicated in my answer to the previous question).

Thus, we at ChooseBooks/ZVAB make ourselves freely available to answer questions, provide information, and offer assistance to sellers. Often we are asked questions that pertain not only to ChooseBooks/ZVAB but also to general bookselling. We are always glad to offer this general information since we also benefit by increasing the knowledge level of our sellers.

Occasionally, we are informed of a problem that a buyer has with a particular seller. Instead of a rating system that lacks the personal touch, we contact the seller and offer our assistance in resolving the problem at hand and also offer our advice on how to avoid problems in the future.

At the end, we want every seller to have ample opportunity to succeed, since their success is intimately tied to our success. Some of the problems are easier to monitor than others, but we are doing our best and constantly looking for ways to improve knowledge exchange. This leads to us being able to accept more educated and professional sellers.

Bookthink: Michael, you have the reputation of having always offered dependable, courteous, and prompt technical service and advice to your booksellers. What else do you think ChooseBooks/ZVAB offers its sellers?

Tokman: We are in a competitive market with all the various listing sites out there. I believe that sooner or later, it will become a niche market. We are striving to be a leader in the rare, antiquarian, used and out-of-print book market and do it in our own way-with quality, patience, stability. A clean, simple site: you search, you look, you find the book you want and buy it - end of story. Come back again later and buy more and get the same customer care, superior service and respect. Nothing flashing, no gimmicks or things that divert your attention from book buying.

Also, as a result of ChooseBooks/ZVAB merger, we are in a unique position of being a truly international site. There are many cultural differences between North America and Europe in the way bookselling is done. We are constantly looking for ways and implementing whatever features are possible to facilitate cross-country (and cross-continent) commerce.

Basically, we have a clear vision of our goals. Along with our sellers, I am certain we will be successful in achieving it.

Bookthink: You reported that more 90% of the sellers that were with ChooseBooks prior to merger have stayed with the site through the transition. Some 1900 sellers chose to stay with you. This says a lot about the loyalty of your booksellers and we wish you continued growth and success over the months and years ahead. Thank you, Michael, for taking the time to do this interview.

Visit the site at either or .

Post Script:

Old Scrolls Book Shop has been with ChooseBooks since its original launch in 2003. In a recent sample three month period we have had our inventory on ChooseBooks/ZVAB (8/01/05 to 10/31/05) we sold seven books at an average price of $11. Two books went to Germany, one to Switzerland, one to the Netherlands, and three to U.S. customers. This closely parallels our results for the same three-month period on Biblio (seven books, average sale price $12). We have approximately 6,000 books listed.

Other sellers' results may be different than ours. Although these results may seem trifling when compared to our sales numbers for the same time period on Abebooks (85 books sold) and Alibris (125 books sold), please bear in mind that the larger sites have been established for a much longer period of time. Also, ChooseBooks is temporarily not being searched by AddALL and BookFinder while work is being done on their site, and an advertising campaign will be launched when the site is finished. This should help boost sales. ChooseBooks does not charge listing fees, we have had no technical problems, no communication problems, and no returns. I enthusiastically place our inventory on smaller venues where customer care and bookseller service is excellent, as we anticipate their growth and want to be a part of a brighter future for the used & rare book trade.

Catherine Petruccione
Media Editor for BookThink and Proprietor, Old Scrolls Book Shop

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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