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Biblio is one of the newer online venues for used and rare books, it has grown substantially in its three years of existence.
Based in Asheville, North Carolina, this venue has been a leader in implementing innovative solutions for booksellers and prides itself in its interaction with both buyers and sellers. Maybe its timing wasn't ideal - it launched operations during a fiercely competitive period - but it has managed to hold its own and appears to be working toward an even brighter future.
In today's interview, Kevin Donaldson, Director of Sales and Marketing at Biblio, answers some of our questions about the spirit behind the enterprise, its growth to date, and its future direction.
BOOKTHINK: Kevin, please tell us something about your background and the rest of the Biblio team.
DONALDSON: I have been in web design and consulting for nearly seven years. My background is marketing and sales development. Interestingly enough, when I was in college, I did work for some large bookstores such as Walden Books and B. Dalton in my summers and spare time, so I did have some experience in the bookselling world from the new-book angle. It came back to me later in life, not really as a plan - but I'm an avid reader and a big fan of books, and that helps me do my job a little better. I did some consulting with Biblio early on and eventually came on as a full-time employee.
We have six people here. They are mostly people who deal with daily customer support, bookseller support, accounting and product development. By that we mean web site development because our product technically is the website, whereas the seller's product is obviously their inventory. We have to keep the website running efficiently and make it useful for users. There's that real fine line between what's important to the seller and what's important to the customer. We juggle those two things every day.
The sellers truly want a lot of good tools and a really efficient way to sell books, and the customers want a completely different set of tools to find books. So we have people on both sides of that net, helping customers and helping sellers. That's what most of us do here. We develop all of our web products on our own, we don't outsource any of that work to anyone, we manage our own servers and equipment - and we are pretty self-sufficient.
BOOKTHINK: Can you give us an overview of the development and growth of Biblio?
The site started almost ten years ago in the mind of Brendan Scherar, our CEO. He created a tool for the web called Search Biblio that for all intents and purposes was just like AddALL or BookFinder - a meta search engine that went out and found best prices and that sort of thing on the web. Seeing that that market was kind of limited and, also, probably like a lot of folks, not really enjoying what was being done by other companies that were in that marketplace at the time, he decided to shift Search Biblio into Biblio.com and turn it into a marketplace. He worked on the back end code while maintaining a day job, and I believe in February 2003 we officially came out with Biblio.com. At that time I think there were three booksellers and 400 books, and then it just grew from there.
Our growth has been very organic. We've got a lot of word-of-mouth on our side, a lot of booksellers who tell other booksellers it's a good venue. And contrary to what a lot of people may think or say, we do truly still keep a business ethos of trying to help an internet seller do business and trying to help a customer find unique inventory on the web because it's getting kind of cluttered out there. We are really not out to make a fortune because I don't think I need to tell you that there is no fortune to be made in the used book business. You spend almost as much as you make. So we are trying to keep afloat and provide really good jobs for people here in Asheville, which is a fun place to live but a little slow in the job market, and provide a really great website that people love to visit and use.
BOOKTHINK: Do any of the staff at Biblio have bookselling backgrounds?
DONALDSON: Brendan Scherar owned a rare and used book store for almost eight years and still dabbles in bookselling and buying, loves to collect and that sort of thing. Our Customer and Bookselling Support Manager, Stephen Bakes, has actually been a bookseller for fifteen years. And one of our employees who helps manage customer service has been a bookseller for seven or eight years. The other staff members are technology and accounting people. A lot of varying backgrounds here, but we are all avid readers. I don't know that we could do this without being interested in books.
BOOKTHINK: Biblio came onto the scene at a difficult time. It was pretty competitive.
DONALDSON: It was, and it still is in some ways. There were a lot of sites thriving in 2003. Since then, some sites have fallen, some sites have sold. The big guys got bigger and bigger, and some of them have sold. So the market has gone through a lot of changes since we came on. It's been interesting. We spend a lot of time sort of watching what everyone else is doing, and we don't really get involved very much because we are of the mind that, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." The site is working very well. People seem to enjoy it. We want to improve the site and offer new services, but it's very interesting to watch the market develop.
BOOKTHINK: What do you think allowed Biblio to survive when some other small start-ups didn't?
DONALDSON: We didn't change our focus. We didn't really go for the money; we went for the efficiency and making sure that Biblio was a useful site for buyers and sellers, really focusing on not worrying about our bottom line so much and worrying more about whether or not the services worked. Being a lot more technical and sales-oriented people, we tend to focus more on the nitty-gritty here and worry less about five- and ten-year bottom lines. We are a lot less corporate than some of our competitors and some of the folks who didn't make it. They didn't stay focused.
BOOKTHINK: How many sellers currently list on Biblio?
DONALDSON: Right around 5100. It has been growing rather rapidly, and to be very honest, in December of this last year we started to slow that growth by enhancing or increasing the requirements for a seller to list with Biblio. For a long time, we were taking just about anybody who could prove they were in business and could do a good job of fulfilling orders. And now we are making requirements a little bit more stringent to try to slow down the growth of the site so that it doesn't grow out of control. We've determined it's not quantity but quality that matters.
BOOKTHINK: That's noticeable on your site. We are hearing a lot of complaints about poor or misleading descriptions on other venues.
DONALDSON: It really has to do with just about everybody and their brother getting into selling books online. They really are not so much interested in professionalism in bookselling. And we've determined who a lot of those types of sellers are, and a lot of them have been removed. We were growing at anywhere from a 75 to 150 new booksellers per month clip, and I think since January now, we've added less than 200. We've really slowed that growth. If you can't prove that you have knowledge of how to list a book, then we tell you to come back a little later when you've figured it out.
BOOKTHINK: How does that happen? Do you monitor the listings?
DONALDSON: We take applications. The application now requires that you submit a portion of your inventory for us to actually review. We ask how long you've been in the business. If you've just decided to sell your grandmother's collection, we recommend you try e-Bay or something like that because that's not what we do. We ask particular questions about how the industry works, and we ask for a little bit of background now and have the sellers provide a couple paragraphs on why they love bookselling. It's pretty easy to determine which ones are thinking they are out to make a lot of bucks selling books online and which are actually interested in what they are doing. We do let collectors sell their collections, but these are collectors who know how to describe books. They've spent a lot of money on their collections. They are very interested in books. They may not be professional booksellers per se, but they do know what they are doing. The sort of midnight Amazon sellers are a thing of the past. We are staying away from that now.
We are going to implement some new inventory organization. We would like to make a sort of virtual room for really inexpensive reading copies - a bargain book room. Differentiate the inventory. If you are looking for quality books, you look somewhere else. It may not be in the Rare Book Room; you may want to look in our normal search area as well. We don't want to eliminate reading copies because people like to have a bargain book to take to the beach, but we don't want them blending in with the regular search inventory. It's not helping any of us. If we separate those listings out, it's going to benefit the user who is looking for cheap books, and it's also going to benefit the better booksellers by putting their inventory in a better place - and all of us aren't going to lose sales because of too many returns.
BOOKTHINK: Can you give us an idea of what type of book sells best on Biblio?
DONALDSON: The average type of book is somewhere in the $18-$25 dollar range in very good condition, well described. Better condition, better quality books sell best. Not necessarily a collectible book. We have a little analogy at Biblio that a lot of folks are going to buy a book for Uncle John for his birthday, and they are not going to buy a dollar copy or a paperback. They are going to buy a book that is described very well. Maybe it's a first edition or signed by the author; maybe it's in excellent condition and has a little higher price point. If you are buying a gift, spending $25 makes you feel better as opposed to buying a cheap book. So then your biggest complaint from customers is that things are mis-described or they don't come in the condition that's been promised. I'd say that mis-described books and non-delivery are our two biggest complaints from customers.
It has a lot to do with that gift-giving sort of thing. A lot of people buy books for other folks. People don't come to our site and sit around and read the book reviews and make a big pile of books in their shopping carts and buy them all for themselves. We tend to see many more one-time, one-up sales - one-up meaning one person buying one book - and they may say this is a gift, please expedite, or be careful, this is a present for the president of our company.
BOOKTHINK: Biblio seems to be a very seller-friendly site. Sellers can set their own shipping fees, contact their customers, upload photos of their books - to name just a few of the features. Which features are most popular with booksellers, and are there any that are unique to your site?
DONALDSON: A feature that pleases our buyers may be different from a feature that pleases our sellers, although of course many of our booksellers actually use our customer features. They like to compare prices or look up books and see where they are listed.
Of the seller features though, I think they may enjoy the benefits more than the features - things like our fulfillment discount. That's a good challenge for people. It's not only important for us to maintain quality, but it's also a lot of fun for sellers because people want to be in good standing, and if it gives them a discount, they feel good.
Customers never see seller's fulfillment rates; that's a bit of a misconception with some of our new sellers - that it's posted somewhere and that customers can see that they've dropped below 80% or something. But no, it's just for us, and it's to maintain the quality of our sellers, to let them know that they've been doing 95% fulfillment for two years, and if suddenly they are down to 75%, maybe their inventory needs to be updated. And it's a bit of a red flag for us as well.
BOOKTHINK: Explain how the Fulfillment Rewards program works.
DONALDSON: We've actually made a slight change to it recently to make it better for sellers. We were seeing some sellers with a low number of orders being affected negatively by it. We shifted it to a ninety-day rolling average, so that every ninety days, that average is re-tabulated on a monthly basis based on the previous 90 days. What we essentially offer are rewards for certain levels of fulfillment.
The other change we made - I think an 85% fulfillment rate was required before the discount kicked in, and we raised that to 90%. It requires sellers to really focus on keeping their inventory up to date so that they have the books they are listing and that they make changes on our site when books are sold on other venues. There's a page that breaks down all the percentages, but anybody who maintains a 90%-94.9% fulfillment rating gets 10% off their commission, and anybody who maintains a 95%-100% fulfillment rating gets a 50% reduction.
BOOKTHINK: Are fulfillment rewards helpful in encouraging sellers to keep their inventory up to date?
DONALDSON: It works, and it doesn't work. Some sellers don't care. But a lot of sellers, yes, even though they know it's not public, if they see their inventory drop below a certain percent, will write to us and apologize. It's funny because it shows that it's important to them, and we appreciate that they care that much.
BOOKTHINK: I agree - it's a terrible feeling if you can't locate a book that you have sold to someone.
DONALDSON: Right, but we understand that sellers have a lot of books and things get lost, damaged, or - who knows? - sometimes even stolen. We're not passing judgment; it just helps with some of the folks who really don't pay attention to inventory and don't keep it up to date. That's so important.
Another unique feature we have is the cash-back program. If you buy books for yourself, for your store, for your customers, for friends, or if you give your friends or family the reference code that we supply, you get a cash-back percentage of that sale. So essentially we are making you an affiliate for anything you buy on our site. The reason we are pushing this is not that we are trying to make a bunch of money off booksellers; it just makes sense. How many times does somebody walk into your store and say, "I'd love to have this book," and you don't have it, and you have to send them away? You don't want to send them somewhere else, so if you have a computer nearby, you can find it and offer to have it shipped to your store. When you order that book for your customer, you get 4% kicked back to you, not to mention the fact that you get that customer to come back and pick that book up - so you get them in your store a second time. You've helped them, and you've made them feel good about you. That's building relationships with customers.
I don't mean this in a condescending way, but we are really trying to train sellers to understand that everybody who walks in the door is someone you want to massage and make sure that they like you and want to come back because that is what they are doing down the street at Barnes & Noble, and you have to compete.
BOOKTHINK: I think a lot of sellers may not recognize that, especially those who sell strictly online. But even online, there are means to provide great customer service.
DONALDSON: When a customer sends you a question through our website that says, "Can you tell me a little bit more about the book?" you should jump through hoops for them because they will come back to you for the next gift for Uncle John - and the next and the next. It's really about building those relationships long-term to make your business succeed - I mean, this is Business 101.
So, cash-back is a great way to do that because it allows us to become almost like a referral site for people. Even if you don't order the book for them, you can say, "Hey, take this code with you, and I'll get credit for it, and I'll be happy to help you any time in the future." We've noticed a lot of sellers using it. Usage has increased over 150% since January of this year. There is no real upside for us because sellers tend to buy a lot of books through us anyway. The upside is really for the seller.
BOOKTHINK: One of the features I really like is that sellers can search other bookseller's inventories and see trade discounts offered, if they are available.
DONALDSON: If you are logged in, yes, that's a great feature. We've had a lot of good feedback about that. What's great about it is that, even with the trade discount, you still get the cash-back credit if you buy it, so not only are you getting a discount from the bookseller, but you are also getting a 4% payback from Biblio.
Again, you can see how a lot of these things add up to a lot less money for us every month, but that's not the point. It's really about the long-term vision of this thing and making it work for the next 20 years, not about trying to get out of it with a big profit in two years.
BOOKTHINK: So much depends on attracting better booksellers too. If you have seller-friendly features that bring them in, it certainly stands to reason that this would improve the quality of your inventory as well and, in turn, attract more customers.
DONALDSON: Our site is run from a user's standpoint substantially enough that, even though we still do hear a lot of sellers saying, "My sales are nowhere near what they are on Alibris or ABE," our sellers do stick with us. ABE has been in business for ten years, Alibris for twelve, and we've been in business for three, so obviously we're not going to be as big as those guys; we're not going to generate as many sales; but considering that we've only been here for three years, we're doing a pretty good job.
BOOKTHINK: Do you have any idea what your average sale price is?
DONALDSON: It would be pretty skewed because of the higher priced items, and it's hard to take your higher priced items out of the equation. We don't really have a number. That's a real hard one to pin down. We do hear from other people that books can be priced a little higher on our site and have been in the past. One of the weird misconceptions is that it costs more to list with us, which is very strange, because even to date, we are the least expensive site to list on by far. It seems odd that people have had that misconception.
BOOKTHINK: I don't raise my prices on Biblio, but in my experience, higher end books tend to sell there.
DONALDSON: The customer base is made up of those types of buyers. And again, we don't have a lot of demographic information on them, but we just see the types of books they are buying. And we do have a higher average sale price, I think, than Amazon Marketplace.
BOOKTHINK: I like it that sellers can upload actual photos of their books to your site.
DONALDSON: We prefer that because of condition issues. It saves us all a lot of woes when you guys are uploading an actual photo of a book and showing a customer what it's going to look like. They don't get it with the expectation that it will look like a brand new cover from a publisher. That can hurt us all with a lot of returns.
BOOKTHINK: Don't you think that photos also help buyers to actually commit to buying because they have a clearer idea of what they are getting?
DONALDSON: There was a study published recently comparing customers shopping online and buying in person, and that's the number one reason people buy in person: They want to see it and feel it, size it up, before they invest.
BOOKTHINK: As of March 1, 2006, Biblio began a structured billing process that offers sellers the option of either paying a commission on each sale or paying a flat fee and a smaller commission. Was that well received?
DONALDSON: It was well received. We had so many booksellers contacting us asking for a flat-fee structure. And when we brought it up to our advisory committee, they said that it was going to really alienate a lot of people who don't sell a lot and want to be on a commission basis only. Somebody then came up to us and said, "Why not do both?" So we thought about it for a minute and said, "Wow, that's a really good idea. Why not? Nobody else is doing it." So we did decide to change to that. And it's been very well received because it does give you the option. If one of the options isn't working for you, you are more than welcome to change to the other so you can pay at the rate you feel comfortable with. It is really a revenue-neutral investment for us, as far as technology goes. We are not making any additional money off of it. What's good about it is that we are offering booksellers, unlike some of our competitors, options to list the way they want to list and change when they want to change. It seems to have made everyone happy. This idea was actually suggested by one of our sellers, and it shows that we listen. If it makes sense, we are going to do it.
BOOKTHINK: You don't rate your sellers as some other venues do. Does this work well for you?
DONALDSON: There are a lot of customers asking for seller ratings. And there are some - not a lot, but some - sellers asking for it. Usually it's the exceptional sellers who do everything right who would like to see a seller rating system in place. But it's the poor guy who makes one mistake who can be completely trashed by a customer who is just angry that makes us fearful of a system like that. When you go into some sites, you can see vendors being hurt by one angry or possibly hostile customer. So while it may be something we do in the future, we're still juggling with exactly how to do it. And I don't know that anybody's really nailed it down. Even e-Bay and Amazon have, in my opinion, fairly archaic methods of rating sellers, and feedback still can come back to bite sellers. So we are trying to figure out the best way to do it. Right now, though, in the short term, we've solved it by managing the quality of the sellers, screening them better when they apply and removing their accounts if they are consistently bad or we have customer complaints. And even though it's unwritten, we have kind of a three-strike policy. If we get three major complaints about a seller, they will be inactivated indefinitely until we can figure out what's wrong with their account or determine if they are not really a quality seller - and we then have to remove them.
BOOKTHINK: Do you have problems with sellers abandoning accounts?
DONALDSON: Very rarely. We often times have situations where there's a loss in the family or someone becomes ill and doesn't have the time to manage their account, but you would be amazed at how many sellers email us and say something like, "I'm going in for heart surgery on Friday, please put my account on vacation status," and we say, "Oh my goodness, the last thing in the world you should be worried about right now is putting your account on vacation," but they do it. It's interesting to see how the quality sellers on Biblio, or on any site, behave compared to those who are just in it for a quick buck.
BOOKTHINK: Any plans for further enhancement of the site?
DONALDSON: You know, the web changes every day, and web users demand more, so yes, absolutely. We've just recently changed our Rare Book Room to show you much larger images of rare books. If you are going to invest $1,000 or more in a title, you ought to be able to look at it really closely. We're improving our search all the time, trying to get it to be more precisely keyword focused and based on popularity of searches and that sort of thing. We are always tweaking and doing slight changes in this area. I could go on and on because there are hundreds of things we'd like to do, but it's all about time. We try to manage our feature growth on our site as we manage everything else on our site, slowly, so that we don't put out a big product that's just going to break down on us.
Recently, we worked with IOBA books to get their bookselling engine going at IOBA, so that took a little bit of time away from our developers.
And then, most recently, as of the last 3 ½ weeks, we were beta testing and running Biblion.co.uk.
Just a few days ago we launched that site to the world. Basically, they were operating primarily under Biblion.com. They had a lot of technical problems, and really it was no fault of theirs. They had hired outsource companies to manage it for them, and they just couldn't find a company to meet their needs. So they left the third party companies and came to us in about February of this year and asked if we could help them. We thought about it and decided we could do the same thing for Biblion that we did for IOBA and sort of provide the back end to Biblion to re-launch their site. We worked on that for a couple of months, tested it recently with some sellers, and re-launched it.
We are going to focus a little more on it being Biblion.co.uk and let them concentrate much more on the UK market and UK sellers rather than to try to re-launch it as Biblion.com. It's not just because they compete with us but also because we don't have the intention of going stomping into the United Kingdom market. That's not our core competency, we don't have enough staff, and we're not physically there in the country, which always bothers us and I'm sure bothers others too when you're dealing with technical support that works in a different time zone than you do.
So what we're doing is working with Biblion to provide a lot of services for their website. They are still going to do the marketing, advertising in the UK, and some initial customer support, but we're going to do mostly everything else and provide all of the back-end services for them. It's just a revenue share type of thing. They didn't have to pay us $100,000 because they didn't have it, and we're not eating a ton of expense because we already have the technology on Biblio. So it's kind of a win-win situation. It's nice to see them back up and running; they had a lot of customers who loved them, also a lot of great sellers on their site, and they are coming back slowly.
BOOKTHINK: So how, if at all, will this affect Biblio sellers?
DONALDSON: We are going to make it very easy to upload your books after you register an account with Biblion. We'll put your inventory on Biblion for free, the books will be uploaded to us, and we'll just put it over there, handling the uploads initially and on an ongoing basis. You don't have to upload to them and to us every time. We'll provide sort of a FillZ type of service but only on these two sites. And the billing structure on Biblion is exactly as it is on Biblio. For all intents and purposes, it's like a little Biblio over in the UK with a brand that was already established and people enjoyed. We've seen several UK sellers that don't list with Biblio already sign up for the site, so it's kind of nice to see those folks coming on board. We'll see how it goes.
BOOKTHINK: Do you have any marketing plans to attract more sellers to Biblio?
DONALDSON: We do very little print advertising. We do some in collectors' magazines and things like that to make more sellers aware of our site, as well as to attract some of the high-end collectors who really spend a lot of money on books, but what we really spend our time and money on is search engine optimization and search engine marketing. And by that I mean making our site friendlier toward sites like Google. We actually hired a company in January to help us with that because it is not our core competency, and it's also something that is very time-consuming. You need one or two people sitting there all the time dealing with this, and we really couldn't justify the expense. So we found a company up in Ohio to help us - Intrapromote - and they have done an absolutely fantastic job.
We have seen our number of pages listed in Google double in six months. And that's substantial, considering we had something like 1.2 million to begin with, so we have somewhere in the ballpark of pushing 4 million pages listed with Google. And by pages, I mean some content, but mostly books pages - ISBN numbers, unique inventory numbers, things like that - which does nothing but help sell books. When you type in "Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol" and the first return that comes back is a Biblio listing, there's a good chance it's going get clicked. That's been a big push for us.
Search Engine Optimization is hard for sellers to understand, and to be honest with you, sometimes it makes my head hurt. But it is a substantial return on your investment because you can quantify it. When we are spending time and money every day marketing books on the internet, when we are selling more books month over month, when we see sales and volume and actual number of titles going up month over month, then it's working. And it is quantifiable. You can actually put a dollar amount to it - which is nice. It's still so hard to do that with print advertising or with television or radio.
So, the big push is with what we call SEO (Search Engine Optimization) and public relations. We've done a lot of PR in the last year and a half since I've gotten here, and we're going to continue that - making customers aware of us. One of the best ways you can be mentioned is in the Sunday paper, and it's nice to have people find us in those ways.
BOOKTHINK: If you had to name one or two things that you believe are crucial to success for online booksellers, what would they be?
DONALDSON: Number one is always customer service. You would be surprised at how many people will return and buy from you again, whether it's from Biblio, whether it's direct through your website, or whether it's a guy in your town who might start coming to your store. Taking care of the customer is still paramount. Identifying somebody who buys a high quality book and keeping that person in mind when you go shopping for books, looking for books for that customer. It's the old way of doing used and rare book selling - establishing good solid customer relationships. That is the single most important thing. Even if it seems like it's a cold email from a customer through Biblio, that is still the beginning of a relationship. It might take two or three emails, and the next thing they may give you their phone number.
What's interesting about Biblio - a lot of people think we are chomping at the bit to keep every customer, and honestly, if as a Biblio seller you get a customer that you begin to develop a relationship with and they become exclusive with you, deal with you directly from your store, we are fine with that. You are incurring expenses talking to them, spending valuable time - it's your customer. We aren't going to say, "Hey, we want a piece of that action." That is why we're here, to get these relationships started because if you stay in business, we stay in business. There's nothing you guys can do - except maybe openly taking every single one of your sales off our site and cancelling Biblio orders, causing disruptions in service - other than that, there's nothing you can do in the process of building a customer relationship that will bother us.
Number two - in this world of technical applications, taking care of your inventory and making sure things are well described. And to be honest, there are a lot of sellers out there who have a lot of spare time on their hands. Use it to take photos of your books over a certain value threshold that makes sense for you - $15, $20, $25, whatever it is. And put up as much information as you possibly can about your books because we've already found that these buyers are buying books for particular reasons - for gifts, for other collectors, for their own collection. They are higher end buyers and they are going to spend more on a title, so if you can prove the value of your title, you are going to be more likely to sell it.
The biggest challenge, of course, is getting the customer to come to our site. That is a very big thing, and we work hard on that every day. And as I said, I think our biggest thing right now is SEO.
BOOKTHINK: Tell us a bit about Biblio Charitable Works, Inc., how it came about, and the Bolivian Library Project.
DONALDSON: That started as our Bolivian library project in Morado K'asa. [MEDIA EDITOR'S NOTE: Morado K'asa is a mountain village of about 200 families and central to eight other outlying communities in Bolivia. It serves a total population of just under 3,000. The finished library in Morado K'asa - Biblioteca "Villa Zamora" - officially opened on April 19th, 2005.] We just set it up as a corporation. We donated money, and we asked booksellers to donate books and/or money - and they came through. There weren't a lot, maybe 50 or 60 that gave us money or books, but they have not stopped asking about it and want to help us more. It makes us feel good - I mean, even sending $2 or $5 is a lot for independent booksellers, but it makes so much of a difference. You can turn that $2 in Bolivia into about $10 - that's the exchange rate. It's good to see this project come to fruition.
We raised the unbelievable sum of $4,800 to build an entire building and fill it with books, and we just couldn't believe it would cost that little to do it. It was so much fun, and it was such a success! We sent somebody down there to open the library, and they just fell over backwards. It was so amazing.
So we decided to keep going. We created a non-profit corporation, 501Z3 status, and hired one person who works down in Bolivia and coordinates the project - actually, it's Brendan's sister, Megan Scherar, and she was the inspiration behind the initiative and our involvement in it. She came to us with the idea for a community project while serving in the Peace Corps and said, "Hey, would you guys fund this?" We realized it could be a great project, one that could involve booksellers too.
Megan has now left the Peace Corps and is down there as our Project Coordinator for Biblio Charitable Works. She coordinates contact with the State Department, organizes shipping of books and meeting with town mayors to organize construction. She just doesn't stop.
I believe we're now working on six libraries in Bolivia. You can find out a lot more about this at BiblioWorks , which has almost all the information about the projects.
It's blown up into a huge thing. It's growing so quickly, and we are desperately seeking grants, seeking money to help things grow. I'm currently serving on the Board along with our CFO and our CEO.
BOOKTHINK: What do you Biblio's biggest challenge will be in the years ahead?
DONALDSON: Adapting to customers' needs, making sure that we're doing what they want, that we're providing the kinds of inventory they want. We don't want to tell booksellers they aren't important; booksellers help us evolve. They will stay true to us if we stay true to them, which we fully intend to do. But what's important is to make sure that we are moving with the tide. When customers change the way they do things, we have got to change. If we don't, we'll be left standing there like some of the old sites that have disappeared. That's why we're all technology guys, sitting here watching the marketplace, making sure we are adapting to it.
BOOKTHINK: Are you optimistic about the future of online independent book selling in general? Do you foresee any changes?
DONALDSON: We've got a huge future. It's going to continue to grow because there's a huge demand for it. What's nice is that publishers are slowing down on their print runs a little bit, and that is benefiting us. I don't mean anything negative toward publishers; I only mean to say that one of their reasons for reducing publication volume is that they want to slow down their overages and returns, and there's too many used copies selling, so there's less need for printing new copies. Also, slowing down print runs results in increasing demand for titles, making them more valuable in book format.
There are a lot of interesting changes coming down the pike. My son, who is 7 years old, loves books. He loves to hold books and to read books. That kid is not just going to fall into the e-book world and say he never wants to have another book. He just loves them too much. And as long as there are people in the world like me, forcing books on my children (just kidding), then there will always be books here for them. And books will become even more special when publishers become exclusively e-book publishers or there's no print copy of a particular author available. It just makes selling a book a more unique thing, and I think there will always be a space for it.
We do have to be careful not to commoditize the used/rare book business. There are a couple of "A" words for dot coms that I won't use that may commoditize or attempt to commoditize a product territory. By that I mean making these books as cheap and as easily available and as inexpensive to ship to your front door as possible - the lower the price, the better. We want to avoid the "Wal-Martization", if you will, of the used book industry. As long as we don't allow it to become commoditized as a product category, I think we will prevent it from becoming just another run of the mill product line.
Unfortunately, the music industry has slipped into commoditization because of its format and a thousand spin-off formats that have come from it. But books are a totally different thing. They have so much longer a history than recorded music - a different aura.
BOOKTHINK: I agree. I think people will always love holding books. You know, I spend all day staring at a computer, and at night, I don't want stare at a computer or print out something to read. I want to pull a book off the shelf and take it to bed with me.
DONALDSON: I think you are exactly right about that. The more our work lives are focused on computers, the less likely we are to want to spend time in front of them in the future. People are going to want books to get away from their technology. And that's a good thing for us.
There are tons of challenges, and I can't tell you what all of them will be. I just know that we all have a viable product, and selling it online is the way things are going now. I hate to see independents in small towns go out of business.
I think independents, in the US especially, ought to follow suit with what the Europeans do and become more like consortiums, start more book fair types of things, or get together in groups of 10 or 12 and open stores. Europeans are so much better at it than we are because of space limitations; space is so expensive there; if they don't get together and do it, they can't do it at all. But here it's kind of easy to rent your own space, and we go about it that way, and after about a year and half realize that we just can't do it anymore.
I think it would make a lot more sense if US booksellers would come together and open shops cooperatively. I think they would have a lot more success. People who might stay away from a store because it is a specialty store, such as a science fiction or a mystery store, will come to a place like that and end up perusing booksellers inventory that they might not otherwise have looked at because they thought it was too genre-specific, and they might find something they like. So, there's a ton of marketing advantages to it. I think it's a smart idea and a way to keep independent booksellers alive.
BOOKTHINK: Anything else you would like to add?
DONALDSON: Just that we are always appreciative of bookseller support, and we love having good inventory on the site. We see a long and healthy future for all parties involved.
BOOKTHINK: Thank you, Kevin, for taking time to talk with me today.
DONALDSON: It was my pleasure.
Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark
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