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by Craig Stark

#87, 5 February 2007

A question for you: From this day forward, if you had the opportunity to sit in your office and both physically examine and research every book you purchased for resale in advance of purchasing it, how many buying mistakes do you think you would make this year? 5? 10? I think you'd agree that they'd be few and far between.

Another question: If you are a bookseller who buys inventory solely on the basis of your instincts and/or the knowledge you carry in your head, how many mistakes will you likely make during this same time period? A better question: How much will these inevitable mistakes cost you?

They'll cost you what you pay for them up front, of course. If you're an average, somewhat experienced bookseller who sells a hundred or so books a month and maintains a slowly growing inventory, chances are you purchase, typically, 125 or 150 books a month. I'm just throwing some numbers out here, but perhaps 25 to 35 of these books are bad guesses? At $2 or $3 apiece? And some of these bad guesses you stubbornly enter into inventory anyway?

If there's an up-front, out-of-pocket cost of $50 to $100 a month on bad buys, is this the only cost to tabulate? Absolutely not. "Bad" books have something I call negative value - that is, you're much better off not owning them it all because it's going to cost you what you originally paid for them and then some. Think about it. You bring them home, haul them into your office, store them on what's likely to be severely limited and competing shelf space until you decide what to do with them, perhaps glance at them at least once a day (and are annoyingly reminded of your mistakes), at some point finally decide to cull them and take them in for store credit, donate them, or whatever, whereupon you haul them back the heck out of your office, take them someplace, and are finally, finally done with them. Meanwhile, much time and energy has been expended for naught.

At BookThink, we've talked a lot about buying inventory online. It's a lot safer than buying books in the field because you can research books before purchasing them. If there's a disadvantage, it's that you don't get to physically examine the books you buy before you buy them. You have no choice but to base your decision on what you can discern from a photo and/or description. Usually works out ok, but not always, and in general - this is a trade off - you'll pay more for the books because of wider competition with other booksellers and shipping charges.

Again, wouldn't it be better if you could have it all? To take to the field and bring your office with you? Pay less for the books you buy? Make few or no mistakes? Well, ScoutPal and derivative field lookup services have made at least some of this possible in recent years. With ScoutPal, we've been able to do ISBN, LCCN and title searches on the spot and investigate results from Amazon, Abebooks and PriceGrabber. A major downside for some users has been that cell phone coverage isn't always what we need it to be, whether it's because you're not in a coverage zone or in a building that degrades the signal.

Dave Anderson at ScoutPal has recently introduced a new product for subscribers called ScoutPalDB that addresses this problem. ScoutPalDB runs on Pocket PC / Windows Mobile PDAs. Download a local database into your Pocket PC before leaving on scouting trips, and you're off. The database, which is updated every 5 days, returns ScoutPal-type results whether you're in a coverage zone or not. No downtime anytime or anywhere.

The ScoutPalDB result screen format and its content are customizable, and its user interface is "open-source" - that is, any enhancements designed by other users will become available to all users. Also, the possibilities for customizing are endless, but some obvious enhancements include a pop-up alert or sound alert when user-defined criteria are met such as a minimum price - and yes, you can use a scanner with this.

ScoutPalDB returns somewhat more basic results than ScoutPal - Amazon prices and rankings only - but if you're in a coverage area, you can quickly switch to ScoutPal for real-time results with more comprehensive information.

Hardware requirements

More information on features

Note that ScoutPalDB is presently a relatively early beta version, but Dave reports that - and this will come as no surprise to long-time ScoutPal subscribers - continuous improvements will be made over time. Dave has a long history of introducing new features and products, forever tweaking them to make them better, and offering some of the best support anywhere.

At the time of writing, there are a few other vendors who offer a similar service, but what makes ScoutPalDB important enough to feature in an article is the part I like best and will do booksellers the most good - price. Or, rather, the absence of a price. That's right - it's included at no additional charge in the basic ScoutPal subscription of $9.99 a month.

Now, getting back to the original premise - taking your office into the field with you. If you have a Pocket PC with an internet connection, you already have your office with you, and as long as there's coverage, you can perform even deeper research than ScoutPal delivers. As deep as it takes. For example, if you subscribe to eBay's Marketplace Research, you can search eBay closed auctions back 90 days. Think of the mistakes this will eliminate, especially on high-dollar books.

If you've never seen a Pocket PC with Windows Mobile in action, I think you'll be highly impressed. They can bring up virtually any website - usually graphically unmodified from its full-screen form - and navigate from page to page, site to site, as quickly as most desktop computers with broadband connections can. And how's this for a backup during power outages? You can tether your Pocket PC to a laptop, use it as a modem to run the internet on the laptop. I pay only $15 a month for unlimited data transfer; this is a major bargain and a lifesaver during hurricanes! There are several Pocket PCs capable of running Windows Mobile. Mine is a Sprint PPC-6700 with touch screen capability and an optional pull-out keyboard that's surprisingly easy to type on.

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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