Building a Book Website

by Catherine Petruccione

#42, 5 May 2005

Part I: Startup

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Is there a website in your future? Many of you probably began bookselling as I did - selling on one or more fixed-price venues. After being in the business for a few years, you may have wondered if building your own website is the next logical step. A website offers customers a place to go to learn something about you before they buy; a place where they may be able to find books in your specialty areas, and hopefully, avail themselves of your special customer service which will make them return again. It gives you an opportunity to develop a base of customers who feel secure and confident buying from you. Best of all, it allows you to sell books directly to customers without paying a commission to third-party vendors.

On the other hand, a website takes time and costs money to develop, host and maintain. Unless you have a very good marketing plan (which requires more time/money) or have already established a strong customer base by other means, there is probably not going to be a quick return on your investment.

How much does it cost to build and maintain a website, and how does one go about it? Is it really cost-effective, and how much work is involved? In this article on starting a website (and one that will follow on marketing your site), we will explore those questions.

Some booksellers start with a basic web page with no search or payment capability but may offer links to search their inventory on larger sites, such as Abebooks, Biblio or ChooseBooks. S everal years ago we used to host our first website at the entry $9.99 per month level.

It was a good way to get our feet wet. Along the way, we learned a bit of html, some techniques for making the site both search- and customer-friendly, and we did have visitors. And a few buyers. Ultimately, however, we wanted the means to keep our customers at the site and have them complete their purchases there. This meant offering them one-stop shopping with search and payment capability.

Let's assume you've decided that the time has come for you to take the leap and set up a full-fledged bookselling website. You are serious about the book business and planning to be around for the foreseeable future. You have sold books for awhile either online or in an open shop, have acquired some knowledge, and, if you can't answer a customer's questions, you know where to go for the answers. Perhaps you have also developed a base of repeat customers from other venues. In short, you have what it takes to move to the next level.

First, you will need to register a domain name (e.g. This can be easily accomplished at any of several sites which allow you to both search for available domain names and reserve a name for a modest, annually renewable fee (about $10 and up). We used with a current annual fee of $13.50.

Anticipating that we would be building a website one day, we were careful to reserve a .com name. These are the most familiar, easiest to remember, but also hardest to obtain, so even if you are only thinking about building a website, the time to register is NOW. It is wise to come up with a name that includes word(s) that reflect what you sell because your site will more likely be returned as results to buyers searching for, say, used or rare books. Example: "" may not fare as well in a search as "" because buyers looking for books will be more likely to use this term in their searches. If possible, keep the name short or at least use something that is easy to remember. Also, intelligent insertions of meta tags and keywords offer an additional method for flagging your site as a used and rare bookshop. More about this in Part II.

Second, you will need to decide how you are going to accept payments. Statistics show that offering credit card payment will increase your sales (perhaps as much as triple them), and there is little doubt that credit cards are most often the payment method of choice with book buyers. This is one of the bigger steps you will take as an independent bookseller and may seem a little daunting. However, there are now some quick and quite affordable ways to offer credit card purchasing to your customers, both in-house and on-line. We selected ProPay for several reasons: there is no equipment or software to buy - they offer both web and phone-based processing - and we can process walk-in customers' credit card purchases in addition to website purchases.

Once you are set up to process credit cards for purchases on your website, you will have the option of doing the same on other sites you sell on. The advantage is that you will save on fees, but keep in mind that you will be spending more time processing credit card sales. Compare the fees listed at the end of this article to processing fees at Abebooks (5.5% + .50 per transaction), Biblio (5% + .25 per transaction) and ChooseBooks (5% + .50 per transaction).

PayPal is another option. It has good name recognition - it's widely used on other venues - so many customers will be comfortable using it. A seller's account is easy to establish, and there is no set-up charge. Fees are competitive. A pay-as-you-go fee is charged to the seller: 2.9% + $0.30 per transaction at 0-$3,000/per month sales volume. Basically, money is transferred from the purchaser's PayPal account, bank account or credit card to your PayPal account and, if you choose, on to your bank account per your request (no transfer fee applies to U.S. banks). The purchaser does not have to be a PayPal member to use the service.

Accepting checks and/or money orders from those who don't feel comfortable using credit cards or electronic payments online is very important as well. There are many book buyers who still prefer this method.

Third, you will need to make some decisions on what you want your website to look like and how to accomplish it. Even if someone else is building it for you, you still should be prepared to specify the elements that need to be in place. The homepage, preferably uncluttered, should tell your customers all the important things they need to know. There will also be decisions to be made on color schemes, the use and placement of a logo, and other visual elements that contribute to the theme or atmosphere of your shop. If you offer any special services or a nice selection of books on a certain topic, you'll want to put this out front as well, and if you are a member of an association (ABA, IOBA, etc.), including this information or logo will enhance your credibility. It is important to plan carefully for your homepage because this is your storefront - the hook that entices people to "step inside."

Visiting other seller's sites and actually making purchases will help you learn what makes a website attractive and easy to navigate from the customer's point of view. Take notes. Notice where the search and browse options are located. Try the different navigational tools available and identify the ones that seem most useful. Also pay attention to content - what successful sellers include (and don't include) on their pages. This isn't plagiarism but an exercise in learning how to put together the elements of a unique site that will satisfy you and your customers' needs best.

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