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The Independent Online Booksellers Association (IOBA), a nonprofit trade organization, was founded in 1999 with the key goals of providing continuing education to member booksellers and promoting a climate of excellent service to book buyers.
1998 was a defining year for online bookselling. The previous trickle of books offered online became a flood when thousands of booksellers began listing inventory on multi-dealer online bookselling databases such as Interloc, ABE (Advanced Book Exchange), Bibliofind and Bibliocity. IOBA's founders saw the need for a trade association that would provide members with the most up-to date-information about doing business in this new, rapidly changing business environment. Eventually Bibliocity was absorbed by Alibris (formerly Interloc), and Bibliofind merged into Amazon.com. EBay, an auction site, became an everyman-for-himself way of selling books without requiring much investment in money, time, or education, presenting the book trade with a cluster of new problems. Not only did many sites evolve over the next few years, with thousands of dealers and millions of books, but a multitude of people who had no prior bookselling experience began selling books online.
Some of the larger bookselling databases are corporations whose interest in the activities of their dealers has sometimes been superceded by their focus on the bottom line. Signing up more and more dealers, thus increasing the volume of transactions, often became a greater concern than ensuring accurate data and good customer service. With so many people selling books online the sites often weren't able to police their booksellers, only discipline them by removal if complaints became too great, an action which tended to work against the sites' financial interests.
For generations, experienced book dealers had created accurate book descriptions for use in catalogues, using agreed-upon terminology and standards of grading. Suddenly there were online sellers copying the language of professionals, often without knowing what it meant. Others didn't know enough about the profession to be aware any specialized terminology existed. It's a tradition in the book trade for old-timers to educate newbies, and the usual way was by face-to-face visiting, but in the virtual professional community that now exists this is not so feasible if the old-timer is in Massachusetts and the newbie in Kansas.
This was the situation faced by the founding and charter members of IOBA, who decided to create and maintain a trade organization that would be inclusive, yet obligate its members to follow professional standards, including writing accurate book descriptions, dealing with customers in an ethical manner, and informing customers of their rights. IOBA members range from sellers just starting out, to those who have been around for decades. Some work part-time, some full-time; some are generalists, and some are specialists in topics ranging from travel, to science fiction, to cooking, to religion, among many others. What draws them together is a desire to utilize the latest technology of online selling while exhibiting professionalism in their interactions with customers and each other. IOBA members strive to promote mutual trust and respect between booksellers and customers by conducting their business dealings with fairness and integrity.
IOBA is now in its sixth year, and a new set of officers has recently been elected. The officers manage IOBA's activities on a day to day basis with the assistance of members who work on various operating committees focusing on education, ethics, bylaws, membership, public relations, internet operations, and finance. In addition to educational content on the IOBA website, one of IOBA's goals has been to offer member benefits and discounts useful in the course of business, and committee members are constantly striving to improve IOBA's offerings in this area. Current member benefits include discounted website hosting, discounted bookselling supplies, and preprinted IOBA-branded educational materials for distribution to customers. IOBA's newest member benefit is book listing opportunities on IOBAbooks.com via Biblio.com, a leading bookselling database. IOBAbooks.com listings are accessible through Google.com and other search engines that index static web pages, as well as the book meta search engine Bookfinder.com.
Another of IOBA's goals has been to assure buyers that purchasing from an IOBA dealer offers the most complete guarantee the buyer's rights will be upheld. Not only do IOBA dealers agree to clearly state and adhere to return and refund policies, but also accept responsibility for damage to or loss of a book until it's in the customer's hands. Should a customer feel a book has not been accurately described, a full refund is made if the book is returned in the same condition as when it was shipped.
IOBA maintains a website at www.ioba.org, where members and non-members can view IOBA's mission statement, bylaws, code of ethics, book terminology and grading information, book-related reference links, member directory, database of member inventory (www.iobabooks.com), and all back issues of IOBA's useful and entertaining online magazine, The Standard (www.ioba.org/newsletter/index.html). The Standard contains a wealth of educational material, as well as timely articles of interest to the book-selling and -buying community. The entire IOBA website will soon be searchable by keyword, adding to its usefulness as an educational tool.
IOBA has four membership categories: Voting, Associate, Apprentice, and Supporting. Voting Members are booksellers with an online bookselling business which is not a publicly traded corporation, and own at least 75% of their inventory. Voting Members have been in business as booksellers for at least one year, and must continue to sell books online to maintain their membership.
Associate Members are partners or employees of a current Voting Member. Apprentice Members are new booksellers in business less than a year, and otherwise meet the same requirements as Voting Members. Supporting Members are those who are not booksellers but want to support independent bookselling, and endorse IOBA's Code of Ethics. This category includes librarians, book collectors, authors, and readers.
Each IOBA Voting, Associate or Apprentice Member agrees to conduct their business in accordance with the IOBA Code of Ethics, and is required to be familiar with the correct usage of generally accepted terminology of the book trade. IOBA booksellers refrain from using language or terms that might conceal defects, overstate condition or mislead buyers in any respect. Any defects, blemishes, or other characteristics which reduce a book's quality from the highest condition grades 'As New' or 'Fine' are noted in an item's description. IOBA booksellers conduct a thorough inspection of any item offered for sale and make a reasonable effort to ascertain its authenticity. Unless otherwise mutually agreed upon by buyer and seller, members unconditionally guarantee any representation of authenticity.
Some IOBA booksellers offer appraisal services. These members have agreed to meet all legal requirements in their jurisdiction, perform appraisals only for items available for physical inspection, and inform clients in writing of any conflicts of interest before accepting an appraisal assignment.
IOBA members' interactions with one another have resulted in a number of long-distance friendships. Whether exchanging opinions about book listing databases, sharing personal or professional achievements, or discussing pet peeves, members value the opportunity to visit with colleagues, if only on a virtual basis. Occasionally members have an opportunity to meet in person, such as at Vic Zoschak's biennial seminar at his store Tavistock Books in Alameda, CA. At the first seminar, held in 2001, the discussion ranged from digital cameras to cost-of-goods to forgeries, as well as the planned topic of identifying first editions. Attendee reports and photos can be seen here.
A final interesting aspect of IOBA's operations is that most decisions are made during virtual Board of Directors meetings held via email. Each participant's contribution is intermittent, so the meetings can take a few weeks. Topics are brought up and discussed, motions are made, voting is undertaken, and IOBA evolves and progresses. As it progresses, it will continue to be a factor in defining the nature of professional bookselling on the internet.
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