by Catherine Petruccione

#58, 19 December 2005

An Interview with Michael Tokman

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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.

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