Putting a Face
. . . on Faceless Venues

by Catherine Petruccione

#75, 21 August 2006

An Interview with Biblio's Kevin Donaldson

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Although 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.

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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