Putting a Face
. . . on Faceless Venues

by Catherine Petruccione

#77, 11 September 2006

An Interview with Abebooks' Sue Connors

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This year Abebooks.com celebrated it tenth anniversary. Launched in Victoria, British Columbia in 1996 by two couples who decided it was time to bridge the gap between antiquarian books and modern technology, it has grown into an international book venue with over eighty million listed books posted by 13,500 independent booksellers from around the world. It has been branded as "The world's largest online marketplace for new, used, rare, and out-of-print books."

Abebooks.com was named one of the top e-business sites by the United Nations at the World Summit Awards in Geneva, 2003; it was also named as one of Canada's top 100 employers in 2004, 2005 & 2006 by MacLean's Magazine; and it was chosen as a "Forbes Favorite - Best of the Web" by Forbes.com For more accolades see here.

Change is inevitable in today's world, especially in e-commerce. Sometimes we welcome it with open arms, sometimes we resist, and I think booksellers in particular are inclined to be the first to say "Who moved my cheese?!" After all, we are in the business of trying to preserve the treasures of the past. But somehow, most of us recognize that, in order to be successful in bookselling, we have to adapt in order to thrive. There have been plenty of changes at Abebooks over the years, and there are more to come. I recently spoke to Sue Connors, Director, Sales and Account Management at Abebooks, from company headquarters in Victoria, British Columbia about, among other things, ABE's plans for the future.

BOOKTHINK: Can you tell us about your own background, Sue?

CONNORS: I started with Abebooks seven years ago. I was hired by Keith and Cathy (Waters) and Rick and Vivian (Pura), the founders, back when we had about 3,000 books online at the time. That was back in the very early days - pre e-commerce. They brought me in to perform a lot of different functions, but the primary role was to take care of the bookseller community - to look out for their interests, find out what products and services they needed to succeed on our site, and to build the relationships with the understanding that this was our most important purpose and that we needed to take care of them. I have had the pleasure of meeting thousands of booksellers from all over the world in seven years, and I wouldn't trade this job for the world. It's just fantastic.

Obviously, I'm a book lover; I wouldn't be in this industry if I wasn't. But my background is really in technology. I grew up helping and teaching people all about computers and the internet, and my role at ABE was to bridge the technology and the book business. They determined that they needed someone who could come in and bring the interests of the bookseller to the forefront of the company but also help them understand this new era. At the time, the internet was very new, technology was very new, and for a lot of booksellers out there who were collectors or rare booksellers in the used book industry, just the idea of getting their books online was something foreign.

The question was, "How do you go about building that bridge, how can we make it easy for them, how can we make it simple?" That's why I was brought in. I met Cathy when I was doing an interview. I used to work on a technology TV show, and I interviewed her. I came into this building and saw Abebooks and was absolutely astounded. I just couldn't believe it. It was such a mix of the old and the new. Here you had the history and treasure combined with this technology that just reached out to millions of people and brought the world together. So for me it was really exciting and it stole me away from my previous business.

I think that's why it's such a fascination. It's not this new technology or gadget that's out there; it's about an age-old tradition of reading combined with a brand new technology and communication mechanism, and it's made what was previously impossible suddenly possible. A book that is found in a country village over in the U.K. can now be purchased by someone sitting here in Victoria.

BOOKTHINK: You must be one of the longer-term employees with ABE.

CONNORS: I certainly am. I'm not sure what number I am(!) There are a lot of us that are still here that have been here since the very beginning. I still have lunch with Cathy and Keith and Rick and Vivian. We're all very good friends, and they are still very close to the business.

BOOKTHINK: How many people are on the staff at ABE?

CONNORS: We now actually have 120 people.

BOOKTHINK: Can you give our readers a brief overview of the establishment and growth of the site?

CONNORS: As you may know, we are the world's largest on-line marketplace for new, used & rare, and out-of-print books. We have over 80 million books from 13,500 professional booksellers from around the world. This year we are celebrating our tenth anniversary. Our roots lie in Canada, but we are truly a global business. Our headquarters are in Victoria, British Columbia and that's where we were founded. The founders were Keith and Cathy Waters and Rick and Vivian Pura. Cathy used to run a used bookstore in Victoria called Timeless Books. All of the other three used to work in the IT industry.

The real story is this: Cathy used to put ads in magazines trying to source unique books for her customers. It sounds like a made-up fable, but what she had done, she had put in by accident a very generic description of this book she was looking for. And she received hundreds of cards with information on them about this book. And so she sat down in the living room and sorted the cards into piles. At the time she had a 2-year old and a 4-year old and they opened the window, a breeze came in and her cards went crazy. She broke into tears.

Keith just looked at her and said, "This is ridiculous. I'm a database programmer and there's this thing called the Internet, and there's got to be a solution here for you. It just doesn't make any sense, you doing this by hand." So he teamed up with his partner at work (Rick Pura) and together they came up with this brainchild of Abebooks.com. They literally rolled it in and manned the phones and from day one offered 1-800 telephone service to their customers. And today we have offices in Dusseldorf, Germany and Oviedo, Spain because we acquired Iberlibro.com and also offices in the U.S.A. - in Berkeley and San Francisco because of BookFinder and FillZfill.com. So we've grown up from the day of one bookseller to over 13,500 booksellers. It's all been through organic growth, word of mouth, and just good hard work.

BOOKTHINK: And we can thank the wind.

CONNORS: Yes, you are right! We went on a road show with Keith one time, and I brought him to Florida where he was telling the story. I could see the look on his face and he said, "I still SO remember that!" It's remarkable. They are very passionate about this business. As you probably know, Cathy has actually gone back to her roots and bought Grafton Book Shop in Oak Bay, which is a rare and antiquarian book shop, and she's managing that business. She is one of our loyal customers. (See more about the history of Abebooks here.)

BOOKTHINK: Is the number of booksellers listing with ABE growing or declining?

CONNORS: The number of sellers continues to grow, but it does fluctuate seasonally, and it fluctuates country by country and by different segments. We have been very stable in our core group of booksellers, which is the out-of-print, antiquarian and rare group. We do probably have a little bit higher rate of turnover in the new category. Some people it doesn't necessarily work for, but for a lot of people it does work very well. So we do continue to grow, just not at great leaps and bounds. I can say we get hundreds of applications to join each month. We try to maintain professional standards - that is something that we take very seriously. When a person applies at our site, we don't just flick a switch and you're on. New applicants have to go through a vetting and screening process, which means we do a very in-depth and thorough security check on them. We call each and every seller personally and welcome them and make sure they have all the criteria so that we can get them onto our site for a successful selling experience. You have to be serious about selling books, and you have to abide by our policies and rules.

BOOKTHINK: How would you say the site has improved in the past ten years?

I would say the key basic service is still the same. We have maintained a devotion to book lovers and professional booksellers. What has improved is our selection. We have more books and more types of books, and our services have improved. For instance, back ten years ago, we didn't have our international web sites. Now we have Abebooks.co.uk (United Kingdom), Abebooks.fr (France), Abebooks.de (Germany), and Iberlibro.com (Spain). We are planning on launching an Italian site in the fall. We are growing internationally and allowing all of our booksellers the opportunity to reach all of these markets. You don't have to pay a different fee to get onto a different marketplace. So, our site has improved through expansion.

Also all of the technology associated with the site has been upgraded. This allows us to bring more buyers to the site, more customers to the site. We currently get over 3 million searches done each day. And in order to do that, you have to consistently upgrade your servers and your technology, or it just wouldn't work. Right now, it takes just a few seconds to search across 80 million listings, and that is quite a feat. We've also expanded our actual search database and added different fields. Last year there was a lot of discussion about new things that we had added to our site and what we had done to rebuild the infrastructure. We rebuilt the foundation so that it's an extremely stable site going forward. So now we have the ability to take fields such as quantity. And we can do further expansion. We can now grab language fields. We can go into more attributes and different definitions of books. In the very beginning when we first started Abebooks, we had one description field. Basically, we said, everybody go ahead and put everything you know about your book into the one description field and then we'll try to figure out ways of going and searching and helping customers search and find books. It became clear that wasn't going to work as the site grew in size.

We've done a lot of marketing on the site. We now have author interviews, Avid Readers Newsletter broken down by segments, and we even have our Avid Collectors Newsletter - and all of these go out to over 600,000 North American subscribers. We have our beloved Community Forum, both on the bookseller and the book buyer side, and Book Sleuth, which is something people really enjoy. We get tens and twenties of questions coming in every day like, "Where can I find this book? I remember this book about a horse…"

We have added a lot of services to try to bridge the people to the technology and expose them to the great service that our professional booksellers actually offer. That's what we're about - getting book sellers in touch with buyers. It's not Abebooks selling Abebooks.

BOOKTHINK: There seems to be a problem with advanced searches on some sites, including ABE. When specific search criteria is entered, such as "first edition," or "dust jacket," the results bring up everything under the sun. It's frustrating for customers and booksellers to search for specific criteria in a book and then find pages of unwanted search results. What can be done to improve the advanced search option?

CONNORS: This is one of the largest challenges, I think, when it comes to translating technology and people's wishes, and it's something I've been hearing about for quite a few years.

You have 13,000 different booksellers who all have a different method of going about describing their books, and they are using thousands of different tools to give us their data. One of the unique things about Abebooks is that we have a very lengthy description field. And we have to have that available because it's extremely important when you are describing a collectible book.

However, what we didn't do in the early days was separate out different fields for things like "first edition," "signed" in our database, so we had all of these different formats and tools used by all of these different booksellers all coming into one database. So we built all kinds of work-arounds, as I think other people in the industry did as well. They did things like "parsing," which means we would build an intelligent little engine and our computers would look through a seller's description and look for anything that says "signed," and if it found the word "signed," it would set a flag in our "signed field" that would say "signed copy." And then we realized that's not good enough (and this of course was years ago). With lots more intelligence and training to the system, we had it pick up what should be signed, but it wasn't perfect because, of course, it's not really reading. It's only looking at digits. It doesn't have an intelligent human behind it.

So we knew that the only way we could get this to work was if we get all 13,500 booksellers using the same tools and using something that's going to work well with our refinements on our advanced search. Now that's also very challenging because they all have different ways that they want to describe their books. Some people want to use "Fine" as a condition, some want to use "Mint" (whether that's right or wrong), and everyone has an opinion, and they want to use it for their own store requirement, not just on-line. So we had to come up with a plan, and the first step in that plan was to re-do our database so that it had all these fields. We've done that.

The second step in the plan was to release new versions of our inventory system program so that people could give us the information in the right format. In other words, we didn't tell them, "Give it to us in the wrong format, and we'll guess." We are going to say, "Give it to us in the right format, and we'll give you the tools to do that. You can continue to do business and list your books the way you want to see them listed. It's just that we are going to make sure that we can easily take that and put it into our system."

So we're going to be smart. We are going to build it into our applications. And that's where you are going to hear a lot of buzz about HomeBase 3.0. HomeBase 3.0 is our new product that is in a Beta phase of testing, but it has all these new fields and this new idea of "mapping." In other words, if you decide you want to describe your book as being in really great condition, you can call it whatever you want, but our system will classify it as "Fine." So we have some of these types of improvements coming. We have it in Beta, and we are going to watch and let people still maintain the flexibility of listing books the way they prefer to list books, yet we are going to have them complying in search so that collectors are presented with the correct information and the terms they are looking for.

We do have to be careful to meet the needs of all kinds of buyers: students, readers, collectors. There are all kinds of segments of book buyers and book sellers. So HomeBase 3.0 is one of our solutions. And the other advantage of HomeBase 3.0 is that it will have real time inventory management. What that means is that when you update or change your book in your HomeBase program, and you click on send, it sends the changes directly to ABE. You don't have to batch it up and do it in files. If you are always on-line, it will automatically update us. If you are not on-line, it will automatically update us the next time you go on-line. It really tightens the integration between the bookseller and ABE, making sure the changes and updates are reflected correctly. So there are a lot of changes coming with HomeBase 3.0.

But it's not just HomeBase. We know that lots of people use our online system. There will be improvements to our online system, and we have thousands of people who are using their own program or custom-conversions. We are going to make sure that we completely work with these people and continue to support those file formats. This is a lot of work and something that we have been working on and talking about for years, but it is all coming into reality now, and we have the ability to do it because we laid that foundation. Now all of this means nothing unless we expose that onto the search. That's why you're going to see more and more refinements coming out, and you're really going to be able to drill down in those refinements, but still have that rich element of data in the book listing. You'll still have the seller's photograph of the book. We are not trying to change our site. We want to keep our site really the premiere site for rare and collectible books. We just want to make it easier for collectors to find what they are looking for.

BOOKTHINK: One of the things I like about the ABE site is the ability to upload photographs.

CONNORS: It helps sell books, and we know that. We want to improve that service, offering sellers the ability to offer more photographs, make it easier for sellers to give us photographs because the more booksellers give us in terms of information, the more books will sell.

BOOKTHINK: Many booksellers are alarmed by the abundance of books that are poorly described, mis-described, or misleading regarding quality or edition. There are also sellers who are allowed to include, "Buy from me, I'm a charity" or similar beseeching appeals in their book descriptions. Add to this drop shippers (sellers who don't even have the books they list in their possession) - and then there are growing numbers of cheap, ex-library and book club copies mixed in with higher quality books. Does ABE have any plans to address problems like these?

CONNORS: When it comes to the people who are putting on the clutter and the junk - are they selling the books? No. And the problem becomes, how do we police it? There are a couple of ways we can approach it, and one of those is through policies. We have a very in-depth Bookseller Policy list that is on our site, and we have actually opened and are re-evaluating each and every one of our policies right now. The latest that we just introduced on July 7 was our page-hogging policy, where anybody who has greater than two listings of the same book (and they have to be materially the same) and are clearly trying to hog the page in the search results will be suspended or removed from the site if they do not clean up their act within 14 days.

So we are really taking a hard look and we are working with our Advisor Group to make sure we're putting in place policies that maintain the quality of listings and the site because we understand totally what you are saying. We want to make sure that book lovers and book buyers that come to the site are not going to be disappointed. And we watch the activities of every bookseller - in other words, looking at things like completion rate, return rates, and really monitoring and making sure that people are complying and not doing something that is going to jeopardize the rest of the community. One buyer buying from one bookseller - they don't necessarily think of it as just that bookseller. They think of it as the entire network. One bad apple spoils the whole bunch, and we understand that.

Another method of accomplishing this is through Seller Ratings. We have been talking a lot about that. We had a group of booksellers in our offices back in February, and we had an initial brainstorming meeting on that. It is something that we want to be introducing, and it is on our road map. We are going to be putting out seller ratings. The question is, how do we go about doing that? There are many different models, and that is something we definitely will be putting before the Bookseller Advisor Group. We want to hear the booksellers' input on that subject. But with that, we also want to be able to put some sense of quality behind the booksellers that do list with us. So we'll be coming out with things such as your associations - that is, if you are a member IOBA or AABA for instance, we'll promote it and present it in each of your listings. Again, this gives credibility and some sort of uniqueness and quality to the booksellers that list with us.

Regarding booksellers who do not have the book in their possession, a lot of those people will be serving from wholesalers, as an example. We are really talking about those that are in the new book segment, and they serve a definite need. We have a lot of people buying on our site that are buying not only rare and out-of-print books but new books as well. One method of getting that new book might be from somebody who not only has the book in their warehouse but also has contracts with these independent third parties to ship the books right to them. So we want to maintain them. We want to have all of these books on our site because we don't want to send them elsewhere. We want to keep these book lovers loyal and true to Abebooks, but at the same time, we want to maintain standards of quality. Everybody that lists with us is in under the same policies, and they have to have the legal right to sell that book. It's just that there are different models for different segments of booksellers that are out there. It's not a catch-all answer.

Again, getting back to just the clutter, that has a lot to do with how we do our search and how we organize our data and present the information on our site. So if we can showcase the used, collectible and rare and out-of-print and the new in different ways, that's going to get us more of an opportunity to get rid of the clutter because right now, it's similar to seeing a giant warehouse, and you're going, "Okay, where do I find the book?" And what we want to do is create the "rooms" just as you would walk into a beautiful book store and you would see your rare book room, your new section, and your bargain section.

BOOKTHINK: Right. Sometimes buyers just want to find a book they want to take to the beach, and that's legitimate. But it's difficult for people who are looking for gift quality or collectible quality books. I think they just get frustrated sometimes and leave the site.

CONNORS: Absolutely. We call it our brand mantra - "findability, simplicity, value and trust." We coined the phrase "findability" because unless you can find the book, there is no point in it. We want people to be able to come to our site and find what they are looking for. And every person who comes to our site may have a different requirement in what they are looking for. So we have to make it very simple for them to get through the clutter and get to the actual listings that they want to see. We have all of that laid out in our plans. It's just a matter of getting there. You are going to see a LOT of activity and a lot of improvements over the next six months. It's exciting for us, and especially for me because I'm seeing it.

BOOKTHINK: What about the "Buy from me, I'm a charity" or "Buy from me, I ship in 24 hours" statements in the book listing descriptions?

CONNORS: We agree this is not the place to put that kind of information. It's is one of our policies that booksellers not do that. A lot of times we just need to be notified of that to be able to rectify it. People are used to listing in other platforms that they are allowed to do that, but on our site you've got your Terms of Sale section, and that's the place for that type of information. I would definitely say it doesn't help them generate sales.

BOOKTHINK: I realize it doesn't, but I think I speak for many booksellers when I say we want a professional looking site that we are proud to sell on. It just doesn't look good to have all these various appeals appearing in the book descriptions.

CONNORS: I understand. Definitely let us know. A lot of sellers have come up with the same kind of question. We literally get, on a daily basis, over 200,000 new books added and over 5 million updates to our listings. So we don't see them all. With a staff of 120 people, we can't see them all. But with a network of 13,500 sellers, we do. We actually like it and appreciate it when you point things like this out to us.

BOOKTHINK: I don't think sellers like to be "tattle-tales" or put in charge of monitoring the site. Maybe we have to be. I don't know.

CONNORS: You know what? It's not tattle-tales. It's being done because you love the site, and quite frankly that's flattering for us.

BOOKTHINK: There are also a lot of booksellers who do not reply in response to a question or inquiry about a book. Again, they probably aren't going to be in business very long, but it's irritating to potential buyers.

CONNORS: We know that. I hear it all the time. That is one of the biggest topics of discussion in our code of conduct and policy reviews. And the question is, how do we get that message out? How do we police it even further? This is a requirement - that you must get back to your customers. It is basic customer service. We recognize that something needs to happen. We are always on top of complaints and proactively communicating that in our Newsletter but not everybody listens. That is actually in our "vetting call," where we welcome booksellers to our community and go through and screen them carefully. That is one of the questions that the customer support team has to make sure they have asked and inform booksellers, "Are you aware that you are required to respond to a customer's request for information within two days? This is a requirement." We do our best.

BOOKTHINK: Recently Abebooks eliminated the ability of booksellers to process credit cards for their customers. Why was this step taken, and how has it worked out?

CONNORS: Just a minor correction - it's not all credit cards. It's just Visa and MasterCard. That was as of April 1st of this year. Let me give you a little history of the evolution of credit card use on the internet. Back about ten years ago, or when we started here, it was okay to email credit card information over the internet. Can you imagine doing that today? But internet and online shopping has become very mature and so have fraudsters. So security and trust is of the utmost importance and we have a Security and Trust Team within Abebooks, watching and making sure things like that are guarded against.

The majority of credit cards that are processed on our site are definitely Visa and MasterCard. And what happens in the seller-direct model where we are passing information direct to the bookseller is literally that: We are passing information direct to the bookseller. They get a screen, and they can write down the credit card information, and off it goes, which isn't exactly the most secure model that is out there. We were getting growing pressure, to be perfectly frank, from the credit card companies specifically as they come in with new compliance standards, new industry standards, that this wasn't exactly accepted in the industry. They were telling us, "We're not sure how much longer you can continue to do this." So you know, we already had over 50% of our booksellers having us process the Visa and Mastercard charges. That's one angle - that at some point in the future, the credit card processing companies were going to say we can't do this anymore - so it just didn't make sense to continue. We know that it's important to be able to accept other payment methods like PayPal, Discover, American Express, money orders and checks as well, and we continue to offer that flexibility.

The other side of the coin is that we wanted to introduce new marketing ideas like coupon promotions, for example. If you wanted to give, say, $5 off a $50 book on our site, the question is, how would you do that logistically? How does the payment and processing work, and how do you get the money back to the seller? We are working hard to implement a coupon program right now, by the way. What we want to be able to do is to say, okay, it's a $50 book, and you, Mr. Buyer, will be charged $45.00 and Mr. Bookseller, we'll pay you $50 because it's an Abebooks-funded campaign. In order to do that, if you didn't have us processing credit cards, we couldn't include you in this group that the coupon was valid for because it would become very complex: How much do you take in from the buyer, and how do reimburse the seller? It became very complicated.

The other side of that is getting that additional revenue, to be perfectly honest, which is going to allow us to do things like the coupon campaign and help us put more into marketing and bringing more sales to the site.

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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