Bookselling 2008

by Craig Stark

#102, 27 August 2007

What Can You Do Now to Make It a Good Year?

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Amidst the sometimes dramatic, ubiquitous changes that have occurred and will continue to occur in online bookselling, there remains one constant: Transactions take place between one human being and another. Today, as always, buyers and sellers must still come together on the basis of some sort of mutually shared trust to make sales happen.

Unfortunately, the first word that comes to mind when assessing the state of online bookselling during this cold, dark month of January, 2008 isn't "trust." In fact, if anything, it's "mistrust" - or a dangerously close synonym. Why? I could list dozens of reasons, but we all know what they are. Those of us who buy as well as sell books online know them more intimately than we'd like because we've actually experienced poor customer service, inadequate packaging, mis-described or misrepresented items, etc., not once, but multiple times. Sadly, these failings are no longer the exception.

And what about you? We can look at this anyway you like, shine a light on any aspect of your business. Is your customer service as good as it could be? Is it friendly? Really? Even when a customer sends you an angry email or makes an unreasonable demand? Is it prompt? Books out the door in one or two days - no exceptions? Followed immediately with an email providing a tracking number? Wait - do you even use Delivery Confirmation? Or is this whole process of fulfilling sales more often based on convenience? Do you take the trouble to package books safely before giving thought to what it might cost you in time or money? And what's really going through your mind when you describe your books? Are you making a deliberate attempt to communicate an accurate sense of what you're selling - and by this I don't mean making books look worse than they really are - or are you thinking more in terms of what you might put in your pocket? Attitude colors everything, and, though it comes to a buyer's view in varying shades, sometimes it colors things with a somber hue of mistrust. January, 2008 would be an especially good time to take a look at this.

But let's assume that you've got it going on. You get it done the very best you know how and are always looking for ways to do it better. Still, this doesn't change what's happening around you, does it? No matter how well you conduct your business, all of those other deadbeat booksellers are bringing you down anyway, no doubt chasing away buyers in droves, costing you who knows how much money ... right?

If we hear something often enough - and boy, have I ever heard this one kicked around lately - there's a temptation to think it might be true. But sometimes you hear things a lot because they're just, well, easy to say. And they're easy to say because those who say them may be more interested in excusing their own shortcomings instead of taking charge. This makes them easy to hear too. Easy to believe. It's easy to blame incompetent booksellers for mucking up the profession. Easy to blame venues for not policing them. Easy to get discouraged because of it. Easy to give up what you love doing - no, wait.

Maybe not that.

But some booksellers who come into bookselling loving bookselling are leaving anyway because they're not making enough money at it. It's those incompetent booksellers, damn them. No barriers to entry. Or the competition. Wow, just too freaking much of it now. Or thrift shops or FOLs that used to offer quality inventory have now wised up and started selling their stuff online. Or, if not that, started over-pricing their junk. And don't forget about that ridiculous contraption Amazon came up with. What's it called? A Kindle? Man. If nothing else ruins bookselling, that will. Or - I can't believe I almost forgot about this - penny sellers!


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Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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