The World Book Market at Seven
(And Counting)

by Craig Stark

21 February 2011

An Interview with Guy Weller

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The World Book Market, a bookselling cooperative, was founded in 2004 by a small group of booksellers, among them Aussie bookseller Guy Weller, known to many online booksellers as "Mr. Pickwick in Oz." In seven years, WBM has grown to over 80 members worldwide. Previously, its powerful, bookseller-designed database application was available to members only, but that will change beginning February 28, when it will be publicly offered as freeware. To learn more about this tool as well as WBM, I recently interviewed Guy.

BOOKTHINK: Guy, given the many bookselling venues that have launched over the years and, with few exceptions, quietly disappeared for failing to deliver sales, I'd like to get started with the "big" question first. Just to survive seven years is saying something, growing a membership of sellers over time is saying something more, but let's be blunt: Does anybody actually sell anything on WBM?

WELLER: To our great delight, that is actually starting to happen, yes. And in a fairly steady and increasing curve. Mostly more expensive stuff, understandably - $US 100 and more. We are also beginning to build a cadre of loyal customers who are ordering multiple copies from different members in greater frequency than before. And we expect that trend to continue significantly throughout 2011 and beyond.

But one must always remember that we did not originally set ourselves up as a selling site, and for our first year or two we did not even have an online WBM sales site for our members. The WBM exists primarily to create better and increased sales on other listing sites, particularly Amazon, Abe, Alibris, Biblio and so on. It does this by providing advanced software facilities and routines to its members which create better, faster and more thorough listings at all those sites.

Our secondary sales target is to drive traffic and sales directly to our members' own websites - a good many of which carry in return all the other members' listings as well as their own.

And our tertiary sales target is our own WBM sales site, which obviously becomes the default secondary target area for those members who do not yet have a private website of their own, or for whom we are in the process of building one.

BOOKTHINK: Fair enough, but if we can set aside your primary and secondary "targets" for the moment, one more question about WBM as a sales venue. Some booksellers are so frustrated with their experiences on large venues that they aren't so much seeking a better means to list on those venues - or even their own personal website, necessarily - as they are seeking simply a better venue to sell on. However, as a bookseller, I'm thinking, okay, so I put all this work into acquiring inventory, researching and listing it, etc., and now, as I try out a different venue, I'm urged to drive traffic to it as well? A venue, in some cases, I pay for the privilege of listing on? Is it not primarily the venue's responsibility to make itself viable? Otherwise, if you're going to burn resources to drive traffic to a destination, why not drive it to a personal website in the first place?

WELLER: Well, frankly, I couldn't agree more with the implications of your questions there! I find it ridiculous that an Amazon-owned site like Abebooks should be running around trying to persuade or dragoon its listers into helping create the essential traffic into that venue, as well as helping it work out how to filter out their disastrous PODs and page-hoggers from customer searches, and similar key business inputs. And somewhat amazing that some of its listing members continually and enthusiastically bustle about doing so, without reward or fee of any kind.

Where the WBM concept differs totally from all those larger and most of the smaller sites, is that we do not charge any fees or commissions whatsoever on any sale deriving from our site, or on any order actually placed there. Nor do we have any intention of ever doing so.

Our members pay a monthly fee - mostly around $30 or so - in return for which they get all the book-listing software tools and resources which we offer from our shared fileserver, a superb technical Helpdesk for all IT and computer-related matters, and the opportunity to list books at our site with no additional processing fee or commission charged on any sales made there, which become thereby a sort of bonus or "cream on the bun" for those who get them.

A simple cost-share notion, really. The member's fee buys a slice of a fileserver setup, a slice of our techos' time and expertise when needed, and a pile of highly useful books-related listing software involving both data and pics. It also buys him or her a seat in a pretty dedicated and internally helpful co-operative group, and those latter intangible benefits are at least of equal worth to the tangible ones.

BOOKTHINK: So, if WBM exists primarily as a platform upon which booksellers listings are dispatched to other venues - and I assume you also provide services which facilitate fulfillment of sales, keep records, etc. - would your primary competition consist of other marketplace management services like The Art of Books, Fillz, and so on?

WELLER: Well, we don't actually think we have any competition. Not in the sense you mean. Or put another way: many of the software tools we offer to our members have a matching product or service available commercially.

Booksellers pondering whether or not to join the WBM could buy BookTrakker instead of using our WBM-BB database - they are of similar efficacy and power, although we think ours the better overall; they could have a website set up privately or at Chrislands instead of having a WBM-created one; could use The Art of Books or Fillz for auto-forwarding to all sites instead of using our routines for all that; could store their pictures at Photobucket for shared display instead of at the central WBM server; and so on and so forth. But each of these "competing" services or products cost monthly fees and, in some cases, commissions on sales or annual support fees, and when you add all those up they can actually come to quite a bit.

I think our WBM is rather unique in offering all those services simultaneously, under the one roof.

Then there is our Technical Helpdesk whereby the members' pooled fees help pay for a senior programmer and technical expert whose time is shared equally amongst our members, and who is on hand around the clock to attend all their little IT peccadilloes and computer worries - viruses, data crash, browsers misbehaving, old PCs unable to cope any more, and all the rest. Where's our "competition" there?

And I suppose you could argue that our bookselling site "competes" with great monster sites like Amazon, ABE, Alibris and even Biblio. Or perhaps more accurately with the micro-sites like Antiqbook and others. But we have no plans to become the new Amazon, Abebooks, or even Antiqbook. These sites all serve their purpose and have their own installed customer base - a massive one in the case of Amazon, less so with all the others, but still significant with them all. Most of our members list their books at all or most of these sites larger and smaller, and use our automated tools to make those listings better, quality-wise, and more easily done.

When we do get sales at our site, our members are obviously chuffed, because we charge no commissions or fees on any sales had there.

BOOKTHINK: Let's look at this collectively then. If we were to take all the services, tools, etc., offered by other vendors and collect them, for the purposes of this discussion, into a discrete, hypothetical competitor, what would WBM offer that it doesn't? Or do better?

WELLER: Better? We do everything better! (Laughing.)

Seriously, however, and allowing for the fact that we do not actually consider these alternative single-purpose services or products as "competition," it is fair to state that the main thing we offer which they do not is the accumulation of them all into a one-stop-shop for our members.

The second thing we offer which they cannot possibly promise or provide is the network created by our being a bookseller co-operative, in which members agree upon joining to act co-operatively where required, and within reason, as physical agents for one another.

This can mean taking private check or money orders in local currency for overseas sales to more elderly customers who have no credit cards, or who mightily fear using them online. I have had WBM members overseas transact such orders monetary-wise in English pounds, in Euros, and in US, Canadian and New Zealand dollars. They take the money locally, I ship the book, and we sort out the transfer of funds back to me between ourselves.

It also means we can ship really expensive stuff to each other in our different countries, have the condition verified upon receipt by our fellow-member, and then re-ship the book very cheaply internally with full protective tracking and/or cheap insurance where the value of the book warrants it.

Amongst our software products and toolkits, we think our online Picture Proofing & Management System is unique in its scope, power and utility, and we know of no commercial service offering anything even half so good. Or at all, really.

We have automated routines whereby members can swiftly audit their listings at Amazon, ABE, Alibris and Biblio and have our fileserver determine which books (if any) are doubled up at those sites, or missing when they should be there, or there when they should be gone. I don't know of anyone else doing that in quite so seamless and automated a fashion as at the WBM.

I do think our bookseller database is the best in the world by a pretty long distance.

I have already mentioned our shared-use Technical Helpdesk, and you can add to that all the intangible benefits to be had from any group of like-minded professionals operating as a form of Industry Guild or other form of trade organization.

And we all try to place our buying for customers with one another whenever we possibly can, as well as pooling our customer wants and requests.

So when you put that whole package of things together, I don't feel I am being simply smug or "rah-rah our product!" in suggesting, as I have done, that we do not really have any competition in the sense of your question.

There are alternative services and products to many of the individual things we offer. Where there are holes in a bookseller's frontline army of practical resources, however, as is most definitely the case with a great many booksellers, then we step in and fill those holes for them, once they join our group. They can mix and match our software toolkit offerings as they please, take what is new, exciting and productive for them, and leave unused those of our routines which they feel comfortable they have fulfilled elsewhere.

BOOKTHINK: Not to beat this competition horse to death, but one more question before moving on to something else. I've long since lost count of the myriad alternative venues that have sprouted up over the years - and I'm sure several have come and gone without my ever having known of their existence - but still, given the present market dominance of Amazon and eBay, isn't it likely that WBM will end up in that jungle as just another "mouse who roared?"

WELLER: I suppose I would rather end up as the mouse who roared than the one which simply squeaked in terror, then died! But your question is a good one, so let me see if I can muster up just the echo of a roar in response.

Clearly the mega-selling sites, and Amazon and eBay in particular, dominate this marketplace for selling used books - the cheap ones, the penny sales, and increasingly the higher-ticket items and rarer stuff. This is not going to suddenly change, except possibly with the higher-ticket items and rarer stuff. And even there only in a form of niche or boutique market degree.

Obviously, as a WBM founder I have a great deal of sympathy and a degree of hope for all the smaller sites and the several bookseller co-operatives (like TomFolio) which have come along - some well before us, some since we ran up our own flag. Everything and every site which helps splinter the hegemony of the couple of monsters now exerting such near-complete market dominance has my complete support.

But that does not mean my completely uncritical support. To be brutally frank, most of them don't actually do anything much for the booksellers they attract to their standard, other than to offer forms of parallel listing online which is designed - with varying promises of quality control to somehow counter the impact of the mega-selling sites, and the ruined quality state of those latter.

One or two of the micro-sites offer forms of sticky search attachments to permit of el cheapo private website simulations. Some offer free user databases, but these are invariably of truly dreadful quality. Others offer user group discussion groups and forums, but these are nearly always tepid and unrewarding, and not very well attended.

Our own micro-site at the WBM is, I think it fair to state, the only one of the small sites which has come along and delivered a whole stack of non-WBM-specific software utilities and routines which are specifically designed to permit its members to list better, faster and cheaper at all the other big selling sites, as well as fashioning our own boutique or niche market style and operation.

We are therefore in a position to offer our folk a simple monthly fee structure, which is seen by most of them as a good-value and simple fee-for-service on those other-site-servicing software routines and products, and thereafter declare that we do not want any fees or commission paid on any sales achieved via our site, no matter how impressive these might eventually start to become.

But having made those provisos, I must still declare that both I and nearly all my colleagues at the WBM remain fierce supporters and endorsers of all the Mice Sites, \ and hope that if they cannot actually produce a roar, they might manage something better among them than a whimper. And the more these smaller sites concentrate on quality as the key factor in whom they accept as members, and what types of listings they are prepared (or not) to display, then the more disparate and widespread will the market become.


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