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Don't ever forget the scared and burrowing little mammals who went on after the dinosaurs eventually perished to create something ultimately more sophisticated and clever than those all-devouring beasts, that is, us. That's what the better of we smaller sites actually are - the mammals in Dinosaur Land. Today we shelter in caves, and hide from the T-Rexes like Amazon and eBay. Tomorrow we shall build our own palaces around the world, with elegant and fine fittings.

It's just a question of patiently awaiting our time, which will certainly come.

BOOKTHINK: Let's turn to something that impacts all venues, small and large, and all booksellers who sell on them. As a heavy - and I do mean heavy - online book buyer myself, I run into situations daily where I'm reluctant to pull the trigger on a purchase because I sense there may be trust issues. This sometimes takes the form of an incomplete description, a description which seems to gloss over flaws, a description which betrays a lack of command of basic bookselling knowledge/terminology, a description with obvious errors (perhaps intended to deceive, perhaps not), the absence of a photo in a situation where one would indeed be worth a thousand words, problematic feedback, and so on. Conservatively, for every 100 descriptions I come across, perhaps only a dozen or so present none of these issues, and the rest, sadly, present varying degrees of mistrust. In my opinion, this is a massive problem.

Now, in the past year I've experienced first hand how altering the perception of trust can make a huge difference in sales. I've recently begun selling selected inventory through the Amazon FBA program, which essentially puts the seller under the Amazon umbrella - that is, inventory is stored in their warehouse, fulfilled by them when sales happen - and of course customer satisfaction is unconditionally guaranteed. Clearly, buyers have greater trust in FBA sellers because I (and others) have experienced much greater sales - in my case about double - than I would otherwise have realized with the same inventory outside this program. What's more, I've been able to raise prices to offset the greater fees with no apparent drop off in sales, in part because of the free shipping opportunities buyers take advantage of via the Amazon Prime program or meeting the $25 order total.

So - it occurs to me that any bookselling venue that hopes to compete with other, as you termed it, micro-sites or even larger venues would enjoy a serious advantage moving forward if it could somehow position itself as trustworthy. In the case of WBM, which you say is a venue in only a tertiary sense for now and has a primary focus of facilitating listing and selling on other venues, has trust been a significant concern of yours, and if so, what specifically have you done at WBM to build/enhance trust for your members? By the way, I ask this in the context of being a buyer who might have some reluctance to shop a small venue simply on the basis of its being small.

WELLER: I think your notion of trust is one which lies at the very core of the WBM, and not something incidental to it, or added onto its top like a hat.

Firstly, and starting at the root of the tree, we are actually pretty fussy about whom we accept as a new member, and whom we might not. We reject a fair few applications from booksellers of various types who apply to join us, and we have a very clearly stated set of policies as to whom and what we will accept, and what we simply won't accept at our site. Our buying customers can read those terms we impose and our code of ethics at the main WBM website. We make no secret of all that.

Let me quote just two of those fixed requirements for all our members, if I may, exactly as they appear at our site:

"WBM listings must contain basic bibliographical data, ideally all or most of Binding (mandatory); Publisher; (if stated/known); Edition (if stated/known); Year of Publication; Size; Illustrator (if any); and Condition Reports on both book and dustjacket (if any), either in the VG/VG type format or in a more extended description."

"WBM listings must NOT contain conditional or problematic descriptors such as "Binding Unknown"; "May have remainder marks"; "May contain previous owner markings" and the like"

There's plenty of other stuff, but the above should suggest the whole picture adequately. These are all self-imposed terms and conditions which our members have previously voted on and agreed, incidentally. They are not arbitrarily decided by some administration or power-broker within the group.

Secondly, the business of trusting the bigger and more established sites can cut in both directions. We have had many customers who came to our WBM site precisely because they have been dudded with a purchase from some bozo bookseller at a site like Amazon, or Abebooks, and they sometimes feel pretty sore about that. And talking with many customers in our bookstore (which I do every day of the week) I hear the same stories from some of them. A minority, overall - I hear just as many or even more tales of happy and successful buying via the big fellers.

A disappointed or enraged online buyer will quite often seek out, sometimes rather aggressively, a smaller site like ours if he or she can be given the sense that our site is pruned of all the gibberish and rubbish which pollutes the larger sites, and has friendly, caring people sitting all over the place inside its far smaller but much better-decorated rooms. Yes - actual living people with arms, legs, heads, mouths, telephones and all the rest.!

And thirdly, those of us with bookstores quite frequently direct in-store customers to our WBM site on the basis that "if anything goes wrong with any order you place there from any member across the world, just come and see me and I'll get it sorted for you. In dealing with them, you are still dealing with me."

That last provides a really significant link for a great many folk between the faceless online purchase from an internet site, and the friendly in-store environment of dealing with an actual over-the-counter bookseller - which human interaction many of our regular customers greatly treasure, at least as much as they enjoy buying the actual book itself.

Now these are all little streams of customer type, but they are important ones. Many streams can a mighty river make, if you'll excuse the implied pun. And in time, will do precisely that.

I suppose the whole issue of trust ultimately gets down to quality control at the end of the day. Not just the individual quality control we expect and even demand from each of our WBM members in their dealings with their customers, but the quality control over whom one even allows to list at the site in the first place, and over the types of listings permitted from that approved set of booksellers.

And those not permitted. Banned. Verboten. As specific example of that, if any of our members inadvertently uploads a listing with the term "Binding Unknown" in it, that listing simply gets tossed out before even appearing at the site, and the member concerned gets a friendly email from us advising him or her of this presumed inadvertency.

As to whether or not we have succeeded in our stated aims in all that, it is very hard for me to say from the inside, looking out. What I can report, however, is that over five years of online trading via our website, and a very large quantity of separate orders that have been placed at that site over that time, we have not had one complaining email from a customer via our common or central email address prominently displayed there. Not a single one.

I think if we were demonstrably failing to win the trust of our customers in the manner you have raised, or if one or two "rogue" members amongst us were letting down our side in that respect, we would have gotten a few of those over such a period, don't you think?

BOOKTHINK: Okay, a more pointed question about trust. In the following remarks ...

"WBM listings must contain basic bibliographical data, ideally all or most of Binding (mandatory); Publisher; (if stated/known); Edition (if stated/known); Year of Publication; Size; Illustrator (if any); and Condition Reports on both book and dustjacket (if any), either in the VG/VG type format or in a more extended description."

... you imply that there is an effort on your part to ensure that descriptions are accurate and complete, correct? So I think we can agree that the issue of trust also extends to book descriptions - more specifically to the question of edition state. Is this book a first edition? Does "first edition" mean "first printing"? Etc. Daily I run across book descriptions that assert first edition state, but the books being described can't possibly be firsts based on the information provided. Or there is simply not enough information included to establish it. I see description problems across the board, even ABAA descriptions. This example is perhaps somewhat extreme, but this is the kind of thing I'm talking about.

I realize that vetting every last listing is impossible, but is there an attempt in the member screening process, say, or via other means to lower the likelihood that members misrepresent first editions?

WELLER: Now whoa down the horses a bit there, Craig!!! If you think you are going to lure me here into the murderous "what is a First Edition?" cross-fire raging amongst booksellers - and I mean the really good ones, not the bozos - then think again old son! I ducks me head, I slips into me bunker, I keeps mum, ok? No comment, and all that!

Well, not entirely, of course. And reverting to the serious, I think - on the matter of edition - that there are two main problem areas here.

The first is a rather fierce debate on very "nice" points of definition about what is a "true first," and whether or not a second printing of a first edition - as opposed to an edited/revised/altered new printing plates second edition, of an academic text, say - could or should be still admitted and listed as a "first edition." This mainly centers around the consequent inclusion or not of this designation in advanced search capabilities at the main listing sites.

That's the area in which all the corpses lie, and anyone who claims there is any final consensus on those sometimes hair-splitting controversies simply hasn't ever had a round-table on the matter with serious booksellers.

The second area here, which occasionally becomes inter-twined with the first debate, sometimes rather foolishly, is where booksellers simply list everything they've got or large chunks of it as "first edition," either from laziness, or in simple error or, more darkly, simply by attaching "first edition" to absolutely everything they upload in vast bulk, simply so they can all turn up in first edition advanced searches, and increase their site sales that way.

Now I think it fair to say that anyone applying to join our group whose listings at ABE or elsewhere, when inspected by our peer-review committee, showed any sort of tendency or indeed wholescale application of that latter area would have no chance of being accepted as a WBM member.

The same applies if an applicant had hundreds or thousands of books marked as "Fine Condition" when the description admits they are actually ex-library, or with torn pages, or covered in scribbles. We'd say "no thanks" there, also.

Now there are some occasions when we get a bookseller apply, and where some of the above sort of stuff applies, and rather than just saying, "no - disappear!" we prefer to go back to them and state that a great deal of their listing style and type is perfectly acceptable to us, and their stock seems good and, in the main, well described, but that it does have this consistent and persistent discrepancy of listing style which we sadly can not accept.

And on several such occasions the applicant has come back and offered to make wholescale changes to that one area, sometimes confessing that they have been all at sea on that matter, and seeking our advice and help in changing all of that to a more acceptable set of standards.

In all those latter cases we have dived in and supplied the assistance sought, and the person has gone on to join our group after that work is done, in all cases expressing a certain amount of gratitude for the assistance we have supplied, which has actually enhanced and improved their listings and potential sales power, not just with us but at all their other sites as well.

BOOKTHINK: What about condition reports? Are these based on a standard system? Or are members on their own?

WELLER: No, we don't have a standard system of condition reports, although we do have a strongly recommended set of conditions which come as pre-sets in our database when members convert to that, and the reasons for sticking to which we publish widely to our group.

Abebooks will only accept a limited set of fixed-text condition reports, as will Amazon - even more scarily compressed. We recommend that all members start using the fixed list from ABE which is basically ok, and gives maximum compliance there. It also becomes easier to convert from that fixed list into Amazon-speak when we are creating Amazon files for our members ex their normal data.

BOOKTHINK: You recently announced that your database software, which previously was available only to WBM members and is touted in your announcement as a "highly-acclaimed bookseller database/inventory management system," will be offered free of charge to one and all later this month - February 28 - and frankly, it was largely this that prompted me to contact you for an interview. I think our readers would like to know several things. First, what's so darn special about it?

WELLER: I think its main feature is that it has been one hundred percent built and upgraded by booksellers. No non-bookselling programmer has ever been let loose anywhere near it, including our own programmers at the WBM, except where they've been called in to help compile a particularly complex script or two for this desired routine, or that. All told, there have now been over thirty booksellers who have had active and hands-on inputs into its gradual enhancement and improvement, and its main developer (me) has become more like the conductor of a symphony orchestra than a composer.

I suppose its operational strengths can be summarized into three main areas: power in data entry and listing; power in editing and global inventory management; and power in uploading to sites and otherwise outputting or actually using the data. In each of those three key areas our database outperforms or matches most other bookselling databases, and in the combination of the three I believe it outperforms all of them.

At the data-entry level, the user has a wealth of separate fields in which to construct a book description, and nearly all of these come with drop-down, one-click menu text sets, containing between them some four hundred carefully pre-prepared phrases in each description category area which the user can select and use as is, or select and then edit to the exact requirement.

As an example of that, in the field box called "Foxing" the user can select any of the following supplied list (and then add a word or two of further clarification if required):

Scattered foxing, but text mostly clean

ght foxing front/rear pages, but body of book mostly clean and unfoxed
Heavy foxing front/rear pages, but body of book mostly clean and unfoxed
No foxing in this copy
Moderately foxed throughout
Heavy foxing throughout
Text moderately foxed, but plates mainly clean
Text heavily foxed, but plates mainly clean
Endpapers browned, text has scattered foxing, but mostly clean
Endpapers browned, text block clean

And similarly for a whole range of similarly common descriptor boxes such as Spine, Signed, Water Damage, Ex-Library, Marks & Highlighting, Gilt Edges and so on, each with its own multi-part text list similar to that for Foxing.

Now, for the vast majority of books, that list for Foxing will be more than adequate to faithfully and accurately describe that area of fault or flaw, if it exists. Some few will need an additional gloss, and a handful will need a complete start-from-scratch explanation to cover this area.

But to illustrate further I've prepared a mock description of a book entirely from selections from our built-in drop-down, which would require just eight selections and clicks in six of these dynamic fields, and not a single character typed on the keyboard (and therefore no irritating typos!):

"Book Condition: Good. Dust Jacket: Good. Text body is clean, and free from previous owner annotation, underlining and highlighting. Embossed cloth, front cover, somewhat worn. Binding is tight, covers and spine fully intact, bar chips to top and/or bottom section of spine. Dust Jacket is in good condition, without tears or chips or other damage, other than spine which is faded by sun exposure. Slight foxing front/rear pages, but body of book mostly clean and unfoxed. Small brown marks from adhesive tape on front and rear endpapers."

I don't think that is too bad a result as a professional description, given that it can be collated in less than thirty seconds. I'd be happy to order such a book with such a detailed recital of flaws and faults.

Of course, the user can edit and change all those drop-down selections in every box to his or her own preferred requirements - those which come with the system are just the default, and can be added to, deleted, edited and augmented in any way.

The Entry Screen is also full of other entry boxes, mostly with drop-down selections, which perform all sorts of other functions as well.

These include Weight fields where you can select either a pre-set 1-6 number which then auto-inserts a weight range from a previously set matrix - for example, entering weight 3 delivers "Under 1 kilogram" to the Description field - or else enter the exact weight of the book. You can specify part volumes of sets, language of book, the specific country it relates to, where relevant, and a great many other features which then grind away and auto-insert intelligent text into the consolidated Description or Comments box.

You can enter text tags which will go just to some sites but not others, and in every sense can control both the fashioning of your data and also how it will behave and appear at differing sites.

The other really big feature of the entry system, and the one which our members greet with the greatest enthusiasm is the Enter by Template feature.

This enables the user to pre-set a fixed text entry into a template screen for every single field on the ordinary entry screen, or for those which are common to any particular batch about to be listed. When each new entry is created for that batch, the data in the Template will auto-insert into every field which has template data stored in it, and the user need only change the one or two features or title details or whatever which are different for that item in the batch, and attend any relevant boxes left blank in the Template. Each Template used can then be saved for later recall and use, if required.

There's a lot more on that front, but that should act as a window into that part of things.

It is in the second area mentioned above, however, where the real strength lies - the power it has in editing and manipulating all your previously created records.

The core strength here is in its powerful search and/or replace capacity, for upgrading and manipulating stored records form. The user can search on any single field or any combination of fields and get the result isolated for any sort of bulk handling as a sub-set group. To illustrate how that works, a user could search our and isolate all his or her books which are (a) hardcovers only (b) entered before January 1st 2008 (c) priced above $20 (d) which lack a dustjacket (d) which are not in the Categories named History, Archaeology or Art (e) which are not published by Macmillan and (f) which are still marked For Sale. All his or her books which met all those criteria will be grouped on screen within a second or two, via easy-to-use search screens.

Our user can then do whatever is desired with that isolated group. In this example, the user might have decided that it's time that all those books meeting those particular criteria are due for a price reduction of 25% at all sites. Having completed the above hunt routine the user would then perform a Replace Field Contents command, and would do this by setting a formula in the PRICE field which is as simple as "PRICE = PRICE * .75" and that will re-post a price for that particular found group only of 75% of whatever is there at present. That sort of entire exercise across a database of 50,000 records with a qualifying set as per the above example of, say, 5000 books, would take the user less than 3 minutes to complete.

Our database is also very strong on error-checking and warnings. It will squawk at you pretty loudly if you enter an illogical or simply wrong ISBN number, and if you try and leave any record without any of Author, Title or Price it will go absolutely ballistic on you. There's an Errors Page which opens every time you boot or exit, or which you can visit at any time, which declares how many, if any, of your listings are lacking a Binding, Edition, Main Condition or other key field. The database will still function but is very, very unhappy until you have clicked on those faulty records and corrected them.

Finally, point three: its power at uploading to multiple sites, and its data output generally.

The main and crucial strength here are the separate upload files our system generates for all the Amazon sites around the world. Let's call what Amazon wants for its Condition and Binding and Year of Publication and some other required fields "Amazon-speak" because it sure ain't the way most booksellers normally speak!

Our database does a massive background job in converting each listing prepared for other (more "normal") listing sites into correct Amazon-speak. It also has built in a series of quite clever routines which between them guarantee that all or nearly all of the user's records sent to Amazon will actually appear there, albeit with a bit of necessary fudging here and there.

>>>>> Article continues on next page >>>>>

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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