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Bookselling 2008

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

by Craig Stark

#111, 7 January 2008

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!


I have the privilege of knowing a lot of successful online booksellers. Their incomes increase every year. With some coaxing, I could probably get some of them to share some of their numbers with us. And, of course, maybe there are times when it helps to show that things are actually possible - that bookselling success is possible - by presenting real-life examples. But if you had a so-so or bad 2007, I'm guessing that you could give a rodent's ass about this. Who wants to hear about somebody else who made it? The thing is - the understandable thing is - you want to make it yourself.

But this may have become a tough task to take on. For one thing, you might not be a beginning bookseller. You may already know tons and tons about books, bookselling, and so on. And still, still it's not working. Meanwhile, you're getting worn out trying. I wouldn't presume to offer a single solution that would work for all of you. The profession is too complex to admit universal remedies. However, that doesn't mean that there aren't things almost anybody could do to help their cause, perhaps significantly. Today I'm going to present one you may not have thought of.

But if you don't mind, I'd like to start with something that might make you lose your lunch:

Opportunities for succeeding at online bookselling are greater today than they ever have been.

Inspired yet? Hah, I didn't think so. But let me go back to my opening statement and see if I can put this in a convincing context:

Transactions take place between one human being and another.

Think about this for a moment. Think about it especially in terms of what bookselling was in the open-shop era, when so much happened face to face, and what it is now in the internet era. Today there are still two human beings involved, but what's the actual perception? Buyers certainly know that they're human beings, but do they perceive sellers as human beings? Or are they nothing more than red "Add to Cart" buttons clicked en route to a PayPal payment? And you sellers know that you're every bit as human, but what about your buyers? Are they anything more than "Sold, ship now" emails?

Trust - how very much easier it would be to establish it if buyers and sellers perceptions could be altered by humanizing the people they interacted with. Now think about how many opportunities you pass by to humanize yourself online - and I'm not talking about your shop cat, the animal that's prominently featured on your website About Us page. I'm talking about you. You, after all, are the seller.

Moan and groan about the state of bookselling, other booksellers, venues - whatever you like, but it won't help make 2008 the best year you've ever had. One reason that online bookselling opportunities are greater today than they ever have been is that many of your competitors are doing little or nothing about establishing trust in advance of sales; few are taking steps to humanize themselves - and thereby build trust. This can be as fundamental as wording an Amazon Marketplace description in so as to show that you actually possess the book you're selling and care about describing it properly. It can be as complex as posting an entire web page detailing your credentials as a bookseller, along with testimonials. It can be everything in between. And should be. There are countless strategies, tools, etc., available for closing the gap between the person-to-person bookselling that happened in pre-internet days and the person-to-computer bookselling that prevails today. In the face of growing fraud/incompetence/whatever-negative-thing-is-going-on among your competitors, succeeding will depend critically on your ability to leave real footprints in this virtual world.

Here are some specific steps you can take:

Well - sorry, not quite. This article is in fact the introduction to issue #46 of the Gold Edition, which will be delivered soon to subscribers. If this discussion interests you, you may be also interested in trying it out. Subscribe here.