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The World Book Market
At Seven (and Counting)

by Craig Stark

#154 21 February 2011

An Interview with Guy Weller

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.

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.

Given that Amazon frequently, blissfully and seemingly randomly simply changes actual Titles sent up to it to those (wrong) ones it considers to be the "correct" ones, we safeguard the user a little by automatically including the actual Full Title in the Description/Comments field (for Amazon only, of course), so at the very least the true title is delivered to the potential customer down there, whatever idiot substitute Amazon has made in its main display. Same with a few other fields Amazon regularly reports incorrectly at its own un-guessable whim.

There are quite a few other fancy little features as well. You can send an email directly from the database, and when you do that the system gathers up the whole description and inserts it into the email edit box, which you can then edit before sending. The database will also auto-insert into the email text box the url link to the picture or pictures of that particular book being inquired about, the url being that at our WBM server where the picture is stored.

I could rabbit on here forever, but I think it will be clear from the above that when I declare that the main single strength of our database lies in its having been designed and built from go to whoa by booksellers, and not programmers as such, I ain't whistlin' Dixie.

BOOKTHINK: Given this level of sophistication, are we looking at a steep learning curve to get this thing working for us?

WELLER: Yes, and No. Let's take the No first.

To get our database skipping away at its basic to medium-power levels, to import your existing data into it from HomeBase or wherever, to start using it for uploads to all sites including Amazon, and to start making use of reasonably straightforward search and replace routines - for example, changing all your condition box data from "VG" to "Very Good" if you'd like to do that - that'd be a No. No real steep learning curve once the familiarization process is done - say allow a half day of test and play for that.

There's a 100-page manual which comes with it, and the WBM members who use it are all keen and willing to provide hands-on assistance to new users via our Members Forum, so the support load for new users is pretty widely spread.

We have some genuine and self-confessed computer dummies in the WBM, and several of these have jumped into our database with very few problems whatsoever. And they love it.

Now - the Yes bit.

For some of the more advanced routines such as the global price adjustment example I gave earlier, that can take a little time to grasp and implement.

Using multiple copies and juggling records between each, say, from home to work, can have its challenges, and installing and configuring the various network options which come with it is something we recommend members who are not IT-literate get their local IT guy or techo to assist with, at least at the installation part of things.

The secret is, you can start small and grow big with it, and most of our members now using it spent three or four months sort of feeling their way into the more complex and advanced stuff, whilst heartily enjoying the huge new power at their fingertips in all its straightforward and everyday functions.

I'd be simply lying if I were to suggest that you can create great power in a piece of software, right down to writing and exercising your own programming scripts inside of it (which our members can do, if they want to), and that every single aspect of that was a simple one-click affair which Aunty Jill could fire up and rattle away at deep level after an afternoon's playing with it. But to install it, bring in your old data, enter new data and edit the old using bulk edit routines, and start uploading straight away to all your sites - that'd be a NO from me to your question.

BOOKTHINK: has been working pretty hard of late to solicit sellers - and to some extent buyers. Not so long ago they announced that BookHound, another database application for booksellers, would be made available at no charge to registrants on their site. Is your initiative also a marketing tactic for attracting new members?

WELLER: Biblio is an interesting site all round, isn't it? I like the guys there a lot, and a great deal of what they are trying to do, although I got a wee bit angry at them when they swooped on our credit card processing a la ABE.

I guess offering a free BookHound was a marketing move for them, yes, and quite a clever one. One of ABE's hidden strengths was that any of its listers could download HomeBase free of charge, and simply start listing. A bit like eBay with its Turbo Lister. I guess Biblio felt a keen need to at least match that sort of rusting-on process used for so long by ABE, and to such effect.

BookHound is light years ahead of HomeBase, and is a good, clean, efficient engine. No, it isn't as powerful or overall effective as ours, but it is not crippled and broken, as is HomeBase in some ways. BookHound is FilemakerPro based, as is ours, and therefore comes automatically with many of the more powerful search and replace routines which one finds in our thing.

Now, as to your question: Is the release of our WBM-BB database as Freeware perceived by us as a marketing tactic?

I have to admit that whilst I have always felt a keen need and desire to promote our WBM group, I have never really seen any need to market it in the sense you mean. Promoting implies bringing something to the attention of an audience, whereas marketing implies going beyond that and trying to effect a "sale" of a "product." But perhaps I am just splitting hairs there.

Yes, I think that as a great many booksellers take advantage of our free release of database software - and I think a great many will -- then that will create a growing pool of booksellers around the world who will automatically gain a window thereby into the more sophisticated bookseller routines we offer.

And it probably stands to reason that the vast majority of those who take up the free software will be our type of bookseller, since our software is designed more for the careful and scrupulous bookseller than for the slap-dash, list-'em-in-a-hurry and bang-'em-online type of seller. Whom we'd really rather not hear from.

In actual fact, the latter would probably find it rather irritating to be reminded every five minutes that one or one million of their listings were "accidentally" deficient in that they had nothing entered in Binding, Edition, Condition, DJ Condition, Publisher and/or other database-recommended boxes or fields.

So to rephrase your question just slightly, if I may be so bold: Do I believe that, as booksellers around the world start using our WBM-BB as a freely provided and powerful listing resource, this will likely lead some of them at least to come sniffing around all the rest of our services and group-shared facilities, and that amongst those sniffers some at least will decide to jump on board our ship as full members?

Yes, I do.

BOOKTHINK: You have claimed publicly that the WBM customer search engine is better and more powerful than ABE's, and yet many consider ABE's search engine to be the best in the bookselling business. Can you justify these claims with examples of specific performance in your site's search engine which out-perform ABE's?

WELLER: Let me just state here that ABE has been making some efforts to improve its search engine recently, and some of the things we introduced two or three years ago at the WBM site they have now implemented at ABE, or have indicated they intend to implement. So I make that claim a little less fervently now, although I still believe our search-engine methodology remains superior to theirs. And most everyone else's.

Specifically, we have introduced automatic cross-searching across a wide range of common search confusions. "Mac" and "Mc" is just one such. If a seller has entered Author as "Macdonald" or as "McDonald" and a customer makes a search for either of these, all combinations will be returned in the search. The same applies with all the cross-Atlantic spellings - "colour" for "color," "theater" for "theatre" and so on.

A really annoying feature of search engines at nearly all sites is the exclusion set which occurs on the various uses of the apostrophe. A search for "O'Brian" will not show you anything entered as "OBrian," for instance - or vice versa. A customer search for "The Travellers Story" will usually not return "The Traveller's Story," which is obviously what is being sought. But all such combinations will be returned to the searcher at our WBM site.

There's a whole lot more than just those examples, but they should suffice.

We are now working on rather a clever new matrix that will convert "vols" to "volumes" in both directions, and will convert Roman numerals to "ordinary" digits, so that a search for "booktitle volume 20" will pick up books entered as "booktitle vol. xx," and vice versa.

We are also slowly building what will be a very large common exception list for common errors made either by seller or searcher - for example, "steinbeck vs stienbeck," "hemmingway vs hemingway" and a great many others which research has shown are common errors made by searchers, and sometimes by listing booksellers as well.

Just as with our database, I think our superior performance there comes from everything at our site being ultimately planned and designed by booksellers rather than programmers. Many of the clever little tweaks I have mentioned above are really bookselling-specific, and simply would not occur to a programmer. And should not be expected to.

BOOKTHINK: You have often publicly stated that you consider the online market for bookselling via the internet to be either just beginning or not really having begun. And yet many booksellers who experienced robust sales a few years ago more recently have seen their sales slow, in some cases dramatically. Can you support this opinion with any real data or hard logic - or, as a developer of WBM, are you simply expressing optimism so as not to discourage booksellers from trying you out?

WELLER: Well, if it is optimism, it is for all online selling sites, and not just book sites, or booksellers.

I think there are three methods of testing the truth or otherwise of my assertions. The first method is by looking at the hard data of retail sales around the world, combined with analysis of growth or otherwise in computer usage and thereafter access to and usage of the Internet.

Most credible analysts of retail activity estimate that online retail sales now account for about 8% of total retail sales, up from about 6% just two years ago. In terms of compound growth of 33%, that is a fantastic percentage movement in a short time-frame. But in terms of overall gross dollar sales it still places the Internet as a sales medium in its infancy - and on the last two years growth number, an infancy which is almost certain to see a continued growth spurt over the next decade or so.

Whether you think we'll get to 20% by 2020, as I do, or adopt the more radical and less-likely view that something like 25% or even 30% is achievable by then, the fact remains that online retail sales are likely to continue soaring in overall terms, and in-store sales likely to decline in the same proportion. Helping drive all of that is, of course, is the fact that vast segments of the world's population in China, India, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and elsewhere are only just beginning to come online at all, let alone start shopping furiously through cyberspace.

The second method of testing lies in analyzing the sophistication, or crudity, of the online mechanisms currently servicing online purchasing. An infant market will tend to be clumsy, disorganized, relatively uncontrolled, largely unsupervised by regulatory consumer authorities, and more or less left to its own devices for its main players to "set the rules." A bit like the early economy and society in America's Wild West, in other words, before civilization bore its way across from the East, and more refined parlors replaced the brawling saloons of the early days.

Now if we look at the purely bookselling aspect of online retail selling, it just doesn't come much cruder! You have sites like Amazon, ABE and others displaying millions of book listings which many people consider to be blatantly illegal under distance-selling or sight-unseen or mail-order regulations and laws in various jurisdictions around the world. You can buy books which proudly declare "Binding Unknown," and all sorts of other ridiculous things. Amazon cannot handle displaying a book with no certain date, and ABE and other large sites carry millions of Print on Demand listings with huge prices attached which falsely declare or very strongly imply that they are "first editions, published 1924" and so on.

Amazon frequently re-applies false titles, authors or bindings, or volume sets, to listings uploaded with the correct data uploaded in all those fields. Several sites offer "free shipping" circuses to their customers where exactly the same book appears twice at their site - once at a lower price with shipping to be added, and then again with the higher combined price applied and a huge "free shipping" banner draped over the higher-priced item. p> Not all the above is outright illegal everywhere, but some of it is, at least in some jurisdictions. If this sort of nonsense were attempted in a Wal-Mart store, their whole chain would be quickly fined out of existence, or simply shut down by the consumer regulatory authorities.

So this very badness of all these big sites, and the very slapdash manner in which they operate in all these ways, is pretty conclusive evidence that we are looking at a market segment very much in its commercial infancy. As Sthis online marketplace starts to really bloom and blossom in volume of retail trade terms, you will see all these practices cleaned up and changes forced upon the way it is permitted to do business online, and ways in which it is not.

For an interesting insight into this early sort of activity, you could go read this article that just appeared in the UK.

The third method of testing my hypotheses is purely anecdotal, and based on my experiences running a large and very busy secondhand bookstore seven days a week. My customers- and I have thousands of them, with whom I talk regularly -are just beginning to feel their way on the internet, or so they tell me. There is a "hard core" group of them who use it frequently, and a few who are shop-a-holics for all sorts of stuff on eBay and even some bookselling sites. But the vast majority are just beginning to toy with this adventure, and a great many express extreme nervousness about it. That nervousness will likely fade as they gain more experience - in fact, it invariably does.

But collectively, they very much represent a market about to happen, rather than one which has in any way peaked. And they far outnumber the regular internet shoppers - I would estimate by a factor of about three to one.

You can take your pick as to which of those three analytical methods gets us closer to the truth of the matter. Since they all shout out the same story loudly and clearly. I don't think it matters too much which one you use.

BOOKTHINK: Assuming a rosy future for online booksellers then, do you or other members envision WBM growing to the size of an Abebooks - or even an Amazon? Are you working towards that? If everything you do is better than those bigger sites, wouldn't this be inevitable - sooner or later?

WELLER: That's neither our intention, nor our hope. Not in the slightest degree. Which is pretty lucky, really, because it sure ain't gonna happen, and we don't intend doing anything so foolish as to try and make such a thing happen. The WBM is not going to take on Microsoft, either. Or Google. Or eBay. All are safe from us, they will be relieved to learn.

What we do believe, most of us, is that the online bookselling marketplace is set to fracture and splinter in many ways over the next decade or so. The existing rather primitive hegemony exerted there by just two large sites - Amazon with its string of subsidiaries and eBay - and a couple of medium-size but relatively small competitors (Alibris, Biblio, et al) is already beginning to crumble at its edges, although we expect the core of that dominance to hold more or less indefinitely.

We believe that increasing opportunities will open up for sites like the WBM and other quality-based micro-sites to expand their market niches significantly, yes, and we intend to provide our members with an enduring vehicle to permit them to take full advantage of that splintering process which we predict. So you could call us fairly aggressive niche market anglers and players, if you like.

In the areas we have selected as our defining features - quality of our members, quality of our listings and quality of our software routines and tools - we'll play the game as hard and tough as we know how, and we'll attempt to win bits and pieces of market share from all the bigger sites around that significant niche we have targeted. Those are achievable goals, albeit limited ones. And we are in the process already of achieving them.

But at the end of the day, we are all booksellers, mainly smallish ones, and we are rather fond of what we do, and what we did before even the WBM came along - that is, curating our bookstock and dealing with our often irritating but mainly delightful customers. None of us has the mindset, or the impetus, of a Jeff Bezos. We are all too busy with our books to manage becoming another Amazon, even if the faint possibility of that appeared to emerge from the mists.

Which it won't.

BOOKTHINK: We appreciate the time you've taken to answer our questions, Guy, and best of luck with WBM.

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