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Building A Book Website
Part I: Startup

by Catherine Petruccione

#42, 2 May 2005

Is there a website in your future? Many of you probably began bookselling as I did - selling on one or more fixed-price venues. After being in the business for a few years, you may have wondered if building your own website is the next logical step. A website offers customers a place to go to learn something about you before they buy; a place where they may be able to find books in your specialty areas, and hopefully, avail themselves of your special customer service which will make them return again. It gives you an opportunity to develop a base of customers who feel secure and confident buying from you. Best of all, it allows you to sell books directly to customers without paying a commission to third-party vendors.

On the other hand, a website takes time and costs money to develop, host and maintain. Unless you have a very good marketing plan (which requires more time/money) or have already established a strong customer base by other means, there is probably not going to be a quick return on your investment.

How much does it cost to build and maintain a website, and how does one go about it? Is it really cost-effective, and how much work is involved? In this article on starting a website (and one that will follow on marketing your site), we will explore those questions.

Some booksellers start with a basic web page with no search or payment capability but may offer links to search their inventory on larger sites, such as Abebooks, Biblio or ChooseBooks. S everal years ago we used to host our first website at the entry $9.99 per month level.

It was a good way to get our feet wet. Along the way, we learned a bit of html, some techniques for making the site both search- and customer-friendly, and we did have visitors. And a few buyers. Ultimately, however, we wanted the means to keep our customers at the site and have them complete their purchases there. This meant offering them one-stop shopping with search and payment capability.

Let's assume you've decided that the time has come for you to take the leap and set up a full-fledged bookselling website. You are serious about the book business and planning to be around for the foreseeable future. You have sold books for awhile either online or in an open shop, have acquired some knowledge, and, if you can't answer a customer's questions, you know where to go for the answers. Perhaps you have also developed a base of repeat customers from other venues. In short, you have what it takes to move to the next level.

First, you will need to register a domain name (e.g. This can be easily accomplished at any of several sites which allow you to both search for available domain names and reserve a name for a modest, annually renewable fee (about $10 and up). We used with a current annual fee of $13.50.

Anticipating that we would be building a website one day, we were careful to reserve a .com name. These are the most familiar, easiest to remember, but also hardest to obtain, so even if you are only thinking about building a website, the time to register is NOW. It is wise to come up with a name that includes word(s) that reflect what you sell because your site will more likely be returned as results to buyers searching for, say, used or rare books. Example: "" may not fare as well in a search as "" because buyers looking for books will be more likely to use this term in their searches. If possible, keep the name short or at least use something that is easy to remember. Also, intelligent insertions of meta tags and keywords offer an additional method for flagging your site as a used and rare bookshop. More about this in Part II.

Second, you will need to decide how you are going to accept payments. Statistics show that offering credit card payment will increase your sales (perhaps as much as triple them), and there is little doubt that credit cards are most often the payment method of choice with book buyers. This is one of the bigger steps you will take as an independent bookseller and may seem a little daunting. However, there are now some quick and quite affordable ways to offer credit card purchasing to your customers, both in-house and on-line. We selected ProPay for several reasons: there is no equipment or software to buy - they offer both web and phone-based processing - and we can process walk-in customers' credit card purchases in addition to website purchases.

Once you are set up to process credit cards for purchases on your website, you will have the option of doing the same on other sites you sell on. The advantage is that you will save on fees, but keep in mind that you will be spending more time processing credit card sales. Compare the fees listed at the end of this article to processing fees at Abebooks (5.5% + .50 per transaction), Biblio (5% + .25 per transaction) and ChooseBooks (5% + .50 per transaction).

PayPal is another option. It has good name recognition - it's widely used on other venues - so many customers will be comfortable using it. A seller's account is easy to establish, and there is no set-up charge. Fees are competitive. A pay-as-you-go fee is charged to the seller: 2.9% + $0.30 per transaction at 0-$3,000/per month sales volume. Basically, money is transferred from the purchaser's PayPal account, bank account or credit card to your PayPal account and, if you choose, on to your bank account per your request (no transfer fee applies to U.S. banks). The purchaser does not have to be a PayPal member to use the service.

Accepting checks and/or money orders from those who don't feel comfortable using credit cards or electronic payments online is very important as well. There are many book buyers who still prefer this method.

Third, you will need to make some decisions on what you want your website to look like and how to accomplish it. Even if someone else is building it for you, you still should be prepared to specify the elements that need to be in place. The homepage, preferably uncluttered, should tell your customers all the important things they need to know. There will also be decisions to be made on color schemes, the use and placement of a logo, and other visual elements that contribute to the theme or atmosphere of your shop. If you offer any special services or a nice selection of books on a certain topic, you'll want to put this out front as well, and if you are a member of an association (ABA, IOBA, etc.), including this information or logo will enhance your credibility. It is important to plan carefully for your homepage because this is your storefront - the hook that entices people to "step inside."

Visiting other seller's sites and actually making purchases will help you learn what makes a website attractive and easy to navigate from the customer's point of view. Take notes. Notice where the search and browse options are located. Try the different navigational tools available and identify the ones that seem most useful. Also pay attention to content - what successful sellers include (and don't include) on their pages. This isn't plagiarism but an exercise in learning how to put together the elements of a unique site that will satisfy you and your customers' needs best.

It is possible to build your own website with tools freely available online; however, for the average person who wants an above-average website, you will be ahead of the game if you hire someone experienced in website building to do the job for you. There are countless website builders and/or web hosting services to choose from. We decided on Chrislands for two reasons - the cost was reasonable, and they specialize in building sites for booksellers.

The latter reason was especially important because we didn't want to start from scratch and attempt to explain the basic needs of the bookseller to someone unfamiliar with the book trade. My only fear was that our book site might end up looking just like a hundred others. However, we found Chrislands to be very receptive to our ideas and both willing and able to create the look we wanted - all in less than seven days! They were responsive to our questions and suggestions, and we were very happy with the results. By the way, Chrislands also offers domain registration. Essentially, they are a one-stop outfitter for the bookseller's website needs.

If you have been selling books for some time, this is the time to clean up your inventory! Yes, it takes some time, but the better your inventory looks, the better your website will work for you. Make sure descriptions are clear and prices are on target. Remove offerings of questionable value - the badly worn, the ex-library, the too cheap to justify handling. As you have gained more experience selling books, you have probably gotten smarter at selecting books for quality and value, and this is the best time for early mistakes to be corrected. You can dispose of them or donate them to a good cause and be better off for it.

Make a list of the browsing categories you will want on your website (aviation, anthropology, archaeology, biography, etc.). Then make sure the books on your database are catalogued into these categories because this is how they will be organized when they are uploaded to your website. (On HomeBase, for example, this is accomplished by clicking "attach" near the bottom of the book description window and listing the categories you want this book to fall under).

We currently upload manually to 5 sites. If you do not have the time or patience to do this, you may want to look into BookRouter or BookTrakker - services that upload to all your listing sites simultaneously. Fees do apply.

Take digital photos of the more important books so that you have the option of uploading these to your site (sometimes a picture really is worth a thousand words!). Give them a file name with the corresponding inventory description number. This will match them up with the appropriate book when you do an upload. Note that you may have to resize your images - 50 to 75 kilobytes is a good rule of thumb - so they won't consume valuable server space. The software provided with your digital camera should be capable of doing this.

Once your website is constructed, you can upload your inventory. At this point you will also need to insert additional details: information about yourself and your shop, perhaps a photo on your "about us" page; payment options; sales & returns policies; shipping fees and other options; and perhaps a favorite links page. You may want to include directions and/or a map if you have an open shop. A website should be ever-changing, growing, to some degree, in order to hold people's interest, so it is never really done. You will be updating inventory on a constant basis and hopefully, as they sell, changing featured books and photographs from time to time. When you are satisfied with the look and content of your website, submit your domain name to the major search engines (more on this in next article), and start selling!

Our newly designed and fully-functional website opened in early April, with an inventory of just over 6,000 books.

We were surprised to receive an order for three books the first day and very pleased with a $250 order a few days later - in all eight orders processed in the first two weeks. Will we see continued sales? A growth in sales? Time will tell, but as we learn, we will share some suggestions for growing your website and avoiding the mistakes we will inevitably make.

Here is a summary of costs to set up and maintain our website:

Note that the website hosting fee will vary depending on how many books you have uploaded to the site the previous month. $9.99/mo. up to 2,500; $14.99/mo. up to 5,000; and so on. Also, there are three plans available at ProPay (Premium, Premium Plus and Platinum, depending on how much business you expect to transact each month and how much money can be charged per transaction. Also, a monthly maintenance fee applies for inactive or expired accounts, ranging between $5 and $30/month, depending on type of account. A $0.35 fee is charged to refund a credit card purchase, and the cost varies between $0.10 and $0.35 for transferring funds to a checking account.

As with any business, it takes time to establish a reputation and gain a good customer base. If you can sell enough from your website to pay for maintaining it, you are off and running. Offer the best books and service you can muster, and your business should grow. Join us here for Part II of this series on marketing your website!