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An Interview with Paul Mills of AuctionExplorerBooks

Shawn Purcell
-What is AuctionExplorerBooks, in a nutshell?
AuctionExplorerBooks is an on-line auction site dedicated to the sale of rare and out-of-print books. Only booksellers who are members of the major trade associations may become sellers. This is to give buyers confidence in the accuracy of the descriptions when bidding. Fees are low: $1 per lot to list and 5% commission on successful sales. There is no buyer’s premium.

Sales are held monthly running for a week at a time. Viewing and bidding takes place throughout the week. In the nature of the internet it is truly international. The site’s servers are in Germany, the programming and support is done in South Africa where costs are competitive, and we are represented in Britain by Richard Sawyer. We presently have dealers from around the world listing, including the United Kingdom and the USA.

We will soon announce a fixed price database site to be called “Book Shop” to complement the “Auction House.” This will be a no-frills site to which dealers can upload at very low cost—the equivalent of $5 per 1000 books per month. No commission will be charged on the sale of books listed in the Book Shop section nor will there be credit card charges or other interfaces. The buyers deal directly with the seller.

We are a web based business built by booksellers for booksellers.

-Who are the founders, and how many people are presently involved? The Grapes of Wrath
James Findlay (37), a South African bookseller, was the founder. Finding sales reducing on ABE and other sites he conceived the auction site as a way of providing himself and other dealers with an additional selling tool in changed times. Starting in a modest way in Johannesburg six years ago he developed the concept and the sophisticated software needed to run an efficient and user-friendly auction site.

James is now based in Edinburgh, Scotland but travels extensively. I purchased a half share in the business in 2003. My own business, Clarke’s Rare Books, was founded in the 1950s and I have been involved with it for thirty years. We are general antiquarian dealers but with a specialty in African material. We are members of the British Antiquarian Booksellers Association (celebrating its centenary this year), SABDA (the South African Bookdealers Association), and of course IOBA. Our chief programmer is Pablo Casado who is assisted by Billy Einkamerer. Recently my son Tony (21) who is studying commerce and IT at university has become involved on the development and promotional side.

-Where did the idea come from?
James, realizing the effect of the internet on our trade, is the originator of the idea. ABE, Biblio and other sites have shown precisely which books are scarce and which are not. Books previously thought of as quite rare now appear on the sites in multiple copies. In effect what could be called “static auctions” are held on these sites with numerous copies of a title being offered at different prices. James’s solution was to formalize this into an internet auction venue run by booksellers for booksellers, collectors and librarians.

Today, we have over 60 registered sellers and our extensive mailings of registered buyers reach thousands of bibliophiles for each auction.

-When did you start?
The software development started in 2000 and the first auction took place in March 2001. The sales were held locally in South Africa with James as the only seller. It took some time to develop the concept and the software and to iron out all the bugs. In early 2004 we converted the site to US dollars, and from Auction 25 we invited qualifying booksellers from around the world to become sellers.

-How many auctions have you had, how long do they last, and how often are they held?
We have just concluded Auction 48. Sales are presently held every five weeks with the auction running for a week—so a six-week cycle. From the fall this year we intend to run them monthly with an auction ending on the first Thursday of every month.

-I imagine the numbers go up a bit each time, in terms of participants, sold versus unsold, average price realized, etc.
The number of registered buyers goes up steadily. From our statistics we know there are many more people who watch the auctions and then register and bid once they see books which interest them. At present about half the items listed sell on each auction—this is comparable to other online auctions. The percentage is rising. We encourage our sellers to set reasonable reserves.

-What criteria do you use for allowing booksellers to list on the site?
Our aim is to provide a site where bidders can buy with confidence knowing that the books offered are properly described by professional book people, and that there will be after-sale service and active assistance provided with any problems.

Our criterion is to allow only booksellers who are members of the major trade associations to become sellers—groups such as the ABA, ABAA, ANZAAB, IOBA, PBFA, and the various trade associations affiliated to ILAB. This vetting process is fundamental to our business model.

-Is special software required?
Yes, our user-friendly software is downloadable, but dealers with broadband can upload on-line directly to the server and in that way there is no need to use our software. We have also built conversion programs that automatically convert for example a HomeBase file into our format. In that way the seller does not duplicate cataloging.

-Can anyone register as a buyer?
Yes, anybody who has a functioning email address can register. Should a buyer default on a sale he is immediately removed from the system.

-Is this strictly for books, or is there room for other paper items?
We encourage sellers to list anything that is related to the field of books—pamphlets, maps, and other paper ephemera—but there are no restrictions. Medals, stamps and watercolors have sold quite successfully on past auctions.

-What are the essential differences between AEB and, say, eBay?
We are a site dedicated solely to rare and out-of-print books.

The fundamental difference is that professional booksellers stand behind the site both as the owners and sellers. We manage it in a hands-on fashion, are passionate about books and are independent and intend to remain so. If a buyer or seller needs help there are real people at hand to assist.

-What is the fee structure?
For the Auction House the fees are $1 per lot listed and 5% commission on successful sales. If a lot does not sell, then the fee is only the $1. The minimum reserve price is $20. In Darkest Africa

For the Book Shop there is a monthly fee of $0.005 per book. This is the equivalent of $5 for 1000 books per month. We believe in only paying for what you use, so if a customer uploads 250 books, then for that month the fee is just (250 x $0.005) $1.25.

How the billing works is much like a mobile phone “top up as you go” system. The sellers will debit their credit cards for say $20 or $50 on our secure paygate site (this is a banking site and we never see the credit card details at all). All Book Shop fees and auction charges and commissions will automatically be deducted from the credit. A detailed account page will be provided for each seller.

-How can the buyer pay?
The buyer deals directly with the seller. AuctionExplorerBooks.com does not get involved in the sale in any way. It is important to note that before buyers bid they must check at the bottom of the bidding page for what forms of payment the seller accepts. Usually credit cards are preferred but PayPal and other methods are accepted by some sellers.

-What kinds of problems have you had so far?
People think that the site is specifically for travel books due to the “Explorer” part in our domain name “AuctionExplorerBooks.com.”

A problem, if the term is correct, is that we find the established dealers are very slow to see the advantage of what we offer. Many dealers, particularly in Britain, consign books to auctions paying up to 30% in commissions and buyer’s premiums to do so. We offer a site where for 5% the dealer can auction his books himself and in so doing meet new customers.

In changed times dealers must endeavor to expand the scope of their businesses. We offer them a way to do so. We all have slow moving books on our shelves or items outside our fields of specialization. When offered on ABE and other database sites these items may take years to sell. If auctioned at reasonable reserves they will sell. In my case the auctions have become important as they allow us to take in on commission many items we might reject in the normal course of buying or which we may have directed to the conventional auctioneers. The important point is that we offer dealers an entirely new way to sell and to promote themselves.

-Have you had to mediate any disputes?
Happily we have not had any disputes so far. Should something arise we would involve the seller’s trade association in the resolution of any issue.

-What part of the auction process is the most labor intensive for you at this stage?
Technical support for first time sellers can take an hour over the phone, however we encourage customers to contact us and we are more than willing to talk them through the process. We pride ourselves on maintaining the personal touch, much like a traditional bookshop.

Whilst extensive technical expertise is not required it does need some practice and the correct software to take good pictures of books, to size them appropriately and to upload them to the site. Our mantra is “the better the pictures which are uploaded the better the chance of achieving good prices.”

-Are you profitable yet?
All running costs are now covered as well as development expenditure.

-Can you share some auction offerings that surprised you for one reason or another?
On Auction Number 47 In Darkest Africa by Henry Morton Stanley sold for $6000 when the seller was expecting only $3000. However, this is a very scare set, being a signed deluxe edition. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck attracted 38 bids on the last auction, reaching a hammer price of $1103.

On Auction 42 an album of autographed photos and autographs of famous entertainers was reserved at $120. After enthusiastic bidding the hammer price was $1691. It is this sort of unique material that works best on the site. In this case bids came in from all over the world. We find that where practical when a seller lists a low reserve, the bidding gets stimulated and more attention is Aquatint Plate from African Scenery and Animalsdrawn to the lot than normal. The reason for this is that the lot will appear in the featured section on our home page under the “most visited lots” and the “highest bidding activity” sections. Some sellers use this as a tactic to maximize exposure to a lot.

On Auction 31 African Scenery and Animals by Samuel Daniell sold for $63,000. This was our highest hammer price so far and is a clear indication that very rare material such as this can be successfully sold on AuctionExplorerBooks.com.  On Auction 35 Live and Let Die (First State) by Ian Fleming was reserved for $2500 and ended going for $4416 because it was, as the seller described, “in first issue dustjacket identifiable by not stating ‘jacket devised by the author and executed by Kenneth Lewis’ on the front flap.” This lot drew 193 visits.

-It’s hard to start up against an eBay, ABE, or Amazon, and if you make it really big they just buy you out. Are there any other good bookseller-run online auction start- ups out there you are aware of?
Yes, you are correct. But we do not see ourselves as direct competitors to these huge general sites. We seek a niche market for old books, where collectors, librarians and dealers can focus and search for items of interest without all the clutter.

As far as I know we are unique. I do not know of any other bookseller-run online auction site.

-You provide additional increments of time at the end of the auction to safeguard against last second sniping, which tends to favor the seller. Buyers might argue that one’s maximum bid is as subject to late bids as it is to sniping, and hammer times are final in traditional auction settings. So, while this feature is genteel in keeping with your philosophy, it could alienate buyers a bit. This is a long way of asking how firm your policies are, as things evolve and you receive customer feedback.
All bids placed in the last five minutes of an auction will be extended for a further three minutes to encourage a counter bid. Usually around 5% of the lots go into extended time. We find that this is the fairest system and it’s in keeping with the traditional auctioneering model that we are all used to. In the conventional auction room an auctioneer will usually call for “any more bids” before the hammer falls.

We find that most of our users like the extended bidding system. Buyers who bid according to a budget now have the opportunity to place a bid on another item if they have been outbid (in the final minutes) on their first choice of book.

-All property on AuctionExplorerBooks is sold as is, where is, as the saying goes. How does this policy coexist with the unconditional satisfaction guaranteed returns policy most professional booksellers live by?
Because we only have professional sellers from accredited trade associations, mistakes are easily resolved. If a buyer is not happy with a description, they would simply send the book back to the seller and request a refund. It is in everybody’s interest to run everything ethically.

-Are you AuctionExplorer (as it appears sometimes), AuctionExplorerBooks, or both? Two URLs lead to your home page (www.auctionexplorerbooks.com and www.auctionexplorer.biz). Auction Explorer, “the first and only Internet Explorer add-on for eBay,” is a fairly well-known downloadable software product (www.auction-explorer.com). And www.auctionexplorer.com (without the hyphen) is a whole different company that points to all kinds of ongoing auctions. When one Googles “Auction Explorer” as one word or two you seem to come right up at the top, but do you have any concerns about branding?
Yes, we evolved and merged to www.auctionexplorerbooks.com from the .biz domain name. There are so many suffixes these days that it would be an impractical exercise to try and secure branding via a domain name.

-Right now, your functional and friendly home page features a list of results from the previous auction, with the highest winning bids at the top. This includes the hammer price, reserve price, number of views and bids, and the seller’s name. There are links to log in, and to review your profile and bids, but naturally one must register first. Details and tips can be had in your Help pages. There is a keyword search box for previous auctions, as well as an archival categorical breakdown of prices realized on the far left. There is an informative and highly reassuring list of sellers for the upcoming auction; as well as a preview of that auction, with images, reserve prices, and estimated prices, though sellers and their offerings are not matched up until the auction begins. What website enhancements do you have in the Live and Let Die works?
Thank you for these compliments. Music to my ears. We have worked very hard to make the site intuitive and easy to use. We do need to improve our help pages although we try, where possible, to speak to anyone experiencing difficulties—a few words of explanation can save many pages of help!

As to enhancements to the site, I mentioned earlier that we are soon to announce the addition of a no-frills database to be called simply “Book Shop” to complement the Auction House. Our site attracts a growing amount of traffic but as the auctions happen only monthly this traffic is highly cyclical—very busy during an auction and dropping off between sales. We think the Book Shop will take advantage of the auction traffic and lead buyers to the fixed price books between the sales. Buyers will be able to contact sellers directly from the Book Shop.

As a dealer myself this is what I want—simply to meet customers directly without any interference from the listing site.

-I became aware of your site a year or so ago, but must confess that I thought it was strictly for South African material. I know better now, but on reflection, perhaps this was a good way to get some experience and some traction. What will you do to internationalize AuctionExplorerBooks?
We started out in South Africa, and thus became known as a venue for rare Africana material. Even our overseas sellers used to list a lot of books relating to Africa. However, now most of the traffic to the site comes from the USA, then Australia, then after the UK is South Africa. So in terms of that exposure we aren’t parochial any more. Word of mouth is still the greatest contributor to the growth of the business.

We plan on doing book fairs in various countries starting later in the year. We look forward to this as it takes us back full circle to how books have traditionally been traded. This is a symbiosis for us, for we strongly believe that the essence of book selling has not changed with the internet and that is what we want to encourage. We stand for specialists, ethical dealers who are bibliophiles before being businessmen. That’s what we try to do, use these traditional methods of selling to shape the operating model of AuctionExplorerBooks.com.

-As a buyer, I would be drawn to your site because the owners and sellers are professional and trustworthy, and because there may be some good bargains there. As a seller, however, I might think twice about whether eBay can deliver lots more eyeballs, and money is money no matter who pays me. Buyers get cheated on eBay a lot more than sellers do. Although your highly reasonable fee structure in combination with a judicious reserve provides a nice margin of safety for sellers, is it fair to say that this is one of your greatest challenges?
We believe that buyers are returning to the trusted way of transacting with booksellers. All our sellers are vetted dealers who have proven their honourable track record. Likewise one wants serious buyers, and we know that many top international book collectors have registered on AuctionExplorerBooks.com. That is what we are after, not the quantity of viewing.

Yes, we would like more dealers as sellers, but not to the detriment of the system. We have turned down many sellers.

One must remember that with other generalized sites, rare books can end up being lost as there are search and cataloging constraints. Our target market is the rare and collectable book market only. With the massive number of general online sellers, we believe that more and more people are gravitating towards specialized sites such as ours. Many of our buyers wait for our auctions and have told us that they spend most of their budget for books on AuctionExplorerBooks.com.

It must be noted that if a buyer does not follow through with a sale, the seller does not get charged for the commission and the buyer is barred from participating in future auctions. This is the extreme and has only happened twice since 2003. The point is, we protect our sellers just as much as we advocate a secure and reliable site to the buyers.

-Common books that used to do well on eBay (and ABE et al) die there now, so rare and collectible are the watchwords with online book auctions these days. I like your $20 minimum reserve, everything is well organized and transparent, and the site in general is like stumbling across a bookish oasis. Looking back, what has surprised you the most about this venture?
What has surprised us is how much images contribute to the successful sale of a book. In the past catalogues were issued as text only. These days a lot will draw very little attention if a digital image is not added to the text description.

The internet is international. An auction can be run from anywhere in the world. Our server is in Germany, Paul is based in Cape Town and James travels a lot. Provided there’s a reliable internet connection we can respond to customers from a Melbourne internet café or from a hotel in Dubai.

-AuctionExplorerBooks shares two main goals with IOBA—a concern for professional standards, and wresting back some control. I think it’s great you are a member of IOBA, by the way, and wish more ABA, ABAA, and ILAB level members who do online business would enlist. On behalf of the entire professional bookselling community, Paul, I would like to thank you and your cohorts for your stellar efforts, and wish you great success with AuctionExplorerBooks in the years to come.
Thank you. Very much appreciated. We see our goals as very similar to those of IOBA. We seek to improve the standard and ethics of online book dealing. Several members are already sellers on AuctionExplorerBooks and we hope many more will sign up in the future. I look forward to chatting with them and to helping them make AuctionExplorer a profitable and pleasant bookselling experience.

Paul Mills operates Clarke’s Africana & Rare Books out of Constantia, South Africa and can be contacted at http://www.clarkes.co.za. AuctionExplorerBooks queries to support@auctionexplorerbooks.com.