The Interview: Andy Gutterman – MyOwnBookshop.com


Database URL: http://www.myownbookshop.com

Andy, when will MyOwnBookshop.com launch?

Target launch date is set for November 15, 2002.

What was your purpose in starting a online book database (i.e., to help online booksellers, to get a database that does what you think a book database should do, because it’s a good business to be in, all of the above, none of the above, or ????).

We’ve been in the book business for over 17 years and absolutely love the business. One of the things we’ve noticed over the years is that although most booksellers list their books on multiple book databases, there is no single site out there that seems to be serving these booksellers properly while at the same time focusing business attention where it will help everyone the most, namely, enabling buyers to find and buy their books as easily as possible through accurate search returns coupled with a smooth e-commerce system, as well as attracting book-buyers to the site. Nobody yet seems to understand both sides of the equation, Buyers AND Sellers.

Most existing online book exchanges focus on booksellers because booksellers supply their revenue in the form of subscription fees. We think there is a wonderful opportunity for MyOwnBookshop.com to shift the focus to book buyers and make a fun, easy and accurate site that caters to the needs and wants of book buyers rather than booksellers. Don’t get me wrong, we will be fanatical about supporting our booksellers, but we believe that booksellers understand that in order to succeed on any online book exchange, the site must have a clear focus on customer support while at the same time placing most of the emphasis and resources on attracting and retaining a loyal, book-buying customer base.

Without customers, an online exchange is pointless, so that is where the emphasis needs to be. We also believe that it was very important to have booksellers as the owners of the site and that is why we have pursued our existing funding strategy. Our service is owned and operated by many knowledgeable booksellers who know the business and have a passion for books. They are not here simply to make a fast buck.

I know you have several investors in TitlesDirect. Are all of your present investors booksellers?

All but two. We started out with four people starting UBIX Corp. to develop and sell BookTrakker Pro in 1996, with plans to start an online service through the program.

With UBIX, two of us were booksellers and the other two were programmers. After three years in development, with many changes in the market for programs, we launched BookTrakker Pro 1.0. Very quickly we developed two upgrades to 2.0, which 260 booksellers are now using. We just released version 2.1, which, among other improvements, now runs anywhere in the world. BookTrakker has become the most popular program for those booksellers willing to purchase a program for managing their inventory and uploads.

In 1998 we started to explore the possibility of developing an online database like ABE and Bibliofind. Through a personal connection with executive management at Barnesandnoble.com we were able to go to New York in May 1999, and give the executive management a demonstration of BookTrakker and our plans for an online system. What none of us at that table knew was the Chairman of B&N had already made a decision not in invest in an outside database developer. So we left New York considerably wiser, with a much better understanding of the corporate mindset, and came back to Charlottesville to try and do this on our own. It’s taken us a little over three years, but here we are, only months away from launch.

It was because of BookTrakker that we were able to consider the idea that we could successfully start up a new online system. You are well aware of my postings about the need for a new system, so in March 2001, I asked BookTrakker users if they wanted to invest in a new venture to do this. Between March 2001, and the actual offering completion, April 2002, twenty-nine booksellers came forward and invested their money in TitlesDirect.com so we could develop and launch MyOwnBookshop.com

TitlesDirect raised $285,000 through a Regulation D, Rule 506 Private Equity Funding. Via a tax-free stock swap, TitlesDirect then purchased UBIX from the original four founders, thus the two shareholders who are not booksellers. One of those non-booksellers is presently working on BookTrakker 3.0 with ISBN lookup.

With Robin and myself, that makes 31 of 33 shareholders being booksellers, with plans to expand the roster of bookseller owners through future rounds of funding. I’m a strong believer that the users of our system should have a stake in the business through ownership of equity, so I’m willing to sell shares of the company, even though this dilutes my ownership.

Having two shareholders who are not booksellers is an advantage; we get input from outside the bookselling community all the time; sometimes being a bookseller gets in the way of development. One of these two shareholders is on the Board of Directors.

On your investors, how was it decided who would do what, or be in charge of what parts of the business (i.e., was it decided on an amount of stock owned basis, or on a talent and/or knowledge basis, by committee or board meeting)? I am assuming that everyday business operations will be managed by you, with the major directions in which TitlesDirect be will taken decided by a board of directors?

The largest investor required that I be in charge of the company, and most of the other investors felt the same way. I have the second largest interest in the company, but because of the voting structure, control 64% of the votes on the Board of Directors. I run the day-to-day affairs of the company, but often ask the advice of one or more of the Directors, and when they clearly have a better feel for the situation, implement their decisions rather than my own. I’m not always right, and sometimes I don’t even understand the issue. And sometimes they vote against me, and I listen.

Most major decisions like issuing stock for fund-raising, setting broad corporate policy, and similar items require unanimous consent of the Directors, my control notwithstanding. If someone were to come in and make an offer for all the stock of the company, they would have to gain unanimous consent from the Board to pursue such an offer. Since the common stock is restricted, the only way a sale could be made is through the Board. It is highly unlikely that all seven Directors would agree to a sale, hence the built-in protection from a corporate takeover.

You have said on book-related lists that, even though you may well do another stock offering, perhaps public, to raise sufficient capital for major advertising expenses, the stock spread will remain diffused enough that no one stockholder can ever sell TitlesDirect out from under the rest of your stockholders. I assume you’ve had legal advice on how to accomplish this, and will continue to have such advice to keep TitlesDirect ownership in the hands of its bookseller investors?

This is very simple. Currently shareholders cannot sell their stock. It is restricted stock, by SEC and state law. Owners will only be able to sell stock when we do a public offering, and that won’t happen before 2004, at the earliest. And a public offering would further dilute the ownership of the company, all but guaranteeing that control would remain in the hands of booksellers.

My vision has always been a site owned and operated by booksellers for the benefit of booksellers and the book-buying public. This is why I’m trying my best to diversify ownership into as many hands as possible, limited to booksellers only.

Our legal advice comes from one of the best qualified law firms in the United States, McGuire Woods LLP, originally founded right here in Charlottesville, but now a worldwide firm with over 600 attorneys.

Is this a long-term commitment on your part? Where do you see yourself and your database in 3 years? 5 years?

I’m 51. I expect to be doing this well into my 70’s. I see MyOwnBookshop.com becoming the dominant player in the repeat serious book market. We cannot compete on low price; I’ll leave that to the Amazons and Half.coms. We can compete on service and functionality. 3 years, 5 years, 7 yearsI see us remaining focused on book buyers’ needs and building a company that is fun and provides a good rate of return to our investors. We are committed to the long-term success of this venture.

What lister book database inventory programs will you support?

BookTrakker, Record Manager and Homebase to start, as well as BookRouter. Very soon after launch we will develop a desktop or server-based upload/conversion utility to convert and upload any other format users might have. The bookseller will control the output of this conversion utility, eliminating the need for custom translations of bookseller’s data. Doing it this way will eliminate the lion’s share of vendor support, allowing us to focus on customer acquisition and retention instead.

What will be your upload procedures? Deletion procedures? Will “wants” listings be available? For sale matches? Are any additions/changes planned?

Web-based upload for all programs other than BookTrakker. Files must be in Homebase 2.0 txt format or standard UIEE. Both formats include added/modified/deleted records.

At initial launch, there will be no Wants nor Matches for the sake of getting the site live a little more quickly. These features, however, are on our development list and will be added as soon as possible after launch.

We have a long list of features we want to add to the site, but only after we launch and are sure that what we have works as advertised. Our experience in developing BookTrakker has taught us that although new features are nice to have, it’s better to have the current features work before adding in the new ones. Developing an online database isn’t much different than developing software, except you get a lot more users with the site.

 

What customer service (for both sellers and buyers) will you have?

We’ll be absolutely focused on customer service and will do everything we can to monitor our bookseller base as necessary while at the same time intervening in the book-buying process only when required. We envision most customer service will be provided via email, with toll free telephone support for the booksellers. Most correspondence will be by email; those of you who know me know that we respond very quickly to inquiries, whether by email or phone. It’s rare that we don’t respond within 24 hours, let alone a few minutes.

Will you have any quality (i.e., descriptions, shipping, and/or customer service) standards for your listers? If so, what will be/are the consequences of violating those standards?

We will have quality standards for listing booksellers. Full descriptions will be required. Terms will be set by the site for shipping and customer service, and we will expect all listing booksellers to adhere to them. We will require all booksellers listing on our service to upload sold books every business day. They can upload more often if they like, but we will expect a daily upload at a minimum. Obviously, if a bookseller is ill or something happens beyond their control, we will not remove them from the system. But for those who willfully ignore our requirements, we reserve the right to suspend or remove their listings.

What are your technical arrangements (in non-technical language, please) to ensure reliability of service? Future growth? Additional services?

We have contracted with a local hosting service for 99.9% reliability. (8.76 hours/year downtime) They have two Internet service backbone accounts and plenty of capacity. We also are making provisions to be scalable as our growth and traffic dictate. Our goal is 100% uptime, all the time, as well as very fast searching and purchasing. Obviously this is an unattainable goal; however, we will strive to come as close as feasible.

Will you have the capability of taking credit card info for orders? If so, what can you tell us about the safety procedures you have or will have in place to ensure the security of such info?

We will offer the buyer the option of processing the card through the site or contacting the bookseller direct. We will not be storing credit card information for booksellers to then log onto the site and collect. Cards that get processed by us will be completely encrypted, using 128-bit encryption. A third party processor will process customer’s credit cards.

Do you ever plan to process credit card orders through your database (rather than simply passing on the info to the lister) and, if so, will the lister or buyer bear the processing cost, and how long will it take to get payment to the lister?

See above. Seller pays the cost of processing. Payment will be every two weeks, with a two-week lag.

Do you have any plans for programs associated with your database that would involve anything other than direct contact between seller and buyer?

We are here to act as a value added intermediary between booksellers and book buyers. We view our role as that of creating a strong, umbrella brand for knowledgeable booksellers. This brand will attract book buyers through a superior, user-friendly site. Our database will be a “book finding” service that makes it easy for customers to find the book they want in the exact condition they want it while making it seamless to buy from multiple booksellers in the same transaction. User friendly, expert knowledge, fast, accurate, fun, customizable, no hidden chargesin short, a book site for book buyers. We will consider programs and strategies that help us build that brand and deliver on that vision.

Do you plan to have an “all word search” capability?

Yes, we will have an “All Word” search. This will search in all fields other than Author or Title, since you have that capability in those fields already. A bookseller may put Publisher in their description, but will use Author and Title for those fields directly.

What search capabilities does your database have now? What is planned for the future?

We have an Advanced Search engine that is being designed to try and limit search results to exactly the book or books you are looking for. We spent four months on designing the rules for parsing data and searching for terms to allow us to eliminate much of the junk users are used to getting on the other sites. This is one of the key distinguishing features of the site that is going to make MyOwnBookshop.com popular with book buyers. They’ve told us they want closer matches from their searches so we are going to give that to them.

I understand that TitlesDirect will be using a commission based on actual sales, rather than a monthly listing fee. Can you tell us what the amount of commission will be? Do you think TitlesDirect will always be commissioned-based?

Starting out, 10% for public transactions, 5% for bookseller to bookseller. If cards are processed by the site, there will be an additional charge of 6%, for a possible total of 16%. There will be lower commissions for higher priced books and/or volume sales from the public site; we will announce these later.

Yes. Commission is the only method that makes sense. You only pay if we sell; you aren’t forced to subsidize sellers who do sell when you don’t. In a monthly fee based system you pay the site in advance of making sales, hoping they will materialize. Booksellers will pay for performance and we will perform to the level such that there is no doubt that selling through MyOwnBookshop.com is a worthwhile investment.

How do you plan to ensure that TitlesDirect knows which inquiries actually result in sales, so that you can collect commissions (I’m assuming that sales orders actually placed on your site will automatically be recorded, but am unsure how you’ll know if an inquiry to a bookseller placed through your site results in a later sale)?

There will be a two-step process involved so that we know that the sale happened through us. The buyer will add the item to their cart, setting a flag in the database. Then they have a choice of payment through us or the bookseller. Clicking the bookseller choice will set another flag. If the book is removed within 24 hours then it is likely that it was sold through our site. We will track statistics and keep open lines of communication with our dealers so everyone understands exactly how sales are being made. If books are sold as a result of being listed on our site without payment to us then we reserve the right to suspend sales through our site. If we deliver on the performance we promise and everyone knows the terms up-front, then we expect booksellers to comply with the terms.

Do you plan to have or now have your database searched by Addall or Bookfinder or any other meta-search site?

No. Not at this time. Searching isn’t free, the cost is quite high from both a monetary viewpoint and a resource issue. We would rather spend the money on direct marketing of the site rather than supporting other sites at our expense. We’re investing in building the premier site for used, out-of-print, antiquarian, and collectible books. In our minds, becoming a site that is merely a part of someone else’s meta-search engine defeats that purpose. We value a strong MyOwnBookshop.com brand above all else and will fight to keep it new, unique, and very relevant in our customers’ minds.

How do you plan to advertise your database (both to draw listers and buyers)?

You know we cannot comment on this! :o}

Since we are still pre-launch, I do not want to discuss our plans in great detail. What I can tell you is that we are exploring a lot of traditional and non-traditional ways to achieve our advertising objectives– both online and off. We’ve retained the help of a Professional Certified Marketer who has experience in this area and we are confident that we will reach our target audience and build a strong, loyal base of customers.

Do you or are you planning to have professional management, to always have bookseller management, or????

When the site has launched and is fully operational we may seek professional management, but always under the control of booksellers.

What markets (geographical and/or demographic) are you aiming at?

All markets. Global.

What services/features does your database have that you feel sets you apart and/or will ensure the success of your database?

Currency display in the user’s local currency. Multiple order/multiple vendor shopping cart capability. The ability to save default settings in the advanced search mode. Cleaner data returns. Less noise. Eventually we will have a customizable user interface based on individual preferences and interests, and lots of other little touches that will make this the best online book site on the Internet.

Please tell us anything you’d like about yourself and/or your database, and thank you for participating.

MyOwnBookshop.com will become the destination for finding used, out-of-print, antiquarian, and collectible books. Visitors finally will have a “book-finding’ site that looks, behaves, and changes the way they want it to and they’ll be happy to call it their preferred book site. Come experience it for yourselfas a bookseller or book buyerand we think you’ll agree.

 

The Standard: The Journal of the Independent Online Booksellers Association

Check out the Independent Online Booksellers Association Website