Milo Parmoor – Bibliopoly.com


Winter 2002 (Vol. III, No. 4) Table of Contents

bibliopolyBy: Milo Parmoor

URL: http://www.Bibliopoly.com (and others)

What was your purpose in starting an online book database?

Bibliopoly belongs to Bernard Quaritch Ltd., an antiquarian bookshop in London, established over 150 years ago. Quaritch had set up an internal database in the early 1980s to administer and hold catalogue descriptions of its own stock. This database proved useful in catalogue production and in answering customers’ questions. Quaritch, with a staff of about 30, is divided into nine departments, each of which specialises in a topic or range of topics. Books, however, do not restrict themselves to a single topic. The book of an explorer to Australia might have botanical content and be of navigational interest. The custom-built Quaritch database catered for this through a coding system that allowed several different subject codes to accompany a stock item. We could also enter onto our database that the binding or printing or illustration of a book was particularly fine, and always entered (unless this information was unavailable) the name of its publisher, the date of publication and the town it was printed in. We also entered the language of the book and thus could search for books written in a particular language.

When we first came across communal book databases on the internet, we found they lacked many features of our internal system. This was to be expected; they had been developed for a different market, that of in-print books or out-of-print second-hand books. In that market, customers do not require the wealth of information demanded by collectors of rare books. Nor, looked at from the dealer’s viewpoint, is the profit to be made on the sale of a relatively inexpensive book adequate to defray the cost of extracting, which may require research, storing and displaying such information. The traditional sales tool of the antiquarian dealer has been a printed catalogue in which each item is professionally described; the technical part of the description includes some of the information mentioned above and is usually accompanied by a text explaining the merits of the book in terms of edition, condition, content and other circumstance. A communal database brings together the inventory of a number of dealers who thus benefit from the public interest a single dealer’s site is unlikely to generate. If people want a cauldron they go to the street of the copper-beaters. As Quaritch itself was effectively a small community of specialist antiquarian booksellers, our experience seemed relevant to the specification for a larger community of a website which followed the cataloguing traditions of our trade. Bibliopoly is that specification.

But it also includes facilities – the digital holding and transmission of images in colour, for example – that have not long been widely available.

One of the features left out of account on the sites we looked at was language. London is a very international city; English-speaking, it is also European and its booksellers welcome the frequent visits they receive from Continental colleagues and collectors, whose interest may concentrate on books written in their own languages. Our idea was to provide a website on which dealers from the Anglo-Saxon world and from the main countries of Continental Europe might all list books, catalogued in their own languages but so entered onto the data-base that they could be found by a searcher using any one of five. Bibliopoly was designed to provide the search facilities we had found valuable for our catalogue production and sales, facilities which matched the traditional information requirements of the rare and antiquarian book market, and to be of use to people working in English, French, German, Italian and Spanish.

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

Yes it is a long-term commitment. Further facilities seem likely to be added within five years.

What book database inventory programs do you support?

In theory we can accommodate any database formats. However, for our search machinery to function effectively we do require an appropriate level of delimitation in the data uploaded. For example, book data that does not have a separate imprint field (or separate fields for place and date of publication, publisher or printer) excludes itself from any Bibliopoly search, such as the important date-range search, which uses imprint-related criteria.

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

Our on-line inventory management includes an upload facility which transfers data from the bookseller’s computer to ours by way of an ‘add’ file, ‘delete’ file, or ‘ purge’ file, as the bookseller wishes. Booksellers can also edit and delete individual records from their Bibliopoly inventory on-line. At present we do not have ” wants” listings.
What customer service (for both buyers and sellers) do you have?

No service for buyers, as we have no e-commerce function. We do our best to be helpful to dealers who list their books on Bibliopoly; this involves, inter alia, the provision of multilingual technical support, advice on data-formatting – a service for which there is considerable demand — and help with hosting images etc.

Do you have any quality standards for your listers? If so, what will be the consequences of violating those standards?

We accept all members of any ILAB-LILA affiliated bookseller association and booksellers recommended to us as professionally reliable by at least two existing Bibliopoly dealers. These conditions should ensure a proper standard of accurate cataloguing. We retain full discretionary power to remove a dealer from the site and would not hesitate to use this power if we thought the dealer guilty of improper or unprofessional conduct. .

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

Bibliopoly runs on a server pair, each with multiple RAID-configured hard-drives. RAID configuration means that failure of a single hard-drive will not cause the system to fail. Server connections to the major internet backbones are via multiple DS-3 lines so that if one backbone goes down, we still maintain excellent connectivity through the others.

The main server delivers data to the public while the secondary server indexes – in this way there is no degradation of performance during a long indexing procedure (as we allow ‘ any word’ searches our indexes are large). Our daily back-ups are on the secondary server, so that in the case of catastrophic failure of the main server, we can switch immediately to the secondary.

The latest addition to our technical services was the recently introduced inventory export facility. Using this our dealers can export their inventory, in a variety of formats, to any FTP server they choose, e.g. ftp.abebooks.com. Another important service is provided by http://www.polyBiblio.com which gives an individual website to each Bibliopoly book in html format so that a dealer may send his description of one or more books to a customer, or prepare on-line catalogues, etc. There is an ancillary benefit in that these individual book websites are sometimes found by the big search-engines.

Do you have the capability of taking credit card info for orders?

No. We have no e-commerce facility of any sort. Buyers must themselves make contact, and agree paying arrangements, with dealers.

Do you ever plan to process credit cards?

No. Well at least not at present. Of course Quaritch processes listing fees from dealers who wish to pay by credit card.

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

No.

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

Yes. We have an ‘any word’ search as part of our main search mechanism. This searches every word in the database, including all keywords.

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

Our answers to the questions above apart from the first question have been fairly short. This answer will be long. For convenience it is divided into two parts. The first on Search Criteria. The second Linguistic.

Search Criteria

People who buy in-print or out-of-print books usually know the name of the book or of the author they want; this is less frequently the case with antiquarian books. Here the customer may ask a dealer to show him ‘something nice’; the dealer, knowing the customer’s interest, will produce books that respond to it. Can something like that happen at long distance, and without prior personal acquaintance? Bibliopoly is dedicated to proving that it can.

There is a trade-off. Both the customer, in exchange for being able to see ‘something nice’ at any hour of the day or night, from any location in the world, and the antiquarian bookseller, in exchange for being able to offer his inventory to someone nine thousand miles away on a Sunday, need to be specific. The customer must specify on a search page what he intends by ‘nice book.’ The bookseller must so mark his books for upload, either by using a code, or through key-words, that a customer can find them.

Clearly any antiquarian database must recognize date of publication as a search criterion. Bibliopoly allows search by specific date, by date-range and by cut-off date; you may, that is, look for books printed in 1670, for books printed between 1660 and 1680, or for books printed before or, for that matter, after 1670. But collectors may be interested in particular printers or in particular towns where publishing took place; a ‘nice book’ may mean one printed by Aldus, or in Bruges. Other collectors do not so much mind who printed the book or where, or even what it is about; they seek fine bindings, or illustrations, or paper of unusual type, or rare type-faces, or they are looking for library sets, or miniature books, characteristics which describe the book as artefact rather than detailing the utilities a non-antiquarian buyer first associates with books – the information or entertainment they provide. Or they may want books enhanced in interest by a previous ownership: the copy may have belonged to the book’s author, or have been inscribed by that author to a friend, or have belonged to someone else of particular interest.

Bibliopoly allows the visitor to search for all the above characteristics: for publishers, for cities in which books were printed, for fine bindings, for books on paper of especially high quality, for association and presentation copies, for miniature books.

The essential, distinguishing aspect of Bibliopoly is a category system designed for these searches. A few words on its two- and three-tier hierarchy will explain the approach we took.

We have at present 323 categories in all, namely: 13 Main Categories, 236 Subcategories and 74 Sub-subcategories. Each main category (and subcategory in the case of Regions and Countries, the only group to have a third tier) is composed of its own subdivisions. Regions and Countries aims to give the geographical/topographical area to which a book is relevant. Many customers of bookshops are interested in their own place of birth or residence or in a region that attracts them for some other reason; here the definition required may be closer than merely the continent or large country in question, which is why three tiers were needed.

Nothing in this world is without some cost. Antiquarian booksellers are an idiosyncratic bunch. They have their own key-word systems which may not coincide with ours but we have always done our best to accept as keywords those booksellers use in their uploads.

As well as keywords, Bibliopoly uses alphanumeric codes in its category system. For the Country and Region category mostly, and for the Specialist Collecting category entirely only these codes can be used, and they may be used, at the dealer’s option, for all other categories. The codes are of particular benefit to the specialist dealer who deals in relatively few different types of book, for he can easily memorise the few codes he regularly uses. Again, where we have not accepted as keyword a phrase such as Musical Instruments –(both words making up the phrase have too many other references)– although we do have a subcategory which includes musical instruments, it is advisable to code a book with the correct alphanumeric code, in this case F3.

Linguistic

Bibliopoly works in English, French, German, Italian and Spanish. On a superficial level, this means that the site has five home pages, five search forms, five texts for its other pages. You can go straight to the German version on http://www.Bibliopoly.ch and straight to the Italian version on http://www.Bibliopoly.it. The French and Spanish versions are respectively available on http://www.bibliopoly.com/frand http://www.bibliopoly.com/es. Or, on the site itself, you can easily move from one version to another.

We were fairly disappointed by the automatic translation systems that came to our attention, so we arranged the necessary language work ourselves and are grateful to booksellers in various countries who helped us with correct phrases. A more taxing problem was to get the search machinery to obey an instruction of the following type: ” When someone asks for horses you must display all books which carry the code J3 together with those for which English-speaking dealers have included the keyword HORSE or the other English keywords we accept for this hippic and equestrian category and you must also show them the books for which foreign dealers have keyworded CHEVAUX, PFERDE, CAVALLI or CABALLOS etc.” This involves creating “dictionaries” of equivalences, not for every word, which is clearly impossible, but for the keywords accepted by the category system. Again, in answer to a request for books by Pushkin, the search engine must understand that material uploaded with POUCHKINE, or PUSCHKIN, or PUSCKIN in the author field must be displayed together with books with, as author, PUSHKIN; and, if the searcher wanted books printed in Bruges, then any catalogued with BRUJAS, or BRÜGGE in the imprint field should likewise be shown; if books printed by Aldus, then books by Aldo, Manuzio and Alde must appear. A further complexity is superadded by Latin. Most academic books up to 1750 or so were published in Latin (the international academic language of the time) as well, often, as in a vernacular. Scholars used both vernacular and Latin names; their books were printed in towns often given in Latin locative forms. While the use of an asterisk, which Bibliopoly allows, to search for a name or word where the user is unsure of the word’s ending or where the ending has various forms, may work in some cases, there are many where the Latin form differs widely from the vernacular. Lond* will get you Londinii as well as London, but if you wanted Paris, while par* would find you Parigi, Parisii, etc., it would not find you Lutetiae or Lutetie (Parisiorum), the standard Latin forms. Perhaps the worst linguistic challenge Bibliopoly faces is to avoid a proliferation of false positives where keywords in one language mean something completely different in another. In English the word ROMAN is an adjective denoting a thing or person(s) associated in some way with the capital of Italy. You might have the Roman Empire or Roman Catholicism or Roman baroque architecture. In French the word, as a noun, means the prose work called a NOVEL in English and, as an adjective, denotes the architectural or decorative style Romanesque. This problem meant that the category system needed editing lest ‘key-words’ were accepted which, although unambiguous in one language, would, unlike Horses, Chevaux, Pferde, Cavalli and Caballos, become ambiguous in a multilingual field.

The Any Word search facility (see the other question above re search capability) is monoglot and rigidly pedantic in matters of spelling. If you ask for horses, you get horses but not a single Pferd or Cheval.

On what do you base your listing fees? What fees do you now have?

Dealers pay an invariable fixed fee of £30 per month plus a variable monthly fee based on the value of their online inventory. This second element is calculated as follows: first £100,000 free, thereafter from £100,000 to £1,000,000 at 1/120% per month, which, assuming no change in value, works out on an annual basis at 0.1 %. There is no additional fee for amounts in excess of £1,000,000. The minimum annual fee is therefore £360 and the maximum is £1260 (i.e. £360 plus 0.1% of £900,000).

For the purposes of calculating fees, online inventories are valued in their listing currencies (any dealer may price his books in any major currency he wishes) on every day of the month; these daily amounts are then added together and divided by the number of days in the month to provide an average monthly value. This value, still in the dealer’s listing currency, is then converted into English pounds at the prevailing exchange rate. Fees may be paid either by credit card or by subtraction from an agreed prepayment.

We thought the fairest way of charging something over a minimum listing fee was to get the bigger dealer to pay more. We assumed that margins in the antiquarian book trade work out at roughly the same irrespective of the unit price of books sold. Given an equal margin over an entire price range, total value seems more likely to determine the benefit an individual dealer should receive from a site than does any other figure except, that is, a percentage on sales made. But Bibliopoly has no e-commerce facility and simply does not know what sales are made. As we ourselves are rare-book dealers, we thought other dealers might not want us to have information on their transactions and customers. At the level in the trade where Bibliopoly operates, commercial success is less likely to mean making a series of one-off sales than meeting a single good customer; as each separate item means an additional chance of so doing there is a strong case for listing the maximum number of books. The fee scale represents an incentive to this end; while the first £100,000 is charged at 0.36% p.a. (or more where the value is less than £100,000), and the subsequent £900,000 at 0.1% p.a., amounts over that carry no charge at all. The more you list the cheaper, in relative but not absolute terms, it gets.

Is your database searched by AddAll or Bookfinder?

Yes, by both.

Other than meta-search sites what are the ways you advertise to attract customers?

We have advertised in trade and literary magazines in a total of six countries, and on Google. Some of our booksellers have kindly distributed fliers in their catalogues.

Are there advantages to being a UK-based database?

As Bibliopoly itself makes no sales or deliveries, we do not believe the location of its management makes any difference. Clearly transport costs, etc., give dealers a competitive edge in their own domestic markets. But the question has less relevance to an antiquarian book site than to a site listing multiple copies of the same second-hand or recently printed book where transport or customs delays and costs can have significant impact on the relative attraction of copies. It is fairly rare for Bibliopoly to list two copies of the same book.

What background or experience do you have of the online book business?

We had no experience of the online book business but were able to specify a database as an able young man then working in our English Literature department was knowledgeable in IT generally. We have benefited greatly from the services and consultancy of Ammonet in Zurich. Dr. Jack Benson of that firm has his own book website Bibliophile.net. Ammonet provides our multilingual technical support.

Do you have professional bookseller management?

We hope we answered this above.

What geographical and demographic markets are you aiming at?

International; upper end of the market.

What problems or advantages do you see as unique to a UK book database?

We see neither advantage nor disadvantage in the location of our office in London, of our technical consultants in Zurich, of our website and database on computers in the United States.

Are there VAT problems for your UK dealers?

No. Book sales in the United Kingdom are within the VAT legislation but the rate is zero. Unbound manuscript material is VATable at 17-½ %. However assessability to VAT of sales made by UK dealers varies with location of the buyer. Export permits are required for some books and manuscripts. As Bibliopoly itself makes no sales, it is not subject to any of these regulations. It must, however, levy VAT on invoices issued to UK dealers for listing fees payable to itself. If they are VAT-registered they recover this VAT.

Do you use UK-based internet connection services? If so, how does your up-time compare to databases in the US?

Our servers are located in Washington D.C., through which as much as 40 % of the world’s internet traffic passes. This gives us access to six DS-3s: UUNet, Sprint, AT&T, Global Crossing/Global Center, Level 3 and Teleglobe, and hence excellent connectivity. This combined with our dual server configuration means we suffer hardly any down-time.

What services/features does your database have that you feel set you apart and/or will ensure its success?

We hope our replies above answer this question.

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

Thank you for asking us. We can’t think of much else except that we are happy with our name. As we wrote on the website, it is an English word, though not on everyone’s lips, and comes from Ancient Greece. It is meant to stress the continuity of a trade which has existed since technology, in the shape of money and dyes and the processing of animal skins, first allowed the written word to be bought and sold – a trade that will continue even if a future technology renders books obsolete. The antiquarian trade deals in the obsolete. If you want to read Aristotle you do not need an outdated recension of the text in a language you may not know, which is what Aldus Manutius provides. But customers and dealers who admire and covet the Aldine Aristotle prefer, for their purposes, the obsolete to the most recent and correct recension. This will remain true when an even better recension is available on some as yet undreamt-of medium.

 

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