Tom Sawyer – BookWriter Web


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

BookWriter Web: Getting Your Inventory Where it Belongs — In Front of Buyers!

Tom Sawyer is a co-founder of Interloc and Alibris. He served as Chief Software Engineer from 1993-2001. Over the years, he has developed many widely used programs for booksellers, including BookMaster, Record Manager, BookMate, and the UIEE format many of us use every day. Mr. Sawyer is now preparing to release BookWriter, which may well become the standard against which the next generation of bookseller software is measured. However, a little serendipity and a lot of work have yielded a surprise! Read on…

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Tom, I was prepared to interview you about the release of BookWriter, but it sounds like BookWriter Web is actually a different program?

Yes — and no. BookWriter Web is now and will always be a working part of the complete BookWriter program. But, 3/4 of the way through its development, something unexpected happened: it became clear that the program was far more powerful than we had imagined, doing things we didn’t think could be done, producing results in seconds that would normally take hours or days to accomplish. I was floored.

After some discussion, we decided to retain these features in the full BookWriter program but also to immediately release BookWriter Web as a stand-alone program (at lower cost) for both BookMate™ and HomeBase™ users. Given the current state of the online book trade and the fact that any dealer with a BookMaster, Record Manager or BookMate-compatible database can use BwWeb immediately, we felt it was important to make this available to dealers as quickly as possible, particularly in time for the holiday season. The Alibris-compatible version is ready now and the HomeBase-compatible version will be released shortly.

What exactly does the program do?

BwWeb is a multi-functional composer that makes it very easy to effectively present your stock in venues like the web and auctions, using the data you have already entered. It will create just about any kind of document you can imagine, but where it really shines is its ability to compose complete, ready-to-publish web pages and auctions, with integrated images. It composes pages one right after the other, in sequence, and I’ll explain more later why that’s important. The general answer to your question is that the program’s main objective is to help dealers sell more books.

How does it work?

BwWeb retrieves selected records from your database and populates pre-defined locations in other files with your records. You can produces web pages, auctions, catalogs, tables, export files — just about anything you can think of. You can work from a Hit List, ranges of records, or select records directly within the program. There is a very wide range of options available for composition including automatic image layout and sizing. And, it displays the composed results instantly — you can preview what you’re about to do before you do it, to make sure everything is just the way you want it.

If I may say so, this sounds almost too good to be true. What are the advantages of using BwWeb?

I’ve spent a lot of time doing pragmatic testing and I’ve come to some interesting conclusions. Some may not agree with me, but I have good reasons for believing this:

1: When the vast majority of potential Internet customers want to buy an OP book, they go first to Yahoo, Google, AOL, MSN, or any of the major search engines that pop up on their computers when they first turn them on, or when they launch their Internet browser. They type the name of what they want into the Search box, hoping to find it. Usually, they either don’t find it or they end up at Amazon or B&N through a collateral link. This seems to happen the majority of the time and it’s common sense, isn’t it?

2: Practically no one knows anything about on-line OP book listing services. One out of a thousand people recognize the names ABE, BookFinder, ChooseBooks, etc. It’s an insulated little world and I believe this will take many years to change significantly. Alibris is far ahead of the pack in this regard because of the vast sums spent on advertising, branding and promotion, but their records don’t show up in search results either.

3: Most book dealers put their books in listing service databases. These databases are not indexed by major search engines. Hence, your database records do not appear in search results either.

So, to answer your question, there are many advantages to using BookWriter Web, but certainly one of the most important is the ability to get your inventory out in front of the people who want to buy it, without having to rely on sheer luck or having an OP book listing service to do it for you.

A lot of book dealers have created their own web sites but their sales results haven’t been what they had hoped. How will BookWriter Web improve this situation?

Frankly, I’ve looked at the source code for a lot of book dealer’s web sites and only a handful are actually set up correctly for proper search engine indexing. Most of them have their book records stored in non-indexable database files. That’s no surprise, that’s what most web programmers have been trained to do.

But, the reality is that in order for buyers to find your books through search engines, you have to have a significant presence in the search results that appear before potential customers. The only way to do that is to make it possible for your inventory to be indexed automatically by major search engines. This requires that your web pages be composed and structured in a particular way, and that the information to be indexed by the search engine must reside in your web pages, not merely in a Microsoft database or other “private” file.

Can you give me an example of what you mean by “significant presence?”

Ok, for example: In my spare time I created a web site for my parent’s antique & collectibles business called “B&D Unique Antiques.” I hosted the site through TIAS.com and made sure the pages were set up correctly so they would be properly indexed by search engines. Long ago before my time, they used to have kerosene heaters in automobiles. Suppose you were an antique car collector and wanted to buy one online? If you go to Yahoo/Google and type: “antique kerosene auto heater” you’ll get about 600 results — and B&D Unique Antiques inventory will appear near the top of the results list. We did not pay a cent for that exposure. So, B&D Unique Antiques has a significant presence not because we’re offering stuff no one else has, but because our inventory exists as static web pages that can be properly indexed by search engines. It makes all the difference in the world when it comes to sales.

On the other hand, if you go to any of the “mainstream” antique sites like Ruby Lane or CurioScape and type in the name of what you want in their own little Search box, you’ll probably find it right away. BUT, you’d need to know enough to go there in the first place, wouldn’t you? Most people don’t know anything about Ruby Lane or CurioScape or any of the “mainstream” antique sites. Like bookselling sites, they also live in their own insulated little world. So, since most people type what they want to buy rather than where they want to go to buy it, the majority of people who don’t know anything about these places won’t find them. But, if your records are properly presented, they will find your inventory.

It’s the same situation for booksellers. Here’s another example: A fairly common book is: “FDR: Centenary Remembrance,” published in 1982. Go to Yahoo/Google and type: “FDR Centenary Remembrance” and again, you’ll see our book listed near the top of the search results, even though there are hundreds of copies available on ABE and other listing service sites. None of those show up.

Very interesting indeed! Does this mean our inventory records will exist online as a series of static web pages and not as a single database file?

That’s exactly what it means. Unlike a database whose contents are “hidden” from internet search engines, pre-composed pages allow your records to be directly indexed by search engines. This means people looking in search engines for specific books will find your records. However, they will not find those belonging to other dealers whose records cannot be properly indexed — because they exist only in online databases.

Aside from containing the text, how do the pages created by BookWriter Web insure that they will be properly indexed by search engines?

Well, aside from the formatted text describing your records, you can also instruct the program to include an explicit Document Type Declaration and a complete set of formal Meta Tags in your composed web pages. These are extremely important for proper indexing and will insure that your records appear in the proper categories when retrieved by search engine robots. You can even include introductory information about your business, specialties, location, etc — and you will be found by buyers! BwWeb will even collect keywords from your records and include them as Meta Tags to provide alternative retrieval criteria for buyers who search by category rather than by title.

Don’t individual web pages require a lot of web space?

No, they don’t — that’s a common misconception. Individual, pre-composed web pages occupy about the same amount of space as a traditional web-based database and often occupy less space. Hence, there is no storage penalty to creating individual pages. However, you do need enough storage space to handle your entire inventory, but of all the things you have to pay for, web storage space is one of the cheapest.

What about retrieving and displaying web pages? Will customers experience any delays?

In fact, there is a huge performance increase over traditional ODBC database retrievals. Since each page is pre-composed, no database record retrievals are required. And, unlike an active server page that can take many seconds to compose a page on demand, pre-composed pages load instantly — there is zero latency beyond the normal load times for text and graphics. You might call it a horse-sense approach.

What about site setup and overhead? Is it expensive to do this?

Well, no, actually it’s as inexpensive as it can possibly be. There is no server software required. No “Microsoft Extensions” are needed to display database records and images. Your web site is as clean and simple as it can possibly get. You pay nothing for “development” since there is essentially nothing to develop.

If you want more sophisticated features such as a shopping cart or other interactive functionality, you’ll find that most of these features already exist elsewhere as separate, callable modules. For example, a number of services provide free shopping cart modules. The HTML can be cut and pasted right into BwWeb and it will include it in every composed page. Why re-design the wheel and have to pay money for the privilege? There are also many excellent free search engines available (such as Atomz, PicoSearch and others) that can easily be set up to perform fast text searches on your pages. You can have the equivalent of a searchable database at zero cost and the results are splendid. By the way, the two companies I mentioned place a small logo on your search result pages if you use the free service, but there are no advertisements added. You can have an extremely fast, efficient searchable web site set up and running in a matter of minutes.

At the very least, if you still want a web programmer to set up a “custom” site and pay the extra money, fine — you can present him/her with a ready-to-publish set of web pages describing your inventory and still save yourself a bundle. You don’t have to worry about “import/export formats” — there aren’t any! You can put as many records on a page as you like, lay them out however you want, present images in a very professional manner, even include automatic links to display them full size. In a nutshell, you can do most if not all of the things you’ll find on web sites that cost their owners thousands of dollars to produce.

How about maintenance? Is it more difficult to maintain separate pages than a single database file?

Normally, yes, but in this case, No, definitely not. That’s one of the beautiful things about this program. If you update a few records and choose to update the corresponding web page(s), you do not have to upload huge database files merely to update a few records. Instead, you upload only the page(s) that have changed. Plus, your images can live anywhere on the web — you do not need to “marry” your images with a resident database server, which many database-hosting systems require. Your records exist as simple pages that you can edit or delete at any time.

In effect, you have complete freedom to locate your files wherever you like. If you decide to make changes to your pages, you are faced with a simple task instead of a complicated one. Simply make the desired changes to your record(s) and then re-compose only the page(s) you want to replace. A huge amount of time is saved over the traditional “Front Page” approach of making changes to “master” pages and then being compelled to edit (and test) all of the subsequent branches in your web.

Also, keep in mind that I’m not recommending that dealers should do this INSTEAD of using listing services — I’m suggesting that they should do it IN ADDITION TO using listing services.

You mentioned marrying images with database records. Will BookWriter Web do this automatically?

Yes, it will. All you have to do is be sure to name your image files in a certain way, then tell BwWeb where the files are. It automatically scans the images and matches them up to the database records. BookMaster, Record Manager, BookMate and HomeBase users can now compose complete image-populated pages without having to do anything other than what I just described.

What about auctions? How does one use BookWriter Web to compose auctions?

In practice, there are three things that take a lot of time to produce a good auction: (1) composing the presentation, (2) creating a good auction title that fits into the space allowed, and (3) choosing the best auction category. BookWriter Web will do the first two automatically. The code it produces can be dropped right into Mr. Lister or whatever auction software you choose, and it contains a flexible Auction Title Composer that intelligently constructs titles based on the fields you specify. It works pretty well, too. My own tests here have seen auction productivity skyrocket as a result of using it to perform these two labor-intensive chores.

There are many dealers who know nothing about HTML or web sites. Is this complicated to do? How would a dealer go about setting up a web site as you’ve described?

Everyone does things somewhat differently, and style is a major component when establishing an on-line business identity. BookWriter Web both expects and encourages creativity. Getting started is easy: You can use any of the example templates and document layouts supplied with BwWeb to organize your information the way you want it in a general fashion. You can then save the template and layout as your own files and customize them precisely the way you want them to “fine tune” your on-line presentation. BwWeb lets you instantly preview the results in partial or complete form, so there is never a need to “upload and review” as is normally the case with most web pages — your uploaded files will look exactly the same when viewed on-line.

In general, all you need to have is the web site itself. Once you have a place to send files, that’s really all you need. The rest is handled by the pages themselves. It is honestly just that simple.

What else will BookWriter Web do?

Well, it creates catalogs, quotes, tabular index documents, detailed records, sorted lists, delimited files for uploading to Amazon and Half.com, HTML for use in eBay auctions, archival records — the list goes on and on. You can even use it to create UIEE files that are ready to upload. It’s all a matter of setting up what you want to create, and I’ve spent a lot of effort trying to make that very easy to do. You can basically set up an infinite number of layouts and compositions and save them for use later. And, since it always saves your current settings automatically, the program is always just the way you left it the next time you run it.

I’ve also tried to include practical features that dealers will find genuinely useful. For example, there are some automatic editing options that will remove spurious punctuation, strip leading articles and things like that. These are admittedly details, but they can also add up to a lot of wasted time if you have to go back and hand-edit documents. BwWeb is targeted towards producing ready-to-use results.

Is the program complicated to operate?

This program is unlike anything I’ve ever produced. I’ve been told it looks a bit intimidating at first glance, but I think that’s because there’s a lot packed into a small area. I wanted a program that was right in front of me in toto, not hidden behind two dozen sub-menus. The learning curve is pretty short, given that you can start composing immediately by using the examples we’ve included. I’ve put a lot of work into laying the program out sensibly. There is a comprehensive Help system that describes the entire program in detail and how to use it. There’s even a Tutor that literally walks you through the entire program, describing what each control does and how it can affect your composition. My mother has no trouble operating it.

What about technical support. What happens when a dealer needs help?

E-mail support is provided at no cost to all users. We’re pretty good about responding quickly to inquiries and we take them seriously (though I’ve personally gotten behind in my correspondence lately). Additional pay-as-you-go support is available for dealers with more involved issues. We’ll also be offering pager-based flat-rate and long-term support services for dealers who wish to develop custom applications or who want someone “on call” to help when problems arise.

What does BookWriter Web cost?

We’re offering the program for $79.95 through December 31, 2002. Dealers who subsequently decide to order the complete BookWriter program will receive full credit towards their purchase through December 31.
Where can dealers go to find out more information?

Dealers can visit http://home.rochester.rr.com/bdunique/bwweb/bookwriterweb.htm for additional information and a link to order the software. The Alibris-compatible version is available now and it has been tested extensively. As I mentioned earlier, a HomeBase version will also be ready shortly. We’ll be issuing some announcements at the appropriate times, when I have completed software in hand, ready to install.

Also, here are some screen shots and some sample pages composed by BookWriter Web. They’ll provide a feel for what the program contains and what it can do.

File
Record
Fields
Special
Page
Document
Preview
Tutor
Help

Tom, this is really very exciting. I appreciate your sharing this with us!

Thank you. It was my privilege to participate.

 

™ BookWriter is a trademark of TAS Software Innovations
© UIEE is Copyright 1989-2002 TAS Software Innovations
™ BookMaster, BookMate, Interloc, and Record Manager are trademarks of Alibris
™ HomeBase is a trademark of Advanced Book Exchange Inc.

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