BookWriter Web for HomeBase Interview with Tom Sawyer


BookWriter Web was created by Thomas A. Sawyer, co-founder and software designer for Interloc/Alibris, as well as the creator of the UIEE information exchange format used by booksellers worldwide. Tom was previously interviewed in two IOBA articles (http://www.ioba.org/newsletter/archive/v8/tomsawyer.html andhttp://www.ioba.org/newsletter/archive/v9/bwwebinterview1.html). In this latest interview, Shirley Bryant asked Tom about the latest version of the BookWriter Web software, which is compatible with ABE’s popular HomeBase program, and how the program has been received to date by booksellers.

Tom, is BookWriter Web being used successfully by dealers as you hoped?

Yes, sales are good and the program is doing its job well. I think the nicest compliment I received was from a dealer who was also an Interloc subscriber years ago. She called me up and thanked me for creating BwWeb. She said: “It’s just like the old days. I get a message from someone wanting to buy a book. I write back and sometimes they call back and we have a nice chat. I sell a book and get a new customer — and I don’t have to pay anything to anyone!”

That’s encouraging! What kind of results are dealers experiencing overall?

Overall it’s been very good, but some unexpected things have happened too. For example, one dealer used BwWeb to compose his entire stock of some 45,000 books and prints into web pages, 5 per page, and we then did a Google site submission for him after he uploaded the pages.

A couple of weeks later, he called and demanded to know how he could get his listings REMOVED from Google, because he was overwhelmed with orders! I told him he could remove his own pages easily, but as far as Google went, I had no idea how to pull listings from their cache, and I didn’t even know if it was possible. Boy, was he angry! He accused me of creating a monster, told me that I didn’t know what I was doing, complained he had to go out and spend money and hire people, he was going to miss his vacation, and basically said I had ruined his life.

I take it he wasn’t prepared to handle the order volume.

That’s an understatement — not by a long shot. He had been selling 3-5 books a day on-line through listing services like ABE, a comfortable and manageable number for a Mom & Pop shop. But when that number hit over 100 orders a day, his blood pressure shot up correspondingly. If he’s reading this, Sir, I’m sorry, but that’s how it goes sometimes. There are many things over which I have no control.

Do all dealers who use your program experience these kind of results?

No, certainly not — this was an anomaly. The average results are pretty much what you’d expect: Some dealers get a few orders, some do reasonably well with sustained order volume, some do very well all at once, and a few, like this gentleman, do unbelievably well. This dealer happened to have really distinctive books that were priced well, beautifully described, and as it turned out, were in demand.

What kind of books is he selling?

All kinds, I think. For example, he said he sold a 1st/1st Madonna’s Sex for $425 to a gentleman in the UK who bought it for his wife’s Madonna memorabilia collection. Out of curiosity, I checked around a bit and found that price is about in the middle of the range for that particular book. But, it also appears that most of them are languishing in the listing service databases. None of the ones I looked at are appearing in Google search results, though there may be some way further down in the results list. I believe most of the people who actually want to buy this book have no idea the copies in the ABE database are there.

Personally I think it’s odd that ABE has decided to tout the fact that they consider themselves “the best kept secret on the Internet” or words to that effect. “List your books with us because no one knows we exist???” What’s that all about?

What do you think is the reason for the variation in results among dealers using BwWeb?

I think it mainly due to how distinctive the books are, how fairly they’re priced, and how well they’re described — you know, the things that have always mattered. Most dealers see a slow, steady increase in orders coming from out of the blue as they get more records listed on their sites. The dealer I just mentioned was an exception. In retrospect, given the number of books he posted in his site, I probably should have warned him, but then again I don’t have a crystal ball either.

But we’re talking mainstream retail here, and no one can predict what will happen. Remember, it’s a World-Wide Web, after all. Only a handful of people have ever heard of sites like ABE. When you sell a book to an ABE customer, you’re selling that book to a person belonging to a small minority of the total buying public, the ones who know enough to “go” there in the first place. Most don’t know, and don’t care to know.

This seems to fly in the face of common knowledge among booksellers. Are you saying most people don’t know how to use their computers to find web sites?

That’s exactly what I’m saying. The steps required to enter a URL in a browser’s address box are mysterious to most people. In some computers, the address box doesn’t even appear in the browser by default. And, most people who want to buy something could care less about web sites as such.

The vast majority of people who want to buy something over the Internet type what they want to buy into a search engine, like Google. There’s even a Google search box appearing now in the standard version of Internet Explorer. THAT’s what people use to find things. Where they end up is mostly a matter of chance.

But, if your books don’t appear in the search results, there’s very little chance the customer will find them — how could they?

Is this due to a lack of skill on the part of the average computer user?

Despite all the hoopla and hype, we’re still in the pioneering stages of the computer and information revolution. If the dot-com boom and bust taught us anything, it’s the same old saw: “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”

The level of sophistication among the average home computer user is still very low. Not many people “go” anywhere as such, because they simply don’t know how. I know, it’s hard to believe, but it’s true. Some customers are savvy enough to type a URL into the browser’s address line, but they’ll usually go to Amazon, because that’s the company they’ve heard of. For the most part, the rest don’t exist as far as they’re concerned. Ask most people what Internet companies they’ve heard of, and they’ll probably name two: Amazon and eBay. Beyond these, the rest are just a blur.

But — and this is the really important point — for the average bookseller, big or small, promoting a business as such does little to sell books. The only people who care about a business are in-house, and their view of reality is distorted. Real people want what they want, and they want it now! If a dealer’s books aren’t showing up in search results, they’re just spinning their wheels trying to promote themselves.

Why do some pages show up in search results and other don’t?

Believe it or not, the majority of web pages I’ve looked at, particularly those done in Microsoft Front Page and DreamWeaver, are not coded correctly. Microsoft is the main offender when it comes to violating the HTML specification. Many pages aren’t indexed in search engines because they violate some basic rules of the HTML spec, or they’ve offended the page ranking system in some way through spamming or omissions. I know what spiders look for and I’ve coded BwWeb to produce web pages that search engine spiders just LOVE to index. They slurp them up like a bear eating honey.

But even more fundamentally, most dealers have their on-line records in Microsoft ODBC databases, which effectively hides their records from search engines. Very few databases are indexed by search engines! And, even if they were, the computer cannot differentiate the information properly to create a meaningful abstract. Remember, computers still can’t read and interpret information in context. Relevance is extremely important to page ranking systems.

So, for a dealer who has a web site now, but has their books in an on-line database, you’re saying their books aren’t showing up in Google search results?

Generally, that’s true. Any dealer can find out very easily. All they have to do is type the title of one of their distinctive books into a Google search and look at the results. Chances are good their book won’t be listed at all. That’s why BwWeb is so important — it not only gets their books listed, it places them in the top results by satisfying all of the criteria of the search engine’s page ranking system.

Can you give an example of books that show up and books that don’t?

Sure, I’ll use the example I have in the BwWeb site: Let’s pretend you want to buy a copy of Boy Scouts on Hudson Bay. Go to the ABE.com site and type the title in their search box. You’ll find about 20 or so.

Now go to Google and type the same thing. You’ll find my mother’s book listed as #1 out of nearly 5,000 hits. Not only that, you’ll only find a couple of others listed. None of the ABE copies show up. You can do the same thing for any book.

What about Froogle? Isn’t that supposed to fix the database indexing problem?

No. Froogle is another vast electronic mall, and like any other web site, you have to know enough to “go” there to find what you want. And, there are other problems with Froogle. For example, every record you send them must have a URL associated with it, which means your record must already “be” somewhere else. Froogle will not close a sale for you.

If you do the same test with Boy Scouts on Hudson Bay by performing a Froogle exact match search, and then do the same thing on Google, you’ll immediately notice one of the books listed in Froogle by a dealer linked to the TomFolio database is suddenly missing from the Google search results. That’s because the record was uploaded to Froogle, not spidered from a TomFolio static web page. To get the same results in the main Google index and achieve top rankings, you have to have web pages that meet their page ranking requirements. That’s what BwWeb produces.

So, BwWeb composes web pages that insure a presence in the main Google search engine?

Correct. A significant presence. And it composes the pages automatically. To compose ten thousand pages, you select a layout, match up your book record fields, and click on the Start button. That’s it. When you upload the pages to your web site and submit the site to Google, you’re done.

One of the reasons TIAS.com does so well is that they were savvy enough to create a “live feed” into the Google system. I have great respect for Phil Davies (CEO of Tias.com) and the people he works with. They are a top-shelf, class act and I recommend them without hesitation, especially for dealers who sell antiques and collectibles as well as books.

But, TIAS also charges for transactions and services. As a general rule, book dealers need to look closely at all of their hidden costs before committing to any sales venue that imposes commissions and monthly fees. “Everybody’s doing it” is not a meaningful rationalization.

Does this work for other things besides books and collectibles?

Oh boy, it sure does! I can give you a good example here: Back in January, I set up a very simple web site for a well-known forensic specialist who wanted to gain some exposure. I did some test searches beforehand and got about 15,000 hits for “Forensic Consulting Specialists.” I then used BwWeb to compose his final pages, and submitted the site to Google.

About 7-10 days later, I did another test search for “Forensic Consulting Specialists” and lo and behold: His site was ranked #1 out of nearly 15,000 hits! It still is. That experience told me the premises upon which my software was based were sound, and could be applied across the board to any product or service.

What’s the main advantage of putting our book records into web pages?

Many, many advantages, but aside from the utter simplicity of it all and the world-wide exposure your books will receive, the real practical advantage is the savings of all the “hidden” costs of doing business. Remember: there are no middlemen in this scenario. The customer finds your books and buys them from you directly. It’s what I call a “Direct Find/Buy Relationship.” I personally think it’s the best way to do business. There are no commissions, no fees, no markups — none of that.

It’s also a way to regain true independence from middlemen. That’s why I was so keen to get this out the door and start presenting it to dealers. It seemed like the right product at the right time.

What does it actually cost to do this?

Aside from the one-time cost of BwWeb, the only on-going cost is the web site itself, and that all depends on how much storage space you buy. Remember, a web site is nothing more than a directory on someone’s disk drive connected to the Internet through a server.

These days, the average hosting site charges less than $10.00 a month for 250 MB of storage space, or more. Competition is fierce among hosting companies and this has really driven prices down. Some BwWeb users have set up sites on some of the free servers out there, but I’m not yet convinced doing this is a good idea.

Can non-technical dealers do their own site setup?

Yes, most can, it’s pretty easy. But for those who don’t know how or who don’t want to be bothered or spend the time learning how, I’ve worked out a good arrangement with a company called Site Flite (http://www.siteflite.com/ ). They will do all the busy work for a dealer: They’ll set up the web site, register a domain name, perform the site submission, etc. Their rates are reasonable and it’s a one-time cost. They’ll even design a layout and compose and upload your pages for you on an on-going basis, if that’s what you want. They’re the only company who has satisfied all of my criteria. I’ve been really pleased with their performance so far.

What about the dealer’s home page? How do BwWeb’s pages integrate into it?

They don’t. BwWeb’s pages exist as independent, static entities. If the dealer already has a home page, then all that needs to happen is that a link to the home page gets automatically placed on every page BwWeb composes, and a corresponding link to the BwWeb pages gets placed on the home page. BwWeb has link generators that will do this automatically.

But — if a dealer doesn’t have a home page, guess what? None is needed! This may seem to defy common sense, but I must stress again: It’s not about the dealer or their business. No one cares. The only thing a customer wants is the book he/she wants to buy. The pages BwWeb composes containing the dealer’s book records take care of that very nicely. Not surprisingly, people will go to the pages that contain the book records in which they’re interested, not to a home page that talks about someone’s business.

What about images? Does BwWeb handle these as well?

Indeed it does. It will read images and integrate them perfectly within each composed page. You can control the layout, the number of images, their size, alignment and other variables.

What about shopping cart and payment systems? Can BwWeb handle these as well?

Yes, it can. Using such systems amounts to adding a small piece of HTML to BwWeb, which the payment company provides. You simply paste this into the BwWeb setup and the rest is automatic. You can use PayPal or a credit card processing system through a merchant account with VeriSign or whoever you choose to use.

You can even add multiple choices, as I did with BwWeb’s own web site — it allows you to pay by credit card, by PayPal, or send e-mail to us directly or just mail a check. I’ve helped a lot of dealers set up this “mysterious” aspect of their web pages and, like anything else, once you’ve done it, you don’t even think about it anymore.

What database programs will BwWeb work with?

It reads any standard Microsoft Access database, which means it works with HomeBase and most other programs like it using standard, off-the-shelf database engines. It also reads BookMaster, Record Manager, and BookMate databases directly. It will also work with a simple tab-delimited or UIEE file, so there’s very little it won’t work with. There is no import/export process required.

Can you create more than one layout?

You can create an infinite number of them. The program automatically remembers everything that was done last, so you never lose your settings. I also designed the program so that users can exchange setup files with one another. I know of two dealers who are doing this as they decided to work collaboratively on a common site containing both of their books.

Why aren’t more dealers using your software?

It’s an interesting conundrum. When a dealer puts their first batch of composed web pages up on their site and their books get indexed by Google and they start making sales, their first reaction is NOT to go tell the dealer across the street all about it. When you get sales and you don’t have to pay any listing fees or commissions to get them, that’s a real competitive advantage. There have been a number of passing references to BwWeb here and there, but by and large, dealers are just quietly selling books and not trumpeting the fact to their peers. And, in retrospect I suppose that’s not a surprise either.

I should also mention: 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. Dealers should use every resource they have to sell books, and abandoning a source of revenue is never a good idea, unless it’s just not cost or time effective.

BwWeb creates a viable alternative. It creates a direct means of selling books to the general, world-wide public, not just the few collectors or OP aficionados who know sites like ABE even exist. This is what commercialization of the Internet was ultimately intended to accomplish — the ability for a consumer to directly find and buy what they want.

What do you see for the near future with respect to BwWeb?

Booksellers have been good to me, and I love working with them. I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved with a group of honest, intelligent and hard-working people, for whom I have a lot of warm feelings. But business conditions in the trade are grim right now. I’m concerned about some dealers’ ability to survive at all.

It’s fine to be a bookseller because you love books, or you like the community, or you enjoy providing reading treasures to people. But when a business is in trouble and finds itself in survival mode, it’s suddenly all about sales — nothing else matters.

I created BookWriter Web because it really can get books in front of buyers. It can help dealers achieve independence from listing services. It can get around the penny-seller problem. It can help dealers re-create the customer bases they had years ago. In short, I think it has the potential to do a lot of good for a group I think deserves a significant boost.

I’ve had numerous conversations with dealers in the past few weeks and most tell me the same, sad story: business is lousy, and a lot of it is due to screw-ups on the part of the listing services, including Amazon. So, I’ve extended the sale deadline for BwWeb to May 31st, just because so many dealers have told me they’re short of cash after paying their taxes on April 15th. And, as before, the entire purchase cost will be applied to the complete BookWriter suite when it rolls out.

Tom, thanks very much for this interview. Where can dealers go to find more information?

You’re most welcome, and thank you for the opportunity to speak with you again! Interested dealers can visit http://www.bookwritersoftware.com. I’ve added the ability for interested dealers to download the software and try it before they buy it. There are also some sample pages up there so people can get an idea of the range of possibilities the program offers.

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