New Age Book Sellers


Spring 2004 (Vol V, No. 1) Table of Contents

There are many types of book dealers. When one uses the words “book dealer” to someone who is not in the business, what is often pictured is a poorly lit and cramped bookstore in the poorer side of town, with shelves sagging from the weight of too many dusty but beautifully hand carved leather wrapped collectibles. In the corner of the store is an over stuffed chair, with a goose neck lamp looking over the shoulder of the dealer, who sits and puffs on his pipe while reading.

This well educated and well read, slightly grumpy (but in an oddly kind way) old timer is more at home with his books, and the store cat, than with customers. He knows that the customer really does not understand his books, and he hesitates to sell them – preferring to adopt them to a good home. He is as independent as his cat (maybe that’s why he likes the store cat – they share a secret). When he does finally sell a book, it is for lots of money, and he takes great care in preparing the book for it’s long and dangerous journey to its new home. Wrapping it in plain paper and tying a string lovingly around the package before passing it over the cluttered counter to the eager and very happy customer. His strong sense of independence does not allow him to ACT like he really needs the sale – even if he does.

I’m sure that such places exist. I know that such dealers exist. In fact, I’ve been there. I am describing a scene that I’ve seen (sorry about the pun). From talking to others in my industry, I know that they are just that kind of dealer, or close to it. They are everywhere: on every continent, in every country on the planet.

The modern traditional dealer has an on-line presence, but he brings many of the ideas and customs of the dealer from a hundred years ago with him into a new millennium.

A different kind of dealer has emerged. I call him the New Age Book Seller.

The biggest difference between the contemporary book seller and our old curmudgeon is that our new age seller is a businessman first. The skills that he brings to bear to sell his wares could easily be applied to any commodity. He views the books he has in stock as inventory. He has no emotional ties to his inventory. He recognizes that a book has no soul and no feelings. He sees a book as a tool, like a wrench or a car. It has a use, and it has a useful life. When it becomes valueless because of age, condition or obsolescence, it should be discarded to make room for inventory that has value (i.e. can be sold).

He buys in bulk, by the truckload for pennies per unit – knowing full well that a third of the purchase will be worthless, and will therefore be destroyed. This is reflected in the price he pays for a book. He does not “donate” books – he sells them or he destroys them.

Most, if not all, of his inventory is paperbacks. A third of it is Historical Romance, another third is Science Fiction. He knows that the reason there is so much Historical Romance out there is because a lot of people read it. Bored housewives and old women who just adore Danielle Steel and Nora Roberts. Pimply faced kids who can’t wait for that next StarTrek episode. Middle aged men who will re-read that Robert Heinlein classic until it falls apart. Youngish pierced and tattooed females who wear all black and truly believe that Anne Rice and Stephen King are the ONLY authors in the world. These are the customers of the New Age Book Seller.

His store is on-line. He has a couple of thousand square feet of warehouse space in the light industrial section of town. His “store” is sandwiched between a carpet cleaning business storage facility, and a guy that rebuilds marine engines. Across the street is a propane storage facility, so the “neighborhood” always smells bad. But, it doesn’t matter because he only goes there twice a week for three or four hours to pull the orders and prepare them for shipping. It’s not unusual to see an open can of beer on the shipping station desk and the TV blaring a football game as he wraps the last two days’ orders.

His office is nice, because that’s where he spends most of his time. There is a network of state of the art computer equipment. He spends at least half of his time marketing. He uses pop-up ads, swaps links with other non-bookselling websites that share demographics, and utilizes email marketing (some people call this spamming.) While he complies with the law, he is acutely aware where the line is, and purposefully gets as close to it as possible in his marketing strategies.

While our traditional book dealer might sell five or ten books a week, our New Age dealer must sell that in one day just to break even, and he is not in business to break even. He demands profit so he has to sell twenty or thirty books – every day. His overhead is much higher; he spends so much on shipping the IRS doesn’t believe his tax filings and he gets audited most every year.

He is a practical expert at computers, a generalist. He knows how to do much of what needs to be done, but more importantly – he knows when to not spend too much time learning to be what he isn’t. He figures that if it takes him six hours to learn how to do it, and he can pay a professional $100 to do it in an hour, he’ll hire the professional. He knows he’ll make much more than $100 in six hours doing something more productive.

His approach to dealing with a customer is much different too. While our wizened traditional book dealer appears to be in no big hurry to sell a book, the New Age Book Seller is always in a hurry. Time is money. “Speed and profit” is his motto. He hits the cash register as often as possible. If sales slow down, he gets busy. In fact he works harder when sales are slow than when they are roaring.

The New Age Book Seller admires the efficiency of MacDonalds – not necessarily their cuisine. He notes that there has never, ever been a MacDonalds restaurant that has failed – gone out of business. He tries hard to emulate their operation, and apply its assembly line efficiency to his business. He sells brain candy, empty calories for the empty craniums that he serves. He also copies their approach to customer service.

I was in a MacDonalds once. I got a Big Mac meal deal for $3.95 – when I got back to my seat I looked down at a cardboard box that was only half full of french fries, um, I mean freedom fries. Well, I want ALL of my fries. I went back up to the counter and pointed out that I didn’t get a full measure. The clerk shrugged and gave me another one. I now had one and a half orders of fries. No complaint right?

Well, our New Age Book Seller takes the same approach. If someone orders a paperback Patricia Cornwell book, and two weeks later he gets an email that says, “The book was in poor shape, and it arrived late, and the story was awful” he refunds the buyer’s $3.95 because it just isn’t worth a whole lot of his time. If it happens too often with the same customer, he politely invites the customer to shop somewhere else. If the customer consistently takes up more than his allotted few minutes per purchase of customer service time, he is a liability. Liabilities need to be referred to his competition.

Should the customer get the same service as the one who is spending $100 on a rare coffee table book about tall sailing ships? Of course not. And the traditional dealer MUST treat his sale differently. He can’t just go to the shelves and get another copy and give it to the customer if it is damaged in transit. He has to take extra care in everything from confirming the financial transaction information to packaging for shipment and insuring. The New Age Seller drops the book in a paper envelope and mails it – and if it gets damaged in transit, he ships another one or refunds – or both.

Our New Age Book Seller is a capitalist. He works equations all day long in his head. “Is what I’m getting worth MORE than what I’m giving up?” and “Can I have someone else do this job cheaper than what my time is worth?” and, “Yea, it’s a beautiful book – I wonder what it will sell for, and cost to ship?”

While the dealer and the seller have a lot in common, they are also as different as night and day. They are as different as two restaurants. One where you are seated by a waiter with a freedom accent and the cheapest bottle of wine is a day’s minimum-wages – and the hamburger stand uptown where you fill your own paper cup with soda pop. The traditional dealer believes that it is much less work to sell one book for $100 than ten books for $10 each. I wonder if that’s true, but to each his own. We both serve a need – or we wouldn’t both exist.

The New Age Book Seller is looked down upon by the traditional dealers. I’ve heard us described as “drek dealers” and “penny dealers”, and worse. But we serve a need, we fill a niche.

Since we make a hundred small decisions every day, a bad decision is not earth shattering. If we miss an opportunity, we learn from it and keep an eye peeled for the next one because it’s right around the corner. It is fast paced, fun, and profitable, and much to the chagrin of the traditional dealer – we are here to stay.

Chuck Pierce
gub@shasta.com

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