A thread on a bookselling list this evening prompted this last minute article from me. I can’t even say I thought it through well before writing it; it is based on observations over a period of time and on just plain common business sense and gut feeling. More important, I think, than rehashing what is in this issue.
I’m seeing a feeling of helplessness and despair in some fellow booksellers. Partly caused by the influx of so many people selling books online, partly caused by having to compete with non-professionals on ‘their’ terms, and partly caused by the over-all general poor economy (I’m speaking primarily of the U.S. on this-can’t judge other countries’ economies).
We cannot do anything personally or immediately about the over-all U.S. economy. For the foreseeable future, we will have to compete with non-professionals, price-wise-but only to an extent. They’re not ‘out to get you’ personally. They’re selling books most likely for these reasons: 1) the internet bookselling boom of past years made it look profitable (and it was, till it became overcrowded); 2) it didn’t require a large cash outlay for non-professionals to acquire common books; 3) not all, but some of these people are displaced from other jobs and professions and this may be the only way they’re eating; and 4) maybe they’re just book lovers getting rid of their own books and don’t really care about profits. It’s not just happening with bookselling; it is happening with antiques, collectibles-anything people can find for little money and that is small enough to try to sell online, whether or not they happen to know anything about the product they’re selling. They can copy knowledgeable sellers’ listings and make themselves sound professional to an extent-but, since they don’t have the same motivation we do, they can’t match us in service. And (though I’m not sure what the outcome would be to us, personally) if we didn’t conveniently list points, issues and identification of 1st editions for them to copy but instead said contact us for information, they couldn’t even continue to sound professional (that would be a slow but very effective change). It is fine that we give knowledge to each other-to peers-but not fine that we’ve given it away freely to non-trade competitors. We did ourselves in.
What you can do differently is not to compete on their terms. Not allow them to degrade your products by following their ever-downward pricing practices. Even if they copy your listings, keep up the quality and consistency in the way you list products-even if you do decide to take out pertinent information. Make it prominent that you allow returns (and under what circumstances) and that you treat buyers fairly, and easy for buyers to get information from you. Allow buyers to pay in as many ways as possible-that’s part of doing business. Get yourself a web page and put your picture somewhere on it-allow them to see you as a person and know a bit about who they’re dealing with. Play up your personal strong points, as in what is it about you that would make you want to buy from a similar seller?
And finally, quit thinking of yourself as fodder for commercial book databases. Yes, they are powerful. Yes, they can attract customers you can’t individually. But, bottom-line, you own the product and you ultimately have the power because of that…if we do not play follow-the-leader and if enough of us decide to act in particular ways. We ‘could’ exist without them though it would be painful for a while until we found alternative methods of selling and buyers found us; they cannot exist without us unless they own inventory of their own.
I’m sure you’re saying that it won’t make any difference if all the good booksellers leave any particular database. That is true to an extent only. It would take a while to have an effect, period (but, at the rate we’re going as a trade, in the same amount of time, we’ll reach the unprofitable bottom of the barrel anyway, so what’s the difference?). It would have to reach that important critical mass. And, perhaps the databases can stay profitable with only books listed at $1.00 and under, but it will limit their market (no, not all customers are only interested in the cheapest copy available), it will be much harder for them to attract enough buyers to keep even those $1.00 sellers, and it will certainly cut into their profits. And, the tools are being made available to us now (like static web pages) to become much more visible on search engines as individual businesses-I think this will overcome a great deal of the branding of the past IF our wares are presented in very professional ways and if we act as a recognizable trade, rather than individuals scrambling for pennies. Whatever image you project is how buyers will see you; they don’t have the means, online, to judge us any differently.
We still need and should want commercial databases-they are handy, they are an easy way to be seen by large numbers of buyers regularly and immediately, and overall they don’t cost us too much. But for too long we’ve played their game instead of our own, and now the chances of our listings getting noticed are waning-unless we have that one-of-a-kind book (and how many of us have enough of those to make a living off them?). No matter where you list, if you are serious about staying in the business and being professional at it, act like a professional. Keep learning, keep improving your inventory, and quit competing with the lower 1% of our business. We can either stop the downward spiral and start the slow climb back up or we can continue on down to the bitter end. Your choice.
I can hear you saying that you can’t afford to do this. How can you not afford it? Think it through to the logical end game of the way we’re heading now, and then decide whether you want to remain a bookseller making a living wage, doing something you love, or if you want to sell interchangeable penny products until the supplies run out, under whatever terms are dictated to you by various middlemen (some of whom genuinely have your interests at heart, and some of whom do not). Let’s take back some power, people! There’s not an overnight cure, but we can turn it around.
Okay, now you’ve had not just a Joyce rant, but also a Shirley rant. Don’t you feel lucky?