BookWriter Professional is a new application created by Tom Sawyer, co-founder of Interloc and Alibris, serving as Chief Software Engineer from 1993-2001. His past creations include BookMaster, Record Manager, BookMate, Book Prices Realized, and the UIEE data exchange format. Last year, Tom produced the unique BookWriter Web composer, which effectively positions bookseller’s books in search engines. This exclusive IOBA article offers the first public disclosure of BookWriter Professional, the next step in the BookWriter series.
Tom, what’s the motivation behind BookWriter Professional?
I really enjoy producing software that’s actually useful, and I especially enjoy seeing booksellers make productive use of it. The last few years have offered a glimpse of what’s possible, but the technical learning curve is getting longer for many booksellers. Often, they spend more time pointing and clicking than actually doing book work. That’s a shame because computers are supposed to be tools, not an end unto themselves.
BwPro is a program I’ve been wanting to produce for a long time. I believe it takes the bookseller to the next level of productivity. It is a complete bookselling environment, and it manipulates data in ways that are currently very difficult to accomplish, particularly in a single program.
Is BwPro consistent with your previous software?
In some ways it is. It was a big surprise for me to learn how many booksellers are still using BookMaster and Record Manager. Apparently, I did something right. The old software still gets many jobs done satisfactorily, with minimal effort. But those programs are more than a decade old and they’re very much out of date.
I tried to code BwPro to carry the same philosophy forward into the Windows and Internet realms. A key design objective was to make BwPro so that a non-technical bookseller could do things with a minimum of trial-and-error. The result is that BwPro has a short learning curve. Most dealers who’ve tried it so far have jumped right in without having to read a manual. It’s as intuitive as I could make it.
Isn’t user-friendliness an objective in all software design?
Perhaps, but in my humble opinion it seldom actually happens. It seems like this should be an easy thing for a software designer to do, but it’s deceptively difficult. I think it’s similar to being a good writer — it’s easy to read and enjoy a finished product and fail to see the amount of work the author put into it. Few books can be enjoyed by young and old alike, be appreciated by both new and veteran readers, satisfy both the publishers and the readers, and yet stand up to the kind of intense scrutiny that accompanies a major work.
Good software is like that. It is REALLY hard to make a program universally workable while keeping complexity low and adaptability high. After nearly 20 years of doing this, I’m still learning and still don’t consider myself to be an expert. It takes a long time to do a good job. Every little thing requires constant back-and-forth testing and tweaking to make it right. One minor detail can take all day to resolve. That’s one reason it’s taken so long to finish.
What are the program’s basic features?
Like BookMaster and Record Manager, BwPro focuses on specific core aspects of bookselling. Inventory, Contacts, Wants, Uploading, Importing, Exporting, Composition, and Invoicing/Accounting are all core capabilities. The program also provides Internet-based features such as email, FTP, and the ability to look up specific books in Internet venues.
What features does BwPro provide and how are they presented?
To a great extent, the same factors that were important a decade ago are still important today: Easy, rapid and intuitive data entry is a big one, and BwPro provides a wealth of features to accomplish that. A good data entry system addresses both contemporary and antiquarian books, and I think BwPro does this well.
Booksellers also need to easily manage contacts and wants, upload records to multiple locations, import and export information quickly and easily, to professionally compose information in ways that will help sell books, and manage accounting information. BwPro addresses these things in a single package and tries to group their functionality logically, according to the real-world needs of the booksellers who make use of it. I’ve put things where I hope people will expect to find them, and provided capabilities that I hope will help booksellers become more productive.
Can you offer some examples of real-world needs BwPro addresses?
Sure. For instance, the Inventory Record dialogue provides the user with everything needed to quickly enter and edit records, but it also provides extensive image association controls. You can associate both on-line and off-line images, even combine them in a single record, and BwPro handles them seamlessly (see image). You can also see an instant preview of what a book record will look like when it is composed.
For those who do their book image scans in batches, BwPro will gather all images in a particular directory and automatically associate the images with records after the fact, based on the naming convention used. Anyone who’s ever done this manually knows what a huge timesaver this can be. BwPro can also perform the same operation on a database-wide level, for all records. A bookseller can sit down and scan images for 100 books, then go into BwPro and tell the program to associate all of the images with their corresponding records automatically, in one shot. It even retains the image sequencing specified according to the name suffix used (a, b, c, etc).
Another need is extracting ISBN codes from existing descriptions. Many booksellers have their ISBN data embedded in Comments or some other field. BwPro can scan database records, extract validated ISBN codes, and populate a dedicated ISBN field with the data. This in itself can save a bookseller hundreds of hours of hand-editing.
There are lots of little conveniences. For instance, you can get instant pricing data for any book. You can instantly look up any Zip Code, City or County, even display a map of it. You can load and save Hit Lists to create instant catalogs. There are lots of little goodies like this. Most of these features came about as a direct result of booksellers telling me: “Boy, it sure would be great if your program did such and such.” I’ve tried to accommodate these suggestions wherever possible.
What other problems does BwPro solve for booksellers?
Another big problem for many booksellers today is record format conversion. Frequently, they must convert UIEE to tab-delimited, or vice versa, or import data into a spreadsheet, or into an XML template, or export data in some way to meet the requirements of a particular web site or selling venue. More often than not, this results in data loss, or formatting problems, or incomplete records — the list of aggravations is long. It’s amazing how many hoops booksellers are forced to jump through to meet the requirements of different companies.
BwPro takes a much more down-to-earth approach to this, by providing many different ways to manipulate records. You can set up separate export templates for different sites, and even compose a set of different files and upload each one to a different location, in sequence.
There is also a group of stand-alone utilities that do things like convert a UIEE file into a tab-delimited file, read HomeBase database records, read ABE’s tagged data upload format, convert old BookMate PRV files into other formats, export to Excel .csv format, etc.
BookWriter Pro basically allows booksellers to do what they want with their data, instead of jumping through hoops or being restricted to what a company will allow — without having to be a technician or read an instruction manual to figure out how to do it.
Is BwPro compatible with existing BookMaster, Record Manager and BookMate databases?
Yes, existing records can be directly read and users can continue to use their old software if they so choose. But there are a lot of new fields and obviously the old software doesn’t know anything about these. Downward compatibility has its limits.
Walking the line between proprietary and generic design is a difficult balancing act. You have to provide a wide range of possibilities, but you have to do it within a recognizable framework. I think my predecessor applications were successful because they did this. I’ve tried hard to make BwPro do the same thing.
What other capabilities have you included?
Quite a few. There’s comprehensive global editing, price adjustment features, invoicing and purchase orders, and a lot of the favorite features of my predecessor software, such as Hit Lists, data entry menus, and an on-screen composer for producing catalogs, quotes, and similar documents. I’m still finalizing the complete feature set.
How does BookWriter Pro help booksellers sell more books?
Aside from serving as an excellent rapid data entry and sales management system, if I had to pick one thing it would be the program’s ability to perform rapid and complex manipulation and composition of book data. This serves both dependent sellers who upload records to listing services, and independent sellers who market their books directly to their own customers. Making data compatible with Internet-based requirements is a key design objective.
Do you feel today’s bookseller is faced with more obstacles than in the past?
I think there are more challenges and that few booksellers are well-equipped to address them. Most bookseller’s fundamental business requirements have really not changed in the past decade. What has changed is the extent to which information must be manipulated to suit different applications, and the compressed timeframe in which this must happen to take advantage of different revenue sources. These days, a successful bookseller’s list of requirements almost universally includes Internet sales venues and email.
Yet, there is really very little available to help them take advantage of these venues directly. This is surprising to me — these are not trivial issues! Most companies seem to either take a one-size-fits-all approach to their software, or they focus on a particular aspect of the business and ignore others. I’ve looked at quite a bit of 3rd-party software in the past year, and there are some very good programs out there. But few programs I’ve seen address these issues in ways that are intuitively obvious. They often seem to be logical extensions of a particular business, focusing and relying upon a specific methodology. Seller Engine is a good example of this, in that the program itself is an excellent piece of software, but it relies almost exclusively upon Amazon.com to provide intrinsic value to its users.
So, the short answer to your question is: BwPro makes it possible for a bookseller to overcome more obstacles by making the broadest possible use of their records, with the least amount of effort, in an understandable and comfortable environment. That’s a mouthful, but that’s how I see it.
What do you foresee in the near future for booksellers?
Today, it’s frankly a mess out there. If a bookseller wants to sell books simultaneously on Alibris, ABE, Amazon, eBay, and on their own web site, they must be very technically savvy, or they must utilize a distribution service like Chuck Vilnis’ excellent BookRouter system, or they must use multiple applications to do it — applications that usually don’t interact with one another very well, if at all. There’s a lot of frustration out there, and it’s no surprise. I get calls from dealers all the time wanting help doing one thing or another, and it’s usually something that should be simple for them to do, but it isn’t because their software didn’t provide any way to do it.
So, BwPro tries to make it easy for sellers to get as much work done in one place as possible, without having to jump from one program to another. I think future bookselling applications are going to have to address this if their creators expect merchants to use them. The “Service-Us” approach for client software is not a sustainable model, and companies who continue this approach in their designs will not survive the long haul, even if their programs are free.
In my humble opinion, BwPro positions a bookseller nicely for the next round of business and technological development. Those sellers who can quickly and easily manipulate their data in different ways are going to have distinct business advantages over those who cannot. In particular, the ability to manage the volume of information associated with collectible books on a field-oriented basis will become increasingly important as existing venues expand their infrastructures and data-handling capabilities. Ebay is a good example of this.
What does the software cost?
BookWriter Professional sells for $129.95. The setup has not yet been finalized, but I am accepting advance orders as I’ve had many inquiries and I need to cut down on my email volume somehow. Current BookWriter Web users will have their entire BwWeb purchase price applied to their BwPro purchase, and any new users who place an order prior to rollout will receive the BookWriter Web software as part of the package. Given the current state of development, I expect to have BwPro ready to launch in 30 days or less.
Tom, thanks again for an interesting interview. Where can dealers go to find more information?
You’re most welcome, I appreciate the opportunity to speak with you again! Additional information about the software can be found athttp://www.bookwritersoftware.com/bwpro/bwpro.htm.