Feedback is usually a good thing if it is fair. Most of us engage in and are shaped by feedback in ways we don’t even realize. Evolution itself is one giant feedback loop.
As booksellers, one important way to measure the viability of whatever business model we employ is profitability. Less immediately tangible are such factors as reputation. The more prestigious bookseller associations screen applicants in a preemptory bid for high quality based on a number of factors, and if you seriously misbehave after admission you can get booted out. Until recently, however, with the exception of insider oddities such as the infamous Drif’s U.K. bookstore guides, we have not been universally rated as such.
EBay is the mother of all online transaction feedback. Personally, as a frequent seller and very infrequent buyer, I don’t have too many issues with eBay’s feedback system. If my regular procedures and safeguards fail, my satisfaction guaranteed policy comes to the rescue. Admittedly, however, book and ephemera customers really are the cream of the crop, and I’m sure I wouldn’t fare so well selling fake vintage pottery, reconditioned electronics, a kidney, or whatever. I also admit that I am not up-to-date on every nuance of the feedback debate. I don’t cruise the boards sopping up hate-mail from eBay conspiracy theorists or ABE-bashers who don’t realize that they were simply the first wave in the inevitable tsunami of overnight Gold Rush widget-sellers that has driven prices and professionalism into the ground to a far greater extent than greedy or inept search service managers could ever pull off on their own.
Currently all of the 3 As (AbeBooks, Alibris, and Amazon) utilize rating systems. In two of the three systems, booksellers (whose stock is their lifeblood) can’t rate the buyers in return, as they can on eBay, so there are no checks and balances; and casual shoppers don’t even know what the ratings are based on. Most professional booksellers understand the importance of reliability, but we have also been rubbed raw by a series of untraditional setbacks, of which this is just the latest.
So how do these three bookseller rating systems work? With Alibris, the star line provides an explanation, but it is not at all apparent that this is clickable. I had to be told about it by Alibris support. Their bookseller rating is based on fulfillment, which means the percentage of orders filled, versus canceled or refunded, within the last 31 to 210 days. Seller Rating is the default search. Sellers with a five star rating show up first, from lowest price to highest, and that is then repeated through the lower successively buried star ranks of reliability. For those who only have four stars (85-94.99% fulfillment) for reasons they deem unfair, this rather typical Alibris Big Brotherism must be a real sore point. And you can get kicked off altogether for consistently falling below 85%, though they will try to work with you first to avoid this. Alibris has made a decent attempt to eject and ban the worst mega-listers—an example AbeBooks should follow—but this rating system is unfair to booksellers for reasons we shall see, and it lets bad buyers off the hook altogether.
Peering into the intergalactic horn of plenty that is Amazon, one is immediately inundated by home page images of such items as the Omega Seamaster watch worn in the latest James Bond movie (“grappling hook and detonator not included”), gourmet decorative sugar, and dreadful bestsellers at cutthroat prices. Surprisingly, though, their five star/percentage rating system is pretty good. You can read the positive comments about service and the negative comments about poor description, high shipping, and yes, even lousy fulfillment. They also allow Seller Response. I didn’t feel like navigating around for half an hour to see what it takes for sellers to get kicked off Amazon, but it’s clear that buyers will understand what the system is based on simply by looking at the individual comments, just like they do on eBay. Last time I checked, both of these companies were doing fairly well.
Now we come to AbeBooks and their new five star rating system (five seems to be the industry standard). It works pretty much the same way as Alibris. Misleading to the public, and potentially unfair to the bookseller. At first glance, this appears to be a comprehensive rating based on many factors. At least with AbeBooks you can click on the somewhat more obvious Bookseller Rating link next to the star line to learn that it’s solely based on fulfillment, but how many customers will figure that out or bother to click if they do? Some years ago when AbeBooks first began to remove titles from their database as soon as they were ordered, for the avowed purpose of reducing customer disappointment over low fulfillment, I considered this blatant interference. I’ve changed my thinking in the meantime. AbeBooks indisputably removes my listings faster than I would, and they have made it easy to reinstate them if the transaction does not proceed for whatever reason. Most of us have experienced the disappointment of all those “Sorry but this sold already” replies, and this is an example of middleman interference I can live with. Their rating system rankles though. I happen to have five stars, but with slow sales through the watered-down modern AbeBooks it wouldn’t take much to reduce that to three or four stars. “Slow” (based on sales per period) sellers can only earn four stars, even if they have 100% fulfillment, though in some cases their handful of selective sales comes to a far higher total than that of their five star colleagues in the same period. Go figure.
AbeBooks allows mega-listers to disappoint hundreds of customers, not to mention flooding the once pristine landscape with poorly described multiple copies of titles they do not even have in stock, but these mega-listers maintain a four or five star rating because they fulfill thousands of other orders for bestsellers and dreck. It is easier for unscrupulous outfits like this to simply click “will ship” on all orders—knowing that a certain percentage of customers will forget they ordered something, lose their hard drive or internet access, die, or whatever—and then simply say “Sorry, lost in the mail, here is a refund” when they do get called on it. Booksellers used to be rewarded for finding and presenting very uncommon used, out-of-print, and antiquarian titles. Now they are penalized for doing so by rigid fulfillment systems, while sellers of common new books that are easily sourced or “books” that are printed on demand thrive under these one-dimensional systems. Furthermore, many unfulfilled buyers would not be upset enough to neg professional booksellers over fruitless orders, but the AbeBooks and Alibris beancounters and computers are programmed for 100% punishment, so the entire reliability rating is unfairly skewed toward fulfillment alone, neglecting more important professional standards.
So how can a good professional bookseller lose stars? Lots of ways. You sell a newly listed hot title on one service and it gets ordered through other services before you can remove it. A formerly slow title is suddenly in demand because somebody dies or something happens, with the same result. (We could skip having a personal life or going to sleep, just to be sure two services don’t process the same order.) You own a store (and/or do book shows) and your internet stock gets moved around, or is sold before you can un-list it. (We can play it safe by removing all web stock from the shelves, but that’s just another nail in the coffin for actual bookstores worth visiting, so phooey to that practice!) You don’t have a store but you do have a lot of stock and some of it is bound to be misplaced. The online customer had no intention of keeping the book to begin with, was super finicky, or tripped up the bookseller in some other way. The customer is perturbed because you have added state sales tax to the final bill (eBay handles this aspect much better by letting you send the invoice to begin with, whereas Alibris does not allow you to charge sales tax at all). I don’t mind losing a little on shipping for a good sale, but for many booksellers if the price is low, the shipping reimbursement really low, the distance great, and the weight high, something’s gotta give. AbeBooks no longer counts cancellations based on sales tax and high shipping costs against booksellers, but not all booksellers know this. I recently asked for extra shipping on a heavy book to the U.K. for the first time ever. The buyer cancelled his order, claiming he found it cheaper somewhere else (don’t think so), but he was unable to cancel it through AbeBooks. I spent over half an hour on hold today before I could get tech support to do it from their end. If I could have tailored the shipping myself first the order probably would have gone through.
To be fair to AbeBooks, they have been somewhat responsive to the griping and I get the impression that they will try to help you maintain a high rating, but I still don’t think they quite get the whole picture. While I had the support person on I asked her how quality booksellers end up with fulfillment problems. She cited mistakes in the price, mistakes in the listings, and never letting the customer know the book was not coming, making them so angry when they received a refund weeks later instead of the needed textbook or whatever that they went out of their way to complain. When I said that answer was misleading because these are things mega-listers do, not professionals, she correctly informed me she’s there to help with specific problems and not to speculate on larger issues. Her answer was telling though, and smacks of the party line.
I’m not exactly sure how quality booksellers get down to three stars, let alone one or two stars. Some of them are probably disorganized, or they cancel orders and make the sales privately in order to avoid the commission and high credit card processing fee. For others the system is probably more to blame. We will be happy to gather and print particularly egregious low rating woes in a future issue if they have the ring of truth and if there is any interest.
AbeBooks and Alibris could and should make it much more apparent that the “reliability” rating is based on fulfillment alone, but these corporations can’t be expected to take the additional step of explaining that low fulfillment is not always the fault of and a reflection on the bookseller; or that high reliability ratings do not always equate to high standards, guaranteed fulfillment, and good service. One option would have been to record and react to these ratings privately, but it’s too late for such a retreat. The best solution at this point would be to fully ape their Amazon deity by setting up a true comment and response-based rating system. In the community debate leading up to AbeBooks’ foray into ratings, some booksellers expressed a preference for dispassionate fulfillment ratings over a true feedback system which hangs all of the laundry right out on the line, but in my experience good professional booksellers have little to be afraid of. AbeBooks and Alibris would see this evolutionary step as a potential headache, but it’s about time they shared a little pain with us.
After all, we are paying much more for much less over the last several years, and this comes as another slap in the face. How would they feel if they were being rated by us? Let’s find out, because the first article in this issue of the Standard provides a very handy (and personally adaptable) bookseller and consumer-oriented five star rating tool of our own, courtesy of Stuart Manley. [And thanks to Chris Volk for feedback on this piece, as I don’t list with all the services.]
IOBA's Ellen Brown joins our semi-regular cast of contributors with a nice back to school report on the Rare Book School (not to be confused with the Colorado bookseller boot camp); Nancy Johnson ruminates on the value of price guides; there’s an interview with Judith Tingley of Meetinghouse Books and the Massachusetts and Rhode Island Antiquarian Booksellers; and after all that let’s share a cuppa Peruvian Joe. In the ephemera department, dumb diaries; and the book review goes Maine stream. Ellen Brown repairs to the Tool Box; where Chris Volk presents the third installment (Amazon) in her series on search service Pros and Cons. IOBA Bookseller Profiles wash ashore in Maryland, Oregon, and the U.K.; and Addenda once again takes up rear guard action.
Have a holistically five star fall, and te veremos en enero.
IOBA Standard, Fall Edition 2007, Volume 8, No. 4