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The IOBA Standard is the journal of the Independent Online Booksellers Association and covers the book world, with a special focus on the online used, out-of-print, and collectible bookselling markets.


Selling Books Is Like Fly-fishing

Selling books on the web seems easy.

You get hold of some books (that really is the easy part!) and start listing them like crazy onto a database.

Sure, there are a few technical details to overcome – joining up with various listing sites and mastering the assorted uploading techniques, but nothing that would stall the average 12 year old for more than a few minutes.

Nevertheless, setting up your own virtual bookshop is neither unduly difficult nor particularly expensive in normal commercial terms (although the actual expenses mount up far more than the average tyro realizes).

That is why so many are doing it!

And therein lies the rub – there seems to be an endlessly expanding crowd of newcomers joining the existing hordes, all believing that this the way to say goodbye to the day job and become their own boss.

For most, it is a bad career move.

The harsh fact is that the expansion of ‘bookdealers’ is far outstripping the expansion of the demand for the books, leading to a dilution of orders for everyone.

Some respond by endlessly reducing prices – another bad career move – but I have already covered that in my ‘Penny Selling’ series, so I won’t revisit it here. Suffice to say that if you do not understand the role of gross and net profit margins within business and keep on eroding those margins to create sales, you would be doing yourself a favor to pack in now.

If you reject the above as the ‘way to go’, then this is where fly-fishing comes into it. I hope to guide you towards techniques that will help you sell good books at proper prices and, importantly, at a profit that is good enough to pay all your business expenses and still leave you a reasonable living.

Check your tackle …

Before moving on to the flies and techniques, you need to check your tackle: Your web site, policies, and facilities.

You can get by with a ‘standard’ home page provided by one of the listing sites, but you are putting yourself at a disadvantage.

In an ideal world you would have a unique website properly built by a competent designer, with all the bells and whistles, and plenty of special features that reflects your particular trading position. It’s not a bookselling site, but my current favourite site that combines humor with professionalism is . (Make sure you have the sound switched on!)

But that can be expensive, so the next best option would be to use a specialist book site builder – the most recommended that I have heard of is Chrislands who construct competent sites for the smaller bookdealer, but if you can afford a totally tailor-made site, so much the better.

The Chrisland built sites are a little bit ‘samey’ but there is still plenty of scope to introduce some of your own individuality and they do include the key features of your own domain name, booksearch, order processing, and encryption.

Work out your store policies carefully – payment, returns policy, shipping, etc., and make sure that they comply with the policies of the major listing and are presented clearly and professionally. A quick trip to the Ethics Code of IOBA or a quality site such as will soon put you right.

… now check the fly …

The ‘fly’ is your actual listing for each book.

It seems obvious to say so, but the first requirement is that it must be accurate.

We are all guilty of ‘typos’ from time to time, but make a typo in either the title or the author and you have already gone down a peg or two in the eyes of a potential purchaser. I find it amazing that there are currently 256 ‘bookdealers’ on ABE offering various titles by ‘J.R.R. Tolkein’ (and 15 offering ‘The Hobbitt’!) – they do not deserve to ever sell a book. Quite apart from the poor impression it gives the potential buyer (“If this seller is sloppy with the book, what else is he/she sloppy about?), in these days of the diminishing wild card asterisk, the only people who are ever going to find their books are the equally typographically challenged.

Make sure that the condition report is clear and concise. It is sad that sites such as Amazon are eroding a long-established consistency with meaningless terms such as ‘acceptable’ (‘acceptable’ to whom? – what’s wrong with the perfectly clear description of ‘worn’?), but that is no reason for you to join in! Follow the guidelines on or any of the other good listing sites and you won’t go far wrong. Condition reports should be a short as possible, but still give a clear and honest impression of the true condition of the book.

Then there is the description of the book itself. This is truly the ‘fly’ – the part of the listing where you can show your skill. You can demonstrate careful collation and research (if the book is of enough value to merit it). Writing out the entire plot of ‘The Hobbit’, or even the dustwrapper blurb, earns you no brownie points whatsoever. A good description should be succinct and relevant. Lengthy descriptions may gain a dubious web visibility, but they tend to put off the average book buyer. Indeed, it is not a bad idea to purposely leave a little unstated, so that the prospective buyer can have a question to ask to ‘break the ice’.

The one absolute ‘no-no’ in the description is plagiarism. Under no circumstances copy/paste another bookdealers’ description into yours. By all means read them and learn from them, but then go away and write your own synopsis. To do anything other than that is (a) lazy, (b) unprofessional, and (c), most importantly, a violation of the Code of Conduct on most reputable sites.

One dealer has recently been taken ‘off the air’ for systematic theft of other peoples descriptions and will remain so until he has cleaned up his catalog – a massive task given that there were over a thousand examples of plagiarism within his database. Don’t let that happen to you.

… and now you are ready to start fly-fishing!

With all the tackle checked and the flies in place, let the fishing begin – the e-mail inquiries.

Some will be straightforward orders. Great – your ‘fly’ has done its work and you have hooked a beauty. All that remains is for you to process the order speedily and efficiently, pack it well, and let the customer know it is on its way with a well worked out ‘template’ e-mail.

But many will be inquiries rather than orders – and of varying quality. Your job is to convert as many of these as possible into sales and this is where the skill of the fly-fisher comes in.

The first job is to assess the quality of the inquiry – if you have hooked an old boot, there is no point in treating it like a 5 lb. trout.

However, you may not immediately know that you have hooked an old boot, so it is important to assume, until you find out otherwise, that there is a fish on the end of the line.

So, unless it is obvious that the inquirer is a waste of time, they should be given the benefit of the doubt and treated with a ‘straight bat’ reply – your very best polite and friendly ‘standard reply template’ tailored to the specific questions asked, but not spending too much time on scans and research until you have found out whether it be boot or fish. You will not have long to wait before the true nature of the inquirer is revealed!

Bear in mind that many inquirers are more interested in finding out what kind of bookdealer you are, rather than the actual question(s) asked. ‘Can I trust this bookseller with my CC details?’; ‘Can I be confident that they know what they are doing?’; ‘Will the descriptions be honest and accurate?’ are often the unstated questions and are more important than whether or not there is foxing on plate 36. Make sure that your reply gives them confidence in your professionalism and probity.

Think before you reply. Put yourself in the shoes of the prospective purchaser and try and work out what sort of extra information might tip the balance in your favor (a scan of an attractive cover or a particularly interesting plate, for instance). If the ‘tweak on the line’ tells you that yes, it’s a fish not a boot, but it is a really tricky one, draft your reply, but then do something else for half an hour. Then come back to the draft and see what you can do to improve it. (And that includes removing typos!).

But remember that this is fly-fishing, not ‘throwing a stick of dynamite into the lake’ – the hard sell rarely works. There are many techniques and nuances needed to ‘land’ each sale – every inquiry will be a little bit different and need subtle changes – but therein lies the challenge and the fun.

Handling discount inquiries is a skill all by itself. You will land more sales by refusing a discount than by just giving in whenever someone asks for it. But how well you explain this is all part of fly-fishing – see‘What’s your Best Price?’ for my previous thoughts on this.

If you have spent some time polishing what you believe is a particularly good reply, save it as a draft – you will soon build up a good library of quality replies that can be tailored for similar inquiries in the future.

As in fishing, you even build up stories about ‘the one that got away’ – learn from them and keep on improving your techniques.

Nothing beats the thrill of landing a particularly difficult ‘catch’, so tremendous enjoyment is to be had from applying your hard-learned skills – and it’s rather good for business too.

Tight Lines!

Stuart Manley is co-owner of Barter Books, Alnwick, Northumberland, England, also online at

Copyright © 2004 Stuart Manley




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