This article offers some basic suggestions for those who own or plan to open an internet book store. You can also read it just to get a flavor of what is involved in setting up a commercial internet site although the emphasis is on books. It is offered with the hopes that it will help someone get started. It doesn’t tell how to sell books (other than maybe making a better web site), it doesn’t tell you what the book grades are, and it doesn’t discuss the aspects of being a bookseller. You should know these before you even consider opening an internet based bookstore. The article does discuss some aspects of becoming a webmaster apprentice and some of the things you can and should do to create a successful web site. It is a condensation of some of the materials I have read, either in books, interest groups I now or have belonged to in the past or individually in normal conversation.
One note before we continue: I will very much try to explicitly say whether I am affiliated in any way with services/companies mentioned in this article, but I might miss sometimes. Generally, if I don’t mention some connection, you can assume that I only have knowledge of their existence. In any case, any suggestions/advice offered is just my opinion.
If you are interested in books, whether just reading, collecting, talking/reading about them or about the book business there are several organizations/forums I think you should be aware of:
The Independent Online Booksellers Association is dedicated to promoting internet bookselling by, among several other items, maintaining and enforcing high ethical and professional standards for our member booksellers, including a Code Of Ethics. Membership is open to other than just booksellers. Their Newsletter is open to all, member or not. (We are members of the IOBA).
Global Book Town Independent Booksellers is a bookshop neighborhood on the Internet. You can find their discussion forum athttp://pub47.ezboard.com/bglobalbooktownindependentbooksellers Quite a bit of the material came from discussion threads on the site. (We are members of Global Book Town).
The Bibliophile Mailing List is maintained for the benefit of sellers and/or collectors of rare, out-of-print, scarce books in all subject areas. (We subscribe to the Biblio list)
The BookFinder Insider is a mailing list for BookFinder.com users to discuss the site, and more broadly, the online book industry. (We subscribe to the Insider list).
Of course there are many more including SIGs and forums dealing with books in general to specific authors. For example, look at http://groups.google.com/groups?hl=en&lr=&ie=UTF-8&group=alt.books or http://groups.google.com/groups?hl=en&lr=&ie=UTF-8&group=rec.arts.books.
In the beginning, there was the name. And the name was good. But the name was taken! You need a URL name for your web site. These can be purchased at a myriad of places on the net. Before we get to where to go to register a name, realize that your first, sometimes second, third, etc. choices may be taken. There are different “kinds” of addresses, i.e. com, net, biz, etc. But, if your name is taken, don’t register a SomeName.net name just because the SomeName.com is taken. Register a name as soon as you decide you are serious about opening a business web site – maybe even before that. Do it as soon as you can if you even think you might get serious. Do you get all of the “kinds” of names, Name.com, Name.biz, Name.org, Name.net? Some like to get the main three (com, org, and net) but I think that unless you plan to become a multi-million dollar business, just get the com address. It is generally the one assumed when you say your site is, for example, WhiteUnicornBooks.
At this time, you can pay anywhere from about $9 a year to $30 a year and more. What is the difference in the costs? It isn’t quality of service if all you want is the name. The business you buy the name from is just a broker. Sometimes the difference is nothing. Other times, you get some storage space and possibly some bandwidth and maybe a few other perks. Unless you plan to use the extras (like building your own site), don’t pay for the extras! If all you want is the name go to someplace like GoDaddy where you can get a name for a single year for $8.95 or for 10 years at $6.95 a year (this was in Oct, 2003). Can you get the extras from the “cheap” places? Generally, yes but you pay more for them. I presently do have a web site registered through GoDaddy but that is my only affiliation. Note that some companies that will set you up on the net will also provide a URL registration. Sometimes it is included in the setup price, sometimes you pay extra for this.
Now you have a name. What do you do? DON’T ADVERTISE. DON’T REGISTER YOUR NAME AT GOOGLE, DMOZ, ETC. You should have a web site up and running for business BEFORE you register your name with any search engines. More about that later. Just park your name at the place you registered. What you should do is read. There are several sites on the web that give advice about how to run a web site and how to build web pages. A few are:
http://www.dtp-aus.com/htmlstrt.html HTML (Hyper Text Markup Language) Tutorials. You will need to be able to program in HTML to create your own web pages. Don’t worry, it isn’t really all that difficult and the basic design can be done for you.
http://www.webmasterworld.com/forum48/71.htmThe “New To Web Development” forum on WebMasterWorld.
http://www.webmasterworld.comThe home page for WebMasterWorld. Just look around for any topic of interest. This will keep you busy for a long time. You should have your site open and a going concern before you run out of topics to read.
http://www.searchengineworld.com/tips/doit.htm Designing a High Search Engine Rankings Page. Dated 1977, it still has some good information.
http://www.smartwebby.com/website_promotion/altavista_ranking.asp About Altavista rankings.
did I mention that you should read (and read and ….)
Before you can get your inventory up to a site, you must have a “computerized inventory”. How do you get one? Well, any answer to that has to include “with a lot of work”. But what inventory program do you use? Happily, almost anyone you want to use. You can generally use any spread sheet program (Excel, Quattro Pro, abs, Gnumeric, …) which will output a tab delimited ASCII file. The same is true for any database which will output a tab delimited ASCII file (Access, Filemaker Pro, FoxPro, etc.). If you use those types of programs, you have to build your own structures. Some prefer this because they have more control over what they can do. Others prefer a special purpose database program. For books there are quite a few out there including the following:
BookLog , uses UBIC System. Seems very full featured but for B&M shops. Expensive.
Booktrakker . Good program, very flexible, free trial (we currently use Booktrakker as our main database program)
Homebase is provided for free by the Advanced Book Exchange (ABE) (we currently use Homebase for auxiliary entry for transfer to BookTrakker and used it in the past as our main database program).
ReaderWare. Free Trial.
Several of these programs have a forum for new users where advice is offered on the basic (and not so basic) use of the program. The IOBA (see link above) has several articles in their Newsletters that discuss different inventory programs.
It’s finally time to open an internet book store! Here are several sites that will set you up with a store front on the web. If you really want to “roll your own” you might look at these sites to get some ideas. Do you know what cgi-bin access and SSL means? You’ll need to know if you plan to “roll your own”. You will have to contact the people holding your URL registration to have them “point at” your actual site, but that is generally explained in the setup of your site. We personally have a web site hosted by Chrislands with which we are very pleased. I’ve also “heard good things” about the following sites:
These sites should offer enough bandwidth to operate your store. That is, the set up shop allows for searches of your inventory, ordering, allowing customers to set up a login ID, etc. with a good response time. Some have fixed fees with, possibly, different levels of service. Some have charges depending on how many books you have online (searching a larger inventory requires a larger bandwidth if you want to keep a good response time). Shopping cart integration is provided. In other words, you basically get a turnkey operation. Statistics on your website should be provided. I haven’t checked the other sites for statistics, but I think they provide some if not all that Chrislands provides. At Chrislands you can see what pages have been visited, where visitors come from, what search terms they use to reach your site, and more. Statistics are available at daily, weekly, and monthly intervals. Integrated Credit Card processing is generally an option. A further note, SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) is a must for a commercial site, even if you run it as a “hobby”. The definition runs to some other computer acronyms but what it boils down to is that transmissions between you and your customer are encrypted and thus things like credit card information is protected. There are various levels of encryption, but anything of 128 bits or higher should be sufficient for at least “temporary” storage of “personal” information (remember that computer technology is improving and this may not be sufficient in the future). If the business which supplies your site offers SSL (and all of those above do), it is very likely adequate and will probably remain so.
Well, you finally have an established book store on the web and all you need to do now is upload your inventory, keep it up to date, take and ship orders, and collect all of that easy money. Right? Wrong! You and umpteen million other people have businesses on the web. Many of them are booksellers, so how are your customers going to find you out of all those other booksellers? BTW: Did I mention that you should still be reading (and reading and …) about web site promotion, etc., from either some of the above sites or ones you have found on your own.] Hopefully your site has, at a minimum, a search capability and a way to order with SSL capability (see above for SSL).
NOW YOU REGISTER! DMOZ, will register your site for free (maybe). Since it is a feed for many of the search engines, it is the first one you should register on. Note the criterion for listing your site. Don’t make it a blatant advertisement. Submitting your site to search engines before it’s ready is a big no-no. It won’t get indexed and it’ll either come up as a 404 (error, not found) or it’ll index the page where the domain is ‘parked’. Then, when you are ready to be indexed, the spiders from Google, AltaVista, et al, will take forever to find your site.
Technically, what happens is that when a spider crawls a site, it looks at the IP address of the site. It knows the site by the IP and only refreshes it once in a very long while. If you move the site to a different server (and that is what you are doing when you move from the parked address to your new site), it can take months – like 4-5 months for the spiders to find the new location. Moving a site from one server (or a ‘parking place’) to another server is a very difficult undertaking.
How about places like “ineedhits” and the like. If it’s free, why not? But we’ve found the “pay for placement” is generally not worth it. For the paid versions, they may send “traffic” and may send you lots of it. BUT, in general, they don’t send you qualified traffic. Surfers are simply “forced” onto your page (usually through a pop-up which they close before it even loads – thus the “may send”). In the olden days of the web, this was useful as there were various revenue programs out there that paid you money simply for having someone “view” the ad. These are rare today. In the end, you’re better getting one person a day who is interested in “buying books” than 1000 people a day who are there just because you paid for them to be there. The key is “qualified” traffic rather than just any old traffic. Besides, Google, AltaVista, et al, will pick you up in a couple of months especially if you register with DMOZ. If you can afford it, a Yahoo listing (https://ecom.yahoo.com/dir/reference/instructions) doesn’t hurt, but it won’t kill you if you don’t have one (remember, you are getting my opinion, not everyone’s). Don’t go crazy with those submission services that promise submission to 50,000 search engines. There are really only 5-6 that matter and you can register for free at most of the sites which ineedhits and its ilk gives you for free, including Google, Yahoo, and AltaVista.
Now you have a site, you have been crawled by “everyone” and your site is out there for everyone to see. BUT your site is 103,223 out of 121,376 sites. At 30 sites per page that means you are on page 3441. Not many people look through 3441 pages to find what they want! (Have you been reading?).
The first thing to work on is keywords and descriptions. Go to (almost) any site, put your cursor somewhere on the page and right click. There should be a choice of View Source or something like that. Left click on it. A window will open (typically a Notepad type of window for Windows users) which will contain the HTML source of the page. Near the top, you will see a KEYWORDS section (something like meta NAME=”KEYWORDS” CONTENT=…). These “words” are part of what distinguishes your site from other sites. [You can also save this file to get some ideas about HTML coding but ask permission from the site if they have “significant” information you want to use on your own site.] It’s amazing how many searches for which your site can be made to show up top five with some tweaking of tags and keywords to meet your own needs once the site is up and running. This stuff is not restricted to the “techie”, but does take a little time and thought.
Keywords help and can help a lot, but there are other things you can do to make your site more visible. I’ll briefly mention two of them (you probably already know, if you’ve been reading). The first is links. If you link to a site, say something like http://GlobalBookTown.com, that generally helps that site in their ratings. But, since you probably have a smaller rank than them, it helps them “a little”. However, if they link to you then it helps you more than “a little”. How much it helps and how much more is more than “a little” is a complicated algorithm depending on the service that does the ranking (Google has depended more on this linking than other services in the past and may still do so). If you can create reciprocal links with a lot of sites, “a little” may add up to “a lot”. Do you specialize in Science Fiction/Fantasy? Ask the SF Site (http://www.sfsite.com/depts/small01.htm). A different specialty? You probably know better than me where to look. If your site goes up in the ratings, it helps the sites you link to “a little bit more”. When their ratings go up, your ratings are helped. It isn’t quite a never-ending circle, but it can certainly help.
The second item is “content”. “Content” is, in part, what you are reading right now. It is also the specials or pictures of books you offer on your web site. It is anything on your site that tends to make you different than the other guy. How about putting up an “authors page” where your customers can find out what the next book will be or where the next appearance is scheduled? BTW: Do you also have audio-books, LP’s, or book paraphernalia or ephemera to list on your site? It could add a bit of distinction if you “advertise”. Content is a page (or several pages) on your site that also help your site. I was talking about linking to sites above. Well, in Google’s eyes, each page is a site in that context. There are also some good and bad ways to lay out your site. Since each of your pages has a rank, the good ways have the Google ranking concentrated mainly in one or two pages (usually your home page) and this can push you up in the Google searches. The bad way spreads the total ranking of your pages around all of your pages. This brings down your home page rank and thus pushes you down in the Google search. But, don’t “over design” your site to the point where your customers are inconvenienced. For more details, look athttp://www.iprcom.com/papers/pagerank.
BTW: We started an “ethical listing sites” page to not only add content to our site but to possibly help our customers. It was a bust. Our email to listing sites started out with “We have found that many of our customers have been deceived by inaccurate descriptions and have been unable to obtain any satisfaction from the dealer in correcting the deception. Because of this we recently thought we would put up a page of links to other sites that have a stated ‘good’ ethics policy for their booksellers AND that policy is ‘findable’ by customers of the site AND they enforce the policy.” On Insider and Bibliophile, it started out as an Ethical Book Sites thread. Maybe the post was too strong and presented the wrong message (as we considered it) to the people who read it. The purpose boiled down to, as stated in one of the original emails when we started the project, “We are trying to tell people there are sites that have ethical book dealers and are not going to rip off people just for the sake of selling a book or two. We hope it will give online customers more information about online listing places besides the 3A’s. Some are not aware of any other sites on which to find books.” Anyway, it was a bust. We had three “yes” responses and no “no” responses from the sites we contacted. As a result, we have three sites listed. But our links page still points to the page as a “help for online book buyers” link.
You are finally up and running. You’ve got regular customers and more and more people are finding you. How do you keep customers once you get them? The same way you do in an open shop. Newsletters make good reminders that you exist, especially if there are some “specials” advertised. But, remember this is the web. At worse, you should only send one newsletter to a customer unless they opt-in. Add an Opt-in Tag on your site. Remember, spam can kill your shop. How about offering discounts for repeat customers? Do the same kind of things you would do in an open shop but apply it to the web. Do you have a customer who has expressed an interest in a particular subject/author? Having kept track of your customers, you can send an email to them about a new book you just got in their area of interest (again, be careful about “spamming”).
How about credit card processing, is it necessary? Credit card processing can help your bottom line and, in some cases, help very much. But setting up a merchant account and signing up with a gateway service can be quite expensive. This seems to be a catch 22. Fortunately, this isn’t always true. Set up a PayPal account (http://www.paypal.com). Your customers can “email” you money into your online PayPal account using a credit card. (Other services of this type include http://www.2checkout.com, http://www.paysystems.com). Make sure you check out the service before you sign up. There are many people who do not like PayPal (see, for example, http://www.paypalwarning.com). We use PayPal as one option for CC processing and have never had any problems. The cost of the service is paid from your orders with no setup fee.
The major problem with PayPal and its ilk is that your customers also must be members, although PayPal has just announced that this will be changing and buyers will no longer need to register with them to make payments. Many people don’t want to join. For these people you need “real” CC processing. For a business in the US (or at least a person with a US Social Security Number), there is ProPay http://www.propay.com. There are several minor fees associated with the account, e.g. a $0.35 fee for a “withdrawal” from your ProPay account to your checking account (note, all costs were as of Oct, 2003 and may not be exact). There is also a $35 yearly fee. The charges are somewhat larger than a regular merchant account, but don’t have the monthly statement and gateway fee. The $35 yearly fee is about the same as the setup fee for merchant account and gateway service [which you have to pay in a lump sum] if you amortize that fee over about 5 years. Thus, the difference about boils down to paying a monthly statement and gateway fee (in the neighborhood of $20 or more combined) versus a higher item cost and discount rate through ProPay. The break-even point varies depending on the number of CC sales processed but is in the neighborhood of $1000 to $2000 a month in sales. We have used both the ProPay and merchant account/gateway service. To make a long story short, if you can use ProPay, I would suggest a steady CC processing of at least $1500 a month before looking for a merchant account and gateway provider [you will probably have to put up a deposit if you need to process more than $1000 a month through ProPay]. We became “unhappy” with our merchant account and gateway provider and are back to using ProPay for the present. Also note that there are some who are very dissatisfied with ProPay. However, we have been happy with their service.
Do you first list on other services or, after you have your own site, continue to list on other services? Well, I’ll skip the first part of this with just a basic comment. Listing on multi book dealer sites may be the best (and cheapest) way to find out if you really want to be a bookseller. What about the “continuing” part of it? My answer to this is a definite yes, at least until you are making “enough” from your own site. What we do is decide what is a “fair” cost for a listing service. Note: this increases if the site also does your CC processing since CC processing, in this day and age, is a regular business expense.
Before we say anything else, we add another bit of our philosophy. When we do choose to add a listing site, we consider basically one thing. Will we get a “good” return for our money? This return is not always in the form of “direct” book sales, it also includes “advertising value”. For example, we know of several repeat customers at our web site who first found us through a particular listing site, but now tend to order from us direct. That site gets some credit for these sales for some length of time. Thus we could have a fixed fee or fixed fee plus commission site that seldom gives us a sale, but we remain with them. Once we chose a site to list on, we tend to stay at least one year in order to give both the site and ourselves a fair trial.
In general, we find out what the cost really is to list on a site and then raise the selling price if that becomes necessary. For example, say we have “a fair return” of $0.90 on the dollar ($1.00 minus a 10% commission). If a site charged us 20% then, if I raised my price by 12.5% for that site, I would get my $0.90. If a site charges 10% or less, just list there (assuming other factors agree).
It’s easy for the straight commission sites, but what about those that charge a fee or fee plus (modified) commission or just modified commission. You can assume that the site will pay for itself to start with. But actual results require some analysis – like monthly, cumulative, and trend of sales. Whoever said the book selling business was easy? Look athttp://www.pattersonliddle.com/bookstart for a list of multi-dealer listing sites.
We could probably continue “forever” about specific “things to do”: Did you get/make some business cards/flyers and post then at you local library (if allowed) or other where? Did you check out http://selfpromotion.com? It’s free to try. Do you put duplicate address “labels” inside your packages just in case the outer address gets “wasted”? Are you making your store pay for everything as soon as you can? This may entail waiting a bit for some “improvements”, but the faster you are on a supporting basis (at least as far as the store is concerned), the better off you will be.
I hope you have gotten an idea about the process of opening an online book store/business. Maintaining and promoting your online book store is a never ending business but it can become enjoyable to make your site just a little bit better.
Copyright © 2003 DeWayne White