Self-Interview: Sean O’Donoghue, U.K. Bookseller


I think this article is supposed to be about out-of-print internet bookdealing in the U.K., but I don’t feel qualified nor have the time or inclination to do the research to write an objective account. So, instead, I will detail my own journey in online bookselling that, of course, takes place in the context of the bookselling world. No bookseller is an island, to misquote someone who went before me.

I started bookselling in 1991. I was pretty disillusioned with the world – I had taken a couple of degrees as a very mature student in my thirties – totally non-vocational. I always aspired after the infinite possibilities presented by life rather than being moulded by my job. So instead of being an accountant, teacher or researcher after my studies, I was still in the world of infinite possibility. After a few jobs as a community worker, I came to the conclusion that I was constitutionally incapable of working for anyone and I was unemployable on a higher plane!

As to why I went into books – well, when I was a student I spent many hours in bookshops in London, always looking for stuff that wasn’t on the reading list! It occurred to me at the time that bookselling in universities would be a good occupation – taking the books to the students, visiting them on a monthly basis. I did not pursue this course, despite the fact that no one else was doing it at the time as I needed to get on with changing the world. Some time later I again thought I might go into the book business but after a casual discussion with a librarian friend, I discounted the notion when he told me that “no one wants second-hand books”. Finally, in 1991, the time was right. I made a few inquiries about how the trade works and discovered that I could get going with my own collection (I had about 1000 books, mostly philosophy) by quoting to the dealers who advertised in our U.K.-based subscription-only trade weekly, the Bookdealer. And being a bookseller exactly fitted my work-requirement profile, thrown out of a day-long assessment I had taken a few years previously – that I “wanted to work with my head and my hands, and wanted to work indoors and work outdoors.” I also had an eight-year-old son who was spending most of his time with me, and it was wonderful to be there for him – to take him to and from school, etc. He is now 18 and not so wonderful!! However, he is the best-read lad in his class – today I gave him an anthology of war poetry that is on his reading list for next term. While the financial capital may be a bit scarce, the cultural capital is around in abundance.

And so I was off. I well remember the first order I got – it was from Jonathan at Waterstones Booksearch, a book on Hegel. Jonathan has long since departed that post and started on his own with Exedra Booksearch; his office is not far from mine and we occasionally have lunch. I was fairly computer literate; in fact one of the jobs I had done was teaching computers. I started off filling in for a friend and ended up doing far too many hours in what had to be the most boring job I ever did. I confirmed to myself that computers could not be “taught,” they had to be learned, with perhaps a degree of facilitation in the process. Anyway, I created a database using an old DOS version of DataEase and gradually got all my books catalogued. Just about all my meagre income was being ploughed back into the business, plus the income I did not have. In fact I am still paying off credit card debts from that period. I also automated the printing of my Bookdealer quotes, which saved many hours of tedious scribbling.

Somewhere along the way, when I had about 3500 books, I lost my database and had no backup – and you know how long it takes to catalogue that many books – about six months!!

When the internet arrived, I hit the ground running in that all my stock was catalogued. I signed onto ABE first and used to speak direct to Rick when I had a problem uploading. However, I was reluctant to sign on with Interloc because there was a $100 joining fee. Eventually, after a bit of cajoling by one of my customers, I did sign on and I could not believe my luck. I probably had about 6000 books at that time and my first order from Amazon’s out-of-print department was for 98 books – yes, ninety-eight. I pictured a Rolls Royce outside a country mansion. And another dealer from Texas ordered 18 books in one go. I was in business.

I stayed with the Bookdealer until about four years ago, doing my weekly quotes, but it was very time consuming and I did not like the idea of having my stock tied up for two-week reserves, as was the norm in quoting. So, it then became internet-only. I have not ventured into any other mode of bookselling – the thoughts of having a shop fill me with dread that I might turn into someone like Mrs. Thatcher’s father, who was a shopkeeper in Grantham, with a mentality to match! Catalogues I have never got around to doing and I have done a couple of bookfairs – where I spent more than I took.

Three years ago, I moved into a store-room which is 10 minutes from my home – within a year, I had to get an annex as I had run out of space. I now have around 14000 books – mostly philosophy and social science, but about one-third are general titles. For the past two years I have had a woman working part-time for me. She loves the work and, as she has a lot of children, the flexibility which goes with the job. And she covers for me when I go away, which is wonderful.

Four years ago, 95% of my sales were to the U.S.A. These days it is probably about 5%. This I put down to the rise of internet use in Europe and the swamping of the net by American dealers and non-dealers. When Interloc became Alibris, I reluctantly signed on, soon left it, but later signed up again. Those of you around a while will remember my public spat with Alibris. For an independent idiosyncratic bookdealer, Alibris is most definitely not the way to go and, as far as I am concerned the sooner they go, the better. Two years ago, most of my sales were on ABE – they are now abysmal there, and had Amazon not started up their Marketplace operation in the U.K. in March of this year, I would be doing bookfairs and catalogues.

I was part of the group that set up our U.K.-based cooperative. Our growth is slow but moving in the right direction. No one has left it, and those on board are firmly committed. As to why loads of dealers have not joined, considering the ordure that has been piled on them by Alibris and ABE, I cannot understand – as a friend says, they are like rabbits caught in the glare of the oncoming headlights, petrified to make any move. We also have our own notice board/list, which is extremely useful. One of the things about being an online bookdealer is that we are all disparate (and sometimes desperate) individuals, so the online list of common interest is a wonderful medium. I was on the Insider list almost from the start and found it and its subscribers most useful and helpful. However, of late it has become a kind of private chitchat arena and I very reluctantly signed off it about a month ago.

I have always found bookdealers a most honourable group of people – i.e., they generally pay COR (cash on receipt) and do not need reminding. Only once have I had cause to “have words” with a fellow book dealer. He was going to sue me for slander because of these words, unless I apologised – no apology and I still await the writ!! And I think our customers are wonderful – only about once a year do I get an “awkward” one. In fact I have one right now who is threatening to take me to court because the book he ordered from me through Amazon had been sold. I did refund his money immediately, so I don’t really know what he is on about. I think he is probably annoyed over the fact that my answer to his request that I “do not have the wit to buy the book from somewhere else and send it to him” was that “too right, I do not have the wit to waste my time on a 5 pound book.” As many of you will know, I come from the Irish school of diplomacy, where the module on tact has not yet made it to the curriculum.

Right now I feel I have all my systems fully optimised. I have ADSL at home and work, so no more meditation while waiting for some site or other to load, I have standby online access if the ADSL goes down, I have the means to back up my hard disks, I have the means of downloading music from the web and can enthral myself with Leonard Cohen, Miles Davis and Shane McGowan when packing books, my Filemaker Pro database is working wonderfully thanks to the support I got in setting it up from one of the contributors to the Insider list, I know how to trouble-shoot my networked computer (I have 2 computers in work), I have created enough physical space for 2 of us to work comfortably, etc etc.

If someone asked me to write a book about becoming a bookdealer, I could not even comtemplate it as the “secret” could be written in a single line – in the immortal words of Jerry Rubin, “Do it!” There is, in my opinion, no master plan; just do what needs to be done and the questions, when they arise, will demand the answers and solutions. Marketing and business plans, economic projections, etc., are the creation of accountants, providing a network of intrigue which entices the easily led in and entraps them therein, enriching the creators of the networks in the process. Perhaps post-Enron and WorldCom, the world will acquire a healthy degree of scepticism and see these schemes for what they are, and refuse to partake.

Finally, my favourite novels are The Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck and The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist – probably one not too familiar to most of America. It is the greatest working-class novel ever. It was written by Robert Tressel (real name Robert Noonan), a Dublin-born painter/decorator, who wrote of his experiences in the building trade on the South Coast of England at the turn of 19/20th century. It echoed many of the practices still inherent in the construction industry 70 years later, when I worked in it and was a trade union convenor.

And finally – for my first five years in “the business” (Jesus, I sound like a luvvie!) I did all my travelling to buy books on my bicycle; I could carry about 70 books – panniers, backpack and bags on either handlebar. I used to enjoy my buying outings tremendously. But I acquired a car along the way, which exponentially extended my range of travel and the number of books I could buy and carry. Well, I was travelling to Ireland by car a few weeks ago and I had a bad smash, with my son and two of his pals on board. Thankfully, no one was injured, but my car is nearly a write-off and is in a garage 250 miles from London, waiting to be brought back. I am now back on my bicycle again, and it is a joy. I can park right outside bookshops, the post office, the bank, etc. Perhaps if the weather was not quite so good, the fun might dwindle but, as for now, it is just wonderful.

Sean O’Donoghue
O’Donoghue Books
London

The Standard: The Journal of the Independent Online Booksellers Association

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