BookWriter Professional: An Interview with Thomas A. Sawyer


MP: Tom, what’s different about BookWriter Professional? Why would a bookseller be interested in this program?

TS: A number of reasons, but if I had to choose one aspect it would be the program’s prime directive of “empowering” a bookseller. Having the tools needed to get the job done and making them easily accessible and intuitive to operate makes it much easier for a bookseller to be productive. It also helps them to make good business decisions. They might even have a little fun and discover that computerized bookselling doesn’t have to be drudgery.

MP: Are you saying you’ve found a “magic bullet” solution?

TS: No, but BookWriter does offer an attractive alternative. Every bookseller does things a little differently. Many use multiple programs to get their daily tasks done. That poses a problem for a software developer.

There are two traditional approaches to program design: (1) compel the user to follow specific procedures, or (2) put a variety of capabilities in place, create a generic environment and let them figure it out for themselves (Microsoft Excel is a good example of this).

In my opinion, neither of these approaches has been particularly successful to date. The first approach is too limiting and the second approach requires the user to become conversant with the environment to use it effectively. The learning curve is usually steep. A surprising amount of time can be wasted just trying to make simple things work as expected.

MP: How does BookWriter solve the problem?

TS: Booksellers have specialized needs and I doubt any program will ever completely solve it. There’s no question improvements have been made, but humans and computers still only interact well in the movies at this stage of their evolution. But I believe BookWriter makes significant strides towards improving that. It provides a broad scope of possibilities within a structured framework.

BookWriter is constructed rather like a well-organized briefcase. Instead of a big empty space where everything gets dumped randomly, or a partitioned container with sections and lids and separators and covers you must open and close repeatedly to get at things, all of BookWriter’s pockets and compartments are visible and accessible at once — and they interrelate intuitively. It is well-organized from the start, which makes it easier for the user to also be well-organized. Best of all, everyone knows intuitively how to use a well-organized briefcase. It has a short learning curve.

Within each area there are usually a lot of options. There is generally a core functionality at work, but there be many ways in which the bookseller can apply it to their business needs.

MP: Can you give a specific example of how this philosophy applies to BookWriter?

TS: For instance: BookWriter’s invoicing capabilities are well defined, but the manner in which information is entered is largely freeform. You are not compelled to follow a strict set of accounting procedures — though you can certainly do that if you so choose. The program allows you to tell it which accounting fields are required and which are not (none are required by default). You can instantly pull up a group of invoices that are related in some way and generate useful reports through a very powerful reporting system. You can create customized layouts that suit your needs instead of selecting from a list of canned choices that may or may not be suitable for your business. You can produce invoices, quotes, packing slips, etc., all from the same basic information, in real time. You can even service multiple businesses within the same accounting framework, just by selecting a different identity.

These are just some of the functional considerations that went into it. Again, you are not compelled to settle for someone else’s idea of what they think you should be doing. Instead, you can organize things to suit what you need to get done. It’s not a perfect solution, but it is powerful.

MP: It sounds like versatility and individuality have been elevated over conformity and procedure. Aren’t you concerned this will cause problems? Or that people won’t understand what to do or how to do it?

TS: No, because no one knows better than the bookseller how their own business is run. The landscape is changing rapidly and versatility is becoming increasingly important across all venues. Adaptation is essential to survival, but booksellers are highly-individualistic and tend to stick with a method once they’ve settled on it. And, no two sellers do things in quite the same way. Bookselling is no longer a black and white business.

For example, some dealers sell both their own and other dealer’s books. Some offer books in their own web site, through multiple listing services, by auction, in their own store, in bulk lots — in any combination or even all of them simultaneously. Some deal only in collectible books, some in remainders, some sell both new and used, some sell ephemera and antiques and collectibles — the list goes on and on.

Keeping all this under tight control can be a huge job. Hence, managing it in one comprehensive environment is an essential capability if a seller is to be productive and competitive. That’s part of the reason BookWriter has taken so long to produce. The user interface has by far been the biggest effort, going through multiple iterations of simplification. At this point, it should be possible for a novice to use it as easily as a seasoned veteran — or at least, that’s my goal.

MP: Tom, you said on your web site that BookWriter professional has turned into the biggest coding project you’ve attempted in a long time, and you grossly underestimated the time that would be required to do a good job. Any further comments on that?

TS: It’s true. I originally envisioned a finished product and saw a clear way to get from here to there. What I didn’t count on was the enormous amount of time required to deal with data quality issues and simplify and polish the user interface. I would say 75% of my time has been spent on that alone.

MP: Do you think people who have known of the project and have been following your progress will realize that the BwPro of then is vastly different to the BwPro that is shortly to be launched?

TS: Some will, others won’t. More important to me is the fact that the booksellers who placed advance orders have been extraordinarily supportive and patient. I’m grateful for that. They have been very good to me. Now I hope I can be good to them.

MP: Would you give an outline of the innovations and suggestions that booksellers have requested, over and above what was originally planned, that have been built in and helped to greatly extend the launch date?

TS: New features were really only a part of the problem. A lot of trial-and-error experimentation was involved in getting things right. I can’t really give an outline because it wasn’t a predictable cause-and-effect scenario, but here’s an example:

While coding the Homebase Import utility many data quality issues arose that had to be addressed. For instance, ABE’s treatment of keywords is such that they treat each individual word “as” a keyword. Consequently, even articles like “a” “an” and “the” are treated as keywords. That’s silly, but that’s what they’ve done. Worse, the keyword terms lose their phraseological integrity when exported from Homebase. Subsequently dumping disassociated words into one long sentence is a poor solution. In addition, Homebase databases are usually full of duplicate records and these have to be pre-purged to avoid problems after the fact.

Presumably these steps were taken by ABE as a result of expediency or the desire to limit use of records outside of their system. Whatever the reason, they create huge problems for the bookseller. One can argue these are all comparatively minor aspects in the broader scheme of things, but they are unquestionably serious obstacles to producing book data that is both coherent and universally compatible in all sales venues. Achieving that compatibility in the least number of steps is very difficult. So, an entirely new means of adapting data and handling the import had to be implemented. Just doing the user interface and testing for this alone took two weeks.

MP: Can you give any insights into the ease and facility of associating images with inventory? I.e. how many images per title are available to show salient details etc.?

TS: Up to 10 images can be directly associated with each Inventory or Wants record. These can be added manually, or they can be selected through a scanning process whereby the program associates images with records by file name, or they can be captured from the web and associated based on ISBN or other retrieval criteria.

MP: From what countries have you had buyers?

TS: So far the US, Canada, England, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Germany and Japan.

MP: Will the ISBN Extractor tool validate ISBN’s issued in other countries and bring up the relevant data?

TS: ISBN extraction is based on the same Modulo-11 math that all ISBN’s are built upon, so as far as I know there are no country-specific issues in this regard. The program is also set up to handle the forthcoming expanded-length ISBN’s.

MP: Maybe down the track would it be feasible to bolt on, say, the post (zip) codes of Australia?

TS: Yes. BookWriter is linked to the USPS (United States Postal Service) database, presently. The plan is to eventually put all country codes in place and to electronically link them to any/all facilities provided by each country for instant address validations. The underlying database is built into the program and also contains both latitude/longitude information, allowing you to instantly bring up a map of any location. You can also pre-configure the desired service, such as Yahoo Maps, MapQuest, etc so you can use your favorite.

MP: I’ve long had the idea that it would be handy to have the facility of having a ‘want’ listed in the database and, quite some time later, on adding the title to inventory, have the want flagged automatically. Is that possible yet?

TS: It is indeed. There are several ways the program will do this, either manually or automatically. There is a dedicated Matching feature that will find matching Inventory for a new Want, and/or find matching Want(s) for new Inventory. You can also run a comparative analysis against the entire database.

MP: Have you had any experience with voice-recognition software being used to load data into BwPro?

TS: Yes, and it is astonishing how much better the software is now than just a couple of years ago. I believe the error rates are now sufficiently low that this is now a feasible and productive solution. If you had asked me 18 months ago whether or not you should consider using voice recognition software, I would have said No.

MP: Would 64 bit rather 32 bit have any consequences?

TS: Not really, except it will be more efficient. BookWriter has very few operating system dependencies and it uses its own DLL library. The executable is around 4 MB and the entire download is less than 10 MB. I have reduced Microsoft “baggage” to the bare minimum.

MP: I understand there is a non-bookselling aspect to BookWriter. Can you elaborate?

TS: Yes, BookWriter provides multiple database support. It contains field-configuration capabilities and specific applications can be selected on a per-database basis. More will be published about this shortly, as the UIEE specification is also being updated in tandem.

MP: For those who use BwWeb, will there be any changes brought about by the improved/extended scope of BwPro?

TS: Yes indeed. There is a lot of emphasis on managing your own independent web site and BookWriter Web is an intrinsic component in that. I’m still doing integration so that’s all I’ll say about it for now, but I think people are going to be very pleased with the results — at least, I hope they will be.

MP: During the two plus years of work and as the comprehensive ability of the program became apparent to those in the industry, were any outside efforts made to head you off at the pass?

TS: Not exactly. Let’s say that there were those who were happy to hear of what I was doing, and a very few who were not. Overall, the support has been phenomenal and I’m very encouraged by it all. When you’re operating on the edge, that kind of support is a powerful motivator to finish the project. There were times when things looked pretty bleak. Now, I’d have to say we’re back on track and gathering steam.

MP: Will booksellers have the opportunity to test-drive the program?

TS: Yes, a free download will be made available as soon as the Beta version is ready to go.

MP: What’s your release schedule at this point?

TS: The Beta version is scheduled to go out on/about the end of July. The entire month of August will be devoted to finalizing the Beta, and formal rollout will take place the first week of September.

MP: After all this effort and stress is your wife still talking to you?

TS: Yes, she is my anchor and my life partner. We’ve been through a lot together and all of this has served to strengthen us, though I admit we’ll both be glad to see the project completed. Having additional hands to help out is making a huge difference.

MP: Tom, thanks for taking the time to speak with us. Where can dealers get more information?

TS: You’re welcome, thank you for giving me the opportunity.

Mike Pengelly is a bookseller in Australia. Additional information about BookWriter Professional software is available at http://www.bookwritersoftware.com/bwpro/bwpro.htm

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