A Guide to Improving Your Online Book Sales


There is little doubt that the internet has changed the nature of the book business, just as it has altered many other trades and industries. For many booksellers, this has resulted in a substantial additional revenue stream for their existing brick and mortar, and for others it has allowed them to become professional booksellers, selling exclusively online. However, for many booksellers, it can pose a challenge as they struggle to adapt to the changing expectations of customers and of doing business.

Over the years with Biblio.com, I’ve seen many of the best business practices of some of the finest booksellers, and I’ve also seen some which leave much to be desired. Based on that experience, I’ve written the following guide with the intent of highlighting some of the best practices (and to point out ways to avoid the worst). Naturally, this is not a comprehensive guide to running an online business, but hopefully should serve as a bed of ideas from which you can grow your sales online.

Part I—Managing Your Inventory

1. Your online business is your data—so invest in it.

I know this sounds a little dramatic, but the simple truth is that without a carefully compiled database of inventory, you’re not going to sell your books online (not many, anyhow). In fact, it is such a vital part of the online bookselling business that I am astounded at how many people invest unending hours in adding to and maintaining their book database, but do not invest in software to best highlight and maintain their data.

In fact, I should bring up one thing right here. If you are hand-entering and maintaining your inventory directly on a listing website (or worse yet, more than one) without your own database program, you should read the rest of this section and immediately begin finding a software solution for yourself.

There are a few free software packages out there that are marginally adequate for some booksellers’ needs, but the first time you want to be able to do something slightly “creative” with your inventory, you’ll find yourself up against a cold stone wall with no support. Like what, you might ask?

Well, let’s say you are tired of those 3,000+ modern fiction hardcovers on your shelves (say it ain’t so!) and want to get them moving—out. “Simple,” you think, “I’ll just re-price it all to be 50% off my original price.” But then you realize that in your Modern Fiction catalog, you’ve also got a nice run of Cormac McCarthy firsts. “OK,” you think, “so I’ll just do that for books priced under $50.” If you’re using one of the free solutions out there, you’d better stock up on your favorite jazz albums and Arabica roast coffee, because you’re in for a long evening. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Some of the very reasonably priced software programs out there can do all of this for you in a matter of minutes. And, if you want, you can still listen to jazz and have a cup of coffee.

If you are thinking that software programs are expensive and only for expert computer users, it’s entirely the other way around. These programs are built to be extremely user-friendly, and most offer great support along the way if you need help. Some of the programs out there which are great overall picks for price, reliability and support are:

-BookHound: http://www.bibliopolis.com (Windows and Mac)
-Booklist: http://www.clique.co.uk/booklist.htm (Windows)
-BookTrakker: http://www.booktrakker.com (Windows)
-Readerware: http://www.readerware.com (Windows, Mac, Linux)

One final note on your database, which I’d be totally remiss in ignoring. BACK UP YOUR DATA AT LEAST WEEKLY, IF NOT DAILY. I recommend making this a part of your daily routine. Before turning off your computer for the day, simply put a floppy or rewritable CD into your drive and literally drag and drop a copy of your data file onto it. Keep this backup copy in a separate location.

2. Keep your inventory accurate and up to date.

This sounds pedantic, but it is one of the biggest difficulties a customer faces in purchasing used and out-of-print books online. Not only is it disappointing to the customer, but it is frustrating, because they are left feeling that their time has been wasted. And this is a feeling they may well retain the next time they are considering a book purchase.

Of course, everyone in the bookselling industry knows that stock-outs occur occasionally for a variety of reasons, and no one would reasonably expect a bookseller to indefinitely maintain a perfect 100% fulfillment rate on their orders. However, it is possible for booksellers, whether small or large, to achieve fill rates of well over 98%. We have a number of booksellers on Biblio with inventories of more than 100,000 titles who maintain fill rates over 99%, as well as hundreds with very small inventories who are able to do the same. These, of course, are the shining examples, but, as a minimum, I would suggest working towards a 92-93% fill rate on all the sites you list on.

So, what are some major obstacles to achieving high fulfillment rates? First, check that you are using software that enables you to perform incremental uploads (i.e., upload only records that have changed since a certain date). Or, if you are using your own system (such as Excel), make sure to add a field called something like “Status,” which contains a brief notation as to the record’s status (for example, “A” for “Add this book” or “D” for “Delete this book”). This enables you to upload your changes daily, without having to rely on a purge and replace, or even worse, deleting records manually from all the sites you list on.

I would highly recommend against performing a daily purge and replace. Not only does this run the risk of pulling your listings offline for a period of time, but it is burdensome to listing sites, and can often slow down their ability to process your files. Using an incremental upload method like this, you should only need to purge and replace about once a month to “freshen up” your listings.

Sometimes when a book sells you may realize it is potentially a hot item—and one for which you may receive orders for from other sites very shortly. In these cases, immediately upon receiving the order, visit each of the sites you list on and manually delete that item. Just don’t forget to mark it deleted in your database as well.

Additionally, the occasional stock-out presents an opportunity to implement another best-of-industry practice. If you must reject an order because of a stock-out, try helping the customer find an alternate copy of the book by sending them a link to a search service or bookseller that has that title in stock, offering assistance such as, “Have a look at the third copy in the results list.” In the short term this will not make any money for you, but you will have just taken the first step towards building a long-term relationship with that customer.

Finally, if you list on multiple sites, give consideration to using a service or tool that allows you to update and add to your listings on multiple sites simultaneously, such as:

-BookRouter (http://www.bookrouter.com)
-Art of Books (http://www.theartofbooks.com)
-Fillz (http://www.fillz.com)
-BookTrakker (http://www.booktrakker.com)

3. A picture is worth a thousand words.

Although it’s impossible to precisely measure the increased sales conversions associated with placing images with your listings, I have often seen examples where booksellers who provide photos with most of their listings achieve 200-300% more sales than other booksellers.

Although scanning or taking photos of your books sounds like a laborious process, consider setting a certain threshold value for books you’d like to list with images—say all books greater than $75. Given the option between a digital camera or a scanner for capturing images of books, I would generally recommend a digital camera, since most people are already familiar with using a camera, and it is much more versatile in being able to capture three dimensional views of a book. You can get a serviceable digital camera or scanner that comes with a very easy-to-use image editing program these days for about $100 to $125.

So, how do you get started? Below is a quick checklist that should help.

-Purchase a decent digital camera, and install the software provided by the equipment manufacturer.

-Set up a “studio.” If you have the space in your office or storeroom, consider setting aside about three to four square feet to tack up a cloth backdrop. Steer away from using patterned cloth, or extremely light (such as white) or vibrant colors for your backdrop, as that will take the customers’ eyes away from the book itself. Blacks, greys, browns, and dark blues tend to make good background colors. Another idea is to take a cardboard box about 2’x2′ and line it with your backdrop cloth. This way, you’ve got an easily storable unit which is highly portable. Instead of carrying armfuls of heavy books to your studio, you can take your studio to the books.

-Take your photos. I recommend images which will display the spine and the top edge—this helps reinforce the fact that it is not just a stock image.

-Crop and size your photos. Using the software provided with your camera (read the accompanying documentation for specific instructions), crop your images so that the majority of the photo displays the book, leaving only a small border around the outside. Rotate the photo, if needed, so that it appears straight. Save a copy of the image as is (high-resolution), and then trim the photo down to 30-35k (about 300 pixels high) and save it in a separate folder by its inventory number. For example, if your inventory number is 0001234, save the photo as 0001234.jpg. This is the copy you will use to upload to the sites you list on. Saving the high resolution copy will allow you to easily re-use the photo for other purposes that require higher resolutions, such as print catalogs, display ads, etc.

-Upload your photos. Most services will allow you the ability to upload your photos en masse through FTP, provided they are named according to your inventory numbers. For site specific instructions, see their help sections.

-If a site allows multiple photos with your listings (Biblio.com does!), take full advantage of that, especially for the rarer items in your collection.

4. Give the people what they want.

Nearly anyone in the trade would have no problem understanding the following:

Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988. 1st Ed. VG in or. cl. with slight bumping to spine heel. In VG mylar protected dj. Short closed tear to front flap. 8vo.

However, with the advent of the internet, the industry has opened up to include millions of potential new customers. Take a look at this from the point of view of someone who has never learned the terminology, but would like a used hardcover copy of Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium in good condition, and you’ll understand why many of them find it easier to just go to one of the mega-sites to buy a brand new or more simply described copy, rather than try to comprehend this description. Unless your products are so specialized as to interest advanced collectors only, consider adding one more line to your description to help reassure the well-meaning laymen out there, such as, “Overall, an attractive, clean copy with a small bit of wear.”

Also, many booksellers catalog their inventory with only five fields: inventory number, author, title, description, and price. While this is likely to meet the basic requirements for uploading to most sites, this minimalism is not likely to make up in aesthetics what it loses them in sales. Again, the internet has changed the way people shop for things. Customers online generally prefer a logical presentation of data and search options which allow them to refine their criteria or to see things bulleted by field. For example, if you are only cataloging in a limited number of fields, and a customer visits a site searching for “Golden Cockerel” as the publisher, your wonderful reasonably priced copy of T. E. Lawrence’s Secret Dispatches from Arabia is not likely to be found by the customer.

In short, try to catalog your books with distinct fields for distinct parts of the bibliographic description, rather than relying entirely on a prose form of description. At least try to separate out fields for publisher, publication date, ISBN, condition, edition, binding, whether the book is signed, and whether the book is a first edition/printing.

5. Include ISBNs wherever possible.

Unfortunately, too many booksellers neglect to include ISBNs in their databases for whatever reason. I suspect in part that some believe this cheapens their offerings. Others may not see it as important, and are reluctant to invest the small additional amount of time to include this information.

On the contrary, the ISBN is an important part of the bibliographic detail of a book, and is widely used by customers, and especially libraries, when searching for a title. Not only that, but some of the price comparison engines out there will not even pick up your listings unless they have ISBNs attached, so your book may be missing out on exposure to millions of potential customers.

Part II—Showcasing and Conducting Business

6. You mean business—make sure the customer knows this.

These days, nearly everyone has a story of how they’ve been burned in dealing with individuals on auction sites, or some of the major consumer resale venues. As a result, many are a little bit gun-shy when it comes to making purchases online from businesses they don’t know or have experience with. It can be hard for a potential customer to make a judgment call from among several similar offerings, and often the basis for this decision is derived from the way you’ve described your business. Make sure you stand out as reputable, fair, and honest.

So, how can you do this? Although not etched in stone, here are a few general points you might consider in presenting your business to the world.

-Choose a name for your business that boosts a customer’s confidence in you. Stay away from names that make you sound like an individual just selling off a couple dusty books from your attic. It sounds superficial, but we’ve seen that given the choice between the same product from “The River Village Bookstore” versus “ilovedogs879,” customers will nearly always buy from the former. Once you’ve chosen a name for your business, make sure to register a DBA (Doing Business As) certificate with your local government (inside the U.S., anyhow) so everything is on the up and up.

-Try to avoid using free e-mail account addresses for your business contact information. Again, although it sounds a little picky, this is very similar to the point raised above. To many people, e-mail addresses like something@hotmail.com or something@yahoo.com raise instant red flags. Not that they won’t do business with these folks, but it definitely makes people take a harder look at the individual or business. Unfortunately, these two companies in particular have a very tarnished reputation as havens for spammers and scammers.

-Include a generous return policy. Even with the most verbose descriptions and extra photographs, the customer is still making a purchase “sight unseen.” Make sure they know that the book can be returned if they made the wrong selection, or if it is incorrectly described. Consider offering a full 30-day return policy.

-Use your terms of sale to tell the customer how you are going to handle their order. If you ship by UPS, tell them so. If shipments are made within 48 hours, tell them that too. If you jacket all hardcovers . . . well, you get the idea. The more the customer knows about you and the way you do business, the more likely they are to make a purchase from you, and the less questions you’ll probably have to answer from them before and after the sale.

-Join a trade organization, and list those memberships in your terms of sale. Studies clearly show that trade association memberships help to boost customer confidence. If you’re eligible, consider pursuing a membership with organizations such as IOBA (Independent Online Booksellers Association), ABAA (Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America), ILAB (International League of Antiquarian Booksellers), et al. In addition, there are many state or regional bookseller trade associations you may be eligible for. The bottom line is that if you place yourself in good company, you’ll immediately find yourself in good standing with a potential customer.

-If the site provides you with a place to describe your business, use it. Perhaps you might state how long you’ve been doing business, or your specialties. Include information that reinforces the customer’s faith in doing business with you. Be careful about sharing a whole lot of personal information about yourself in this area. Remember, the point is to assure the customer that you are a decent and fair business for them to enter into a transaction with rather than talking about your weekend hobbies.

7. People out there want to pay you for your books!

On Biblio.com, we have found that well over 90% of customers prefer to pay for items online with a credit card. If you’re not able to accept credit card payments from these customers, you may be achieving less than 10% of your potential sales.

If you do not currently accept credit cards, I highly recommend either setting up a merchant account or taking advantage of the credit card processing facilities offered by most listing sites. The sites’ fees are usually very reasonable (usually about 5-6%), especially when you consider the fact that they usually absorb all risk of fraud charge backs, and you do not have to go through the frustration of credit cards being declined or billing address mismatches (which very often result in lost sales), since all of this is taken care of while the customer is still on the site with an eye toward finalizing the purchase.

If you would prefer to process your own credit cards, a phone/internet sales rate from a merchant account might run about 3-3.5% of each purchase. There may or may not also be a small monthly fee for account maintenance and equipment or software leasing. Some booksellers are able to get lower rates when they have a physical store where the card is present, however, this rate is supposed to be applied only to in-store purchases, and card issuers are increasingly cracking down on the practice of using a low “card present” account for processing phone or internet orders.

Some booksellers try to use PayPal to capture credit card payments for them, instead of using a merchant account or letting a listing site handle the processing. I would discourage using PayPal for this particular purpose for the simple reason that customers have to visit a separate site just to buy the book, and most simply give up, never completing the transaction. We’ve seen countless booksellers lose as much as 50% of their sales as a result of this.

So, either way, whether you use your own merchant service account or a service offered by a listing site, make sure that customers can buy your books quickly and painlessly with a credit card while you have them on the brink of finalizing said purchase.

Part III—Generating Repeat Business

This next section is all about one thing—repeat business. There is a great myth that, on the internet, repeat business doesn’t happen, and that shoppers are driven by nothing but the bottom line price on an item. Nothing could be further from the truth!

For most customers, shopping online can be a swirl of uncertainty and mistrust. With our company, for example, we spend a great deal of money on technical equipment and parts and have found a couple of vendors whom we trust. Whenever possible these are the vendors we choose to purchase from, even if we could get the part 20% cheaper somewhere else. We routinely see many customers who return to our site to transact repeat business with a specific bookseller. It’s all about establishing a trust relationship.

8. Don’t judge a book by its cover.

Despite that maxim, customers will. And to further abuse old platitudes, first impressions are lasting impressions. When a customer receives the book they’ve ordered from you, make sure the first thing they see is a product and package that you are proud to have supplied.

Make sure your books are clean. Our friend, Bern Marcowitz, with the help of Margot Rosenberg, has written a wonderful guide called The Care and Feeding of Books Old and New: A Simple Repair Manual for Book Lovers, in which he outlines some basic steps through which you can improve the presentation of your books, including cleaning and repair. Bern also moderates a book care forum on Biblio (http://forum.biblio.com) in which he will gladly answer your individual questions about preservation, presentation, and general care.

Consider investing in book jacket covers from companies like Brodart (http://www.shopbrodart.com), which not only protects your inventory but also improves the presentation of the product to the customer.

Try to use clean, new boxes without writing (or envelopes for low-cost paperbacks) for your shipments. That said, many booksellers have an admirable desire to reuse packaging, and I would encourage that. However, consider saving recycled packaging for sales to other booksellers or customers with whom you already have a relationship, rather than for your first shipment to a brand-new customer. Sturdy cardboard boxes can be purchased for 30-50 cents from either Brodart (http://www.shopbrodart.com) or ULINE (http://www.uline.com), as can padded mailers for about 20-30 cents each.

9. Keep customers in the loop on everything!

There is nothing more frustrating to a customer than to put their credit card information online and then hear nothing from the bookseller. Or, to order a book, and on the day they’re expecting to receive it, to finally get a notice that the book is unavailable. Always let your customers know the status of their order upon its receipt and shipment.

Also, consider using tracking for all orders over a certain price. The cost is often nominal ($2.30 through USPS), when you consider the value of both the book and the satisfied customer. For high value purchases, use Signature Confirmation, as this is the only way you can defend against credit card charges back from customers who claim not to have received their book(s).

It is also a good idea to update the status of your order on the site you received the order from. Many, many customers e-mail the listing service directly with questions about their orders, and the customer service reps at these services can be a big help to you in answering these types of questions, but only if you’ve kept them in the loop too!

10. Follow-up is king.

Nearly all listing services allow you to contact customers with information regarding their order. After you’ve shipped an item to the customer, send them an e-mail a day or two after you expect that they’ll receive their package, asking them if they’ve received it and are satisfied, and reminding them that you are there to help should they have any questions about their order. This is also a great time to remind them that you have similar items in stock or to offer them a coupon towards future purchases.

Please note that you should not take this as a license to send subsequent sales e-mails to the customer, unless they have requested that you do so. Not only is this impolite, but it is likely a violation of the federal CAN-SPAM Act or similar legislation, depending on the country you live in. However, sending a single follow-up to them regarding receipt of their order should be an acceptable practice in most cases. In no situation should you ever add the customer to a mailing list without their express consent.

11. Turn problems into opportunities.

Despite one’s best efforts, there will be cases where the customer feels they did not receive the product or service expected, and is disappointed. Take this as an opportunity to turn a disgruntled customer into a loyal customer. I’ve heard and experienced many cases where a bookseller is able to reach beyond their stated terms of sale to set things right with the customer, and later found that person to be among their best and most loyal repeat customers. When it comes to dealing with returns, complaints, and the resolution of disagreements with customers, here are some very important Dos and Don’ts.

-Do be polite, professional, and courteous in your responses, no matter how difficult the customer may be in their correspondence.

-Do respond quickly to all customer inquiries after their purchase.

-Don’t quibble with the customer over policies and procedures.

-Do readily agree to accept the return with a full refund, provided it is returned in the same condition as sent (unless it is a case of a package damaged in the mail).

-Do provide the refund as quickly as possible after you receive the returned merchandise.

-Don’t try to charge a restocking fee for returns.

-Do agree to pay the customer’s return shipping costs, unless it’s a case of the customer simply changing their mind.

-Don’t try to shift the blame onto someone else when something goes wrong, such as the Postal Service, the site they purchased the book on, etc. The customer does not care why something happened (or didn’t happen); they only want to know how you’re going to make it right.

-Do offer the disappointed customer a “consolation gift,” such as a coupon or agreeing to waive shipping on their next purchase from you.

-Do help the customer find another copy of the book they want, if it is a case where they inadvertently ordered from you expecting a different edition, binding, etc.

12. Enjoy yourself!

It is easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer size of the internet, competition, and new technology. While some of these tips are things many of you already practice, and some may give you new ideas for your business, the single most important thing is that you enjoy what you do. And, believe it or not, this could likely increase your business far more than any of the other tips in this quick guide. Your passion for what you do will be apparent to your customers, and that kind of enthusiasm will help you form long-lasting business relationships. After all, the love of books is what brings us all together in this industry, whether we’re booksellers, customers, or the people behind the scenes running the listing services or making the software you use.

So, as a final roll call, here are the points I’ve highlighted as some of the most important areas for consideration if you want to improve your online sales.

  1. Your online business is your data—so invest in it. Make sure you have adequate software for managing your inventory.
  2. Keep your inventory accurate and up to date. Be sure that your most recent books are always visible, and that your sold books are not.
  3. A picture is worth a thousand words. Include photos of your books, at least for your nicer items.
  4. Give the people what they want. Include language in your description that makes sense to people outside of the bookselling and book collecting industry.
  5. Include ISBNs wherever possible. The ISBN is an important part of the bibliographical description of a book. Make sure to include it in all your listings.
  6. You mean business—make sure the customer knows this. Let your customers see you as the professional that you are.
  7. People out there want to pay you for your books! Make sure you accept credit card payments for purchases.
  8. Don’t judge a book by its cover. But the customers will. The books they receive should be accurately described, clean, presentable, and well packaged.
  9. Keep customers in the loop on everything! They should be informed at each step of the purchase process.
  10. Follow-up is king. After shipment, follow up with the customer to ensure that they were satisfied with their purchase
    .
  11. Turn problems into opportunities. When things go wrong, focus on making them right, and you may win a lifelong customer.
  12. Enjoy yourself!

Brendan Sherar is the President and CEO of the book search service Biblio.com out of Asheville, NC, and can be contacted at http://www.biblio.com

The Standard: The Journal of the Independent Online Booksellers Association

Check out the Independent Online Booksellers Association Website