Overlooked and Undervalued: The Bookseller’s Inventory Database

Most booksellers when evaluating their business assets will consider the cost and potential market value of their inventory, the cost of computer equipment, and maybe even the replacement cost of their reference library, but it seems that the value of their book-selling database is often overlooked.

A database is far more than just a listing of books which you have for sale and the price you are asking for them. If that is all you need, you can simply input listings directly online, and then download these listings.

The true value lies in the information which is not uploaded—the historical information about sold books, the private fields, and also in the other modules (client, invoice, wants, vendors, etc.) which work together with the inventory database.

We use BookMinder, which is a template based on FileMaker Pro, one of the few programs for both Macs and Windows. The point of this informal commentary is not to advocate any specific program, but to toss out some thoughts that might help booksellers to expand the usefulness and value of whatever database they do use. If you think that you, as a bookseller, cannot afford to spend $200-$300 or so on a decent database, and that a “free” one is good enough, maybe the following will help you reconsider that decision.

The first and most obvious value comes from the cumulative weight of entering books into a single database for years (we have slightly over 16,000 listings online now, with over 34,000 entries in our inventory database). While I have written most of the entries (at a rate of not quite ten books per day for ten years), we have hired others to do data entry at various times, and the usual payment was $1 per book. It doesn’t take a lot of math to see that at $1 per listing, we now have $34,000 “invested” in the database.

However, it goes much deeper than that: by retaining information on sold books, we begin to gain a solid understanding of the prices at which copies will sell and how long it might take them to sell. Obviously, this is valuable for uncommon books, where prices are on a steadily upward trajectory (and where sometimes there are no copies currently offered for sale online), but it can also be useful for a lot of “bread-and-butter” books.

Since the time it takes to write a new description is a significant factor in the cost of selling a book (especially for one that is inexpensive), our buying decisions are often skewed by whether or not a book is “in the database.” Sometimes this has unexpected results. For example, every first printing of a certain title which we were able to acquire sold reasonably quickly in the $30-$40 range. One day, we spotted a nice book club edition for sale, bought it, quickly modified the database listing, and almost as quickly sold it. Knowing which books will sell only in first editions (or only as signed copies), which books will sell easily in any hardcover edition, and which books will even sell as paperbacks can be very helpful—especially since the less expensive versions are usually a lot easier to find.

Each record in our inventory has a “private notes” field which is not uploaded. The size of this field is essentially unlimited, and so are the types of information which I might include there. The actual name of this field in our database is “quote to/notes” but that is only one use for it. In addition to whether or not we quoted the book to a client (and if the client purchased or declined it, and why, if we know why), I might note the number of comparable listings online at the time we catalogued it and the price range (sometimes this info gets updated), any pricing changes we might have made, where we got the book signed if it is a signed copy, points that are not included in the actual description, and much more.

For example, we just sold a signed copy of Westlake’s Castle in the Air. The private notes included the comments that when we first catalogued this in July 1996 there were only three hc 1sts on ABE, the book was mistakenly marked as sold, was signed in Los Angeles in 2004, and when it was reinstated online in late 2004 there were 28 hc 1sts on ABE. Abbreviated, this type of information takes almost no time to enter.

Among the other private fields are those where we enter the price paid, and the vendor from whom we purchased the book. (In addition to the obvious bookstore names where we regularly buy books, we also create vendor ids for buying trips out of town. This will provide easily accessible documentation on how many books we bought on that trip, how much we spent, and how much profit we made from those purchases.) We use another field to create printed catalogues, and this field consists only of two character codes. For example, if I wanted to do a list of mysteries by women set in California or one for Florida children’s books, all I have to do is search in this field for “wo my ca” or “fl ch” respectively. There are probably 100 different codes which we use, and most of them are self-evident.

We have other fields which are only used for uploading to specific sites. For example, we enter Amazon’s condition codes in one field. We can also enter three different prices for a book. If we were doing a lot of eBay auctions, we might create an eBay title field. The possibilities are unlimited.

So far, we have just been dealing with specific books, but one of the benefits of “researching” books or authors on the internet is the ease with which the information can be captured. If I find an interesting article on an author or an illustrator or a book, I will copy this into a separate record (I use the subject name “author and book info” for these records) along with the author’s name, and maybe the url of the website where I found the information. These records can be as specific as the points of a single title, or the tracking of the prices of all copies being offered for sale over a period of years, or a complete bibliography of an author. Again, to give a specific example, I was cataloguing a book recently, and the illustrator who did the frontispiece had an extremely interesting career himself, so I created a record for him. When and if we come across something else with his work in it, we have the information needed to place it in context.

The inventory portion of our business database is only part of the database. We also store our client records and our invoices, which provide complete information on books sold, including discounts, if any, sales tax collected, shipping charged, and the source of the sale. But even this small part is much more than just a listing of books we have for sale. It is a living, growing, ever-expanding, focused reference work—a combination of “book prices realized,” bibliographies and points of issue. It becomes worth far more than the few hundred dollars we actually invested in the program and in upgrades or the $34,000 we might have paid for raw data entry. It becomes the single most valuable and virtually irreplaceable asset in our business.

Chris Volk operates Bookfever along with Shep Iiams and can be contacted at http://www.bookfever.com.

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