Tom Sawyer is an éminence grise of the Internet bookselling world. He is the creator of the UIEE format that has become the de facto industry standard, the developer of BookMaster, Record Manager and BookMate software — and now, the soon-to-be-released BookWriter. A man with bookselling in his blood (his mother is an antiquarian book dealer), Tom is one of the most knowledgeable, most capable — and most interesting! — people in the business. As one of the co-founders of Interloc, Tom designed and coded the software that made Interloc the first on-line bookselling success story. Later, Tom co-founded Alibris, successfully adapting Interloc’s software to a new business model. Over the years Tom has met and worked with hundreds of booksellers, and yet he has never been formally interviewed. Not even a photo of Tom has ever been published.
So fasten your seatbelts, Standard readers! We’re about to give you a breathtaking industry scoop, guaranteed to thrill, inform and entertain.
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It was a complete accident. My mother has been an antiquarian bookseller for 40 years. One day in 1987 I visited my folks and found my mother tearing her hair out trying to keep track of twenty thousand 3×5 cards. She knew I had some experience with computers, so she asked if I could write a program that would help her manage her book records. I said OK, so I created the original BookMaster program, which worked well for her. Then, her friends started asking for copies, which I provided. I later started handing out a LOT of copies and I said “Hmmm, I wonder if I can make a living at this?” I’ve been at it ever since.
How did you get involved in on-line bookselling?
Again, serendipity. Dick Weatherford had reviewed BookMaster in AB Bookman’s Weekly in 1991 and he liked it. He called me up in June of 1993 and asked if I could create the software for an entire on-line system for book dealers, both front and back ends. I was really flattered he called me. This had been tried before unsuccessfully so I was a little nervous about it, but Dick was great about supporting my ideas. We went back and forth for a while and we came up with a workable design. I recommended Brad Councilman to handle the back-end hardware and network, and he did a super job on a shoestring budget. And amazingly, it all worked! In the five years Interloc existed before reincorporating as Alibris, the three of us only actually met face to face on three occasions. Our relationship was based entirely on trust. It was the greatest experience of my professional life. We’re still very close friends.
Did you develop Record Manager for Interloc? Didn’t it also provide UIEE support?
Yes, Record Manager was the first program to provide direct UIEE upload capabilities, in support of Interloc. BookMaster created UIEE files, but didn’t directly upload them. I authored all versions of BookMaster, Record Manager, and BookMate. Alibris provided guidance for the BookMate feature set.
Were you involved in the creation of ABE or Bibliofind?
No, not in the sense I think you mean. Michael Selzer and Rick Pura were some of Interloc’s first customers. They developed their systems independently when the Internet started to take off. I don’t recall having had any personal contact with them, but it was a long time ago and I also did Interloc tech support the first couple of years, so it’s possible we spoke at some point.
Are you still involved with Alibris?
No, my relationship with Alibris ended in April of last year. I’m still in touch with some of the people involved, and I do own some stock in the company.
Many people were disappointed when Alibris elected not to release a BookMate II version. Can you give us any idea of why this happened?
I had no direct involvement in that. My understanding is that a BookMate II version was not released because of a business decision to no longer develop client software.
What can you tell us about BookWriter, your new bookselling software?
Well, BookWriter is actually just one of several programs under development. We’ll also be offering an auction composition and upload program for HomeBase users, as well as some UIEE conversion utilities and other things I’d prefer not to mention just yet. But to answer your question, BookWriter contains the features that booksellers would expect to be there: Hit List, catalog composition tools, rapid data entry, global editing, ISBN lookup, export to several different file formats, multi-destination upload capabilities and lots more. It also provides the ability to relate images to book records and manage them directly, something I feel very strongly about. I think the program will be well received.
What’s different about BookWriter as compared to other bookseller software?
Okay, there are two things that really set BookWriter apart. The first is that BookWriter will compose auctions and upload them to venues like eBay, Amazon, Yahoo, and Popula. The image management software is part of this. The composed HTML can be used in pretty much any auction venue or web page. I feel that giving booksellers the ability to use their existing book record databases to quickly and easily compose auctions will really give them a huge competitive edge and restore their ability to increase sales through broader, mainstream exposure.
But the second thing that sets BookWriter apart, and I believe more importantly, is that BookWriter will be the first user program to be fully 100% UIEE 2.44-compliant. This means the UIEE files can contain not only record text, but images and other objects as well. Images are maintained from within the program and uploaded as part of the UIEE file, not as separate entities. This capability is going to make life a lot easier for everyone as companies adopt the new specification. The upgrade process is already quietly underway.
Very interesting, indeed! Will companies like ABE and Alibris adopt the new UIEE format?
I can’t speak for them, but we hope so, and frankly I don’t see how they can avoid it, for three reasons:
First, UIEE 2.44’s objectives are right in line with venues that serve as intermediaries between sellers and buyers. It will make their activities both simpler and more cost-effective, so I don’t see any practical reason they would choose not to adopt it.
Secondly, even though uiee.com has only been live for a couple of weeks, we’ve already been contacted by several listing services and auction companies wanting to become directly UIEE 2.44-compliant. We’ve also received inquiries from software vendors wanting to upgrade their clients. BookWriter may be the first software client program to support UIEE 2.44, but it certainly won’t be the only one.
And third, UIEE 2.44 is a solution to problems that aren’t going to go away by themselves. This new standard supports all types of collectibles, not just books, in both retail and auction venues.
Won’t upgrading be a major undertaking for companies?
Definitely not. The special nature of UIEE is that programs can be created in any environment to assemble and disassemble upload files. Although we’re offering software that will run on most servers, anyone is free to create their own. That’s the point of developing and publishing the new specification. Of course standard UIEE files are supported in every respect. Nothing is lost.
In fact, the companies receiving the files have it easy — all they have to do is disassemble the UIEE files, and that’s really simple to do. The burden is really on client software developers to effectively create an environment in which images and text can be managed harmoniously. That takes a bit more doing, but there are many auction programs already doing this well, so there are plenty of examples to draw on. Programmers writing bookselling software are going to have to add a new dimension to their work.
What about storefronts, like eBay Stores, Yahoo Stores, zShops, and Popshops?
BookWriter can export data in multiple formats, including Excel .CSV format, which is the “standard” used by most SQL-based storefront and retail environments. BookWriter users can send their data wherever they like and be assured it can be read correctly by the systems that receive it. But, most storefront companies have set themselves up such that users must still handle images manually, often on an on-line only basis. This is a very cumbersome way to get things done.
For example, in the case of my parents’ online storefront shop at http://www.bdunique.com, I was able to load 600+ records plus images in a single day. However, I still had to add the images manually which was a tedious and time-consuming process requiring some 18 hours of hands-on work. If this system had been UIEE 2.44-compliant, the job would have been done all at once, completely automatically. The same is true for any company offering storefronts.
In the broader sense, adopting the UIEE 2.44 specification solves this problem completely for all venues requiring simultaneous image and text management. Images can be bundled with text and HTML and shipped directly in a single UIEE file for import into such venues.
How likely is it that storefronts will accept UIEE files?
Some of them already do. The widespread adoption of UIEE makes it possible for companies already receiving old-format UIEE files to view a transition to UIEE 2.44 as a relatively easy “upgrade” rather than a fundamental “change” (something companies are loath to do). It is my intention to do my very best to urge companies to adopt it as a standard means of receiving structured records. So far, the response has been positive.
Remember, the capability to upload records to a storefront is presently more a function of being able to export records in a compatible format and then use whatever built-in upload capabilities the storefront system provides, rather than being able to upload records directly and programmatically from within an application like BookWriter. There will be a transitional period, no avoiding it. Again, this is why I’m hoping that the adoption of UIEE 2.44 will happen as quickly as possible — it will solve dozens of such problems.
The UIEE update is very exciting! I immediately think of standardization of data exchange on all online sales venues. This could have very significant implications for all booksellers, collectibles dealers, auction companies and businesses across the board. Do you think it’s likely to be adopted as you hope?
Yes, I do. Again, the only real objection will be the usual resistance to change. There are no practical reasons not to adopt it. And, keep in mind that the UIEE specification may have been something I created, but it is simply intellectual property and TAS Software has given it away. We’ve done this by placing the entire specification on-line at http://www.uiee.com for anyone and everyone to make use of, without fees or obligation. If someone wants something changed or updated, then all they have to do is contact us, we’ll go over it, and if it has merit, we’ll add it to the spec. The only strong request is that anyone making use of the UIEE 2.44 format adhere to it. Proprietary flavors of UIEE are not allowed. That said, we’re just the custodians and we have no direct way to enforce compliance.
Are you working alone?
No, we’ve got some excellent people helping out and users will be quite satisfied with the level of support we’re providing. Old-time booksellers would recognize some of the people involved. We’re not novices.
What are your goals? What are you trying to accomplish?
Well, I’d have to say the goal is to be successful making and supporting the tools it takes for booksellers to be successful. It’s not so much a noble goal as a practical one. If you read the UIEE spec, you’ll see language that speaks to the idea that part of the underlying philosophy for creating UIEE in the first place is that people should not have to be software engineers to exchange data with one another or with other computer systems. I feel very strongly about this. There is a LOT of enthusiasm out there for a simpler, more efficient way for users to manage their data. Anyone who’s ever worked through a standard retail or auction venue knows that uploading separate images and then trying to relate them online with separate records is a very cumbersome process, and it doesn’t always work. Yet this has become the norm. UIEE 2.44 completely does away with all that.
Will companies see this as a threat rather than a boon?
Some may. But I also think that any company offering their dealers the convenience and efficiency of receiving both text and images simultaneously is going to have a huge competitive advantage over companies that don’t. I attribute much of the success of companies like AuctionWatch and Andale to their ability to make life simpler for their users in this respect. We want the same thing for booksellers without the proprietary locks, and this seemed the best way to go about it.
Bottom line is, this is a perfectly natural evolution. As time goes on, images are going to become more, not less, important to the sale. I suspect most people who’ve ever auctioned or bid on eBay already know that. I’ve been very gratified by the support we’ve received so far and, as I mentioned, the upgrade process is already underway.
If we can return to BookWriter for a moment, you said it provided “multi-destination upload capabilities,” but I’m not sure if that’s a one-touch procedure. Does BookWriter have a one-touch upload feature, i.e., can users put in the parameters and/or requirements of which databases/sites/auctions they want to upload to and either do them all at once or pick and choose which to do when? Or if you can choose to upload only to all book databases you list with at once, or only to auctions, or both at the same time, or???.
The intent is to have a one-touch upload capability in place at release time, but this is a feature that is partly dependent upon the listing services to be implemented. Time constraints may prevent all of the desired venues from appearing initially on the distribution list, so I can’t say for certain how comprehensive a list of destinations will be offered in the first release. And of course, I’m behind schedule as usual.
Have you already arranged this with any databases or auction services, or storefront services?
I don’t want to appear evasive, but I’d prefer to wait until the upload circuits are 100% established to disclose this. As I mentioned, arrangements are being made now. Several services have already requested upload capabilities and I’ve received positive responses from those whom we have contacted directly.
Does each auction and storefront service, like Yahoo, Amazon and eBay, have totally different programming and requirements in-house? Or are they pretty similar?
They are all completely different. I would venture to say that you would find few, if any, programmatic similarities, even among those who use the same off-the-shelf packages like MySQL and Oracle. Every company codes their programs to meet their specific business needs within the framework of the hardware set up to run the programs. No two systems are precisely the same and every program is different. It’s the standards for exchanging data that ultimately matter most, and a good standard is what’s been missing.
You haven’t mentioned accounting and report capabilities in BookWriter — will those features be part of the package? Which and what, if so?
The program provides some good reporting capabilities and there is a Reports menu. Users can also export selected data directly in Excel format for loading into spreadsheets. We’re looking at adding Quicken and QuickBooks exports as well.
Can you tell us what the purchase price of BookWriter will be?
There will be a $124.95 introductory price, which will be available only until December 31, 2002. As I mentioned, we’re still assembling the complete feature set. Some of the add-on capabilities are very powerful and require our purchasing runtime licenses from other companies, so I can’t really quote prices beyond the introductory period at this point.
Is there one version only of BookWriter?
There will actually be several versions of BookWriter, but they will not be incremental. For example, there will be a version of BookWriter that works directly with HomeBase database files. However, its functionality is not much different than the version we’re preparing to release that works in its own native database format.
What about multiple users? Can a user buy BookWriter and use it on more than one computer, or do they need to buy (or be licensed) for the software for each computer it is used on? Can a user copy it onto their laptop, as another example, as well as using it on their desktop?
BookWriter will be licensed for use by a single user on a single computer. The license provides for the same user to install the program on several different computers, providing only one at a time is in use. We haven’t yet established a network license policy.
Are you going to issue CDs, or will it only be downloaded from your site?
The plan right now is to offer the software as a downloadable program and on CD-ROM. BookWriter contains a built-in context-sensitive help system, so no on-line connection is required for help. I’m very pleased with the Help system — I think users will like it.
Will there will a printed manual, or online help only? Any reference cards, like days-of-old (I used to love those things!)?
A bound, printed manual will be available at nominal cost. A reference card is a good idea, but frankly, I doubt it would be of much use. This is a very easy program to operate and the context-sensitive Help system is really all you need. Like most production software, once you learn the half-dozen things you really need to know to quickly get your work done, you can safely ignore the rest.
Re customer service: Phone, email, live chat help, all of these, none of these, or??
E-mail support is provided free of charge. Telephone and on-site technical support will be available, but we’re still working through the details of precisely what support levels we’ll be offering. We have some very good people working with us on this, and we need to plan this carefully to satisfy everyone’s needs.
What existing formats can be used to transfer data into BookWriter? Will this be an automatic thing, or are you going to develop it as you go, by working with each format as it comes to you and preserving that developed capability for future uploads of that format? Is this all done on your end, or does the user have to work with you on changing any data fields around, etc.? I assume formats other than UIEE can be imported? And what about exports? Will anything other than UIEE be needed, actually?
The short answer to these questions is that BookWriter initially will be able to import and export to and from any UIEE or delimited file. Users will be able to map fields as they so choose. Excel formats will also be supported for uploading to venues currently requiring this type of file. As the adoption of UIEE 2.44 develops, more direct upload circuits will be added. Obviously, we hope all of them will upgrade their file receiving and processing systems for UIEE-2.44 compliance, but I’m not blind to the realities and I’m sure some companies will be slow to adopt. However, I must again stress that BookWriter is merely the first program, not the only program that will be UIEE-2.44 compliant, so I won’t be the only one driving the transition.
You talked about images; could you explain a bit more on this? Will BookWriter provide image editing capabilities?
The initial release will rely on the user to prepare their images as they prefer before attaching them to records and sequencing for upload. We’re considering offering an Image Editor as an add-on, but no firm decision has been made at this time.
For non-programmers like me, will there be any built-in HTML code phrases or help for users (sort of a fill-in-the-blanks in a code sequence type of thing)?
BookWriter works on the basis of templates, into which your data is intelligently inserted. The templates can be edited as desired using any standard HTML editor (such as Microsoft FrontPage). We’re considering offering an HTML Editor as an add-on, but as is the case with the other add-ons I’ve mentioned, we’ve made no firm decision yet.
Which operating systems can BookWriter be used with?
BookWriter runs on all flavors of Microsoft 32-bit Windows operating systems (95, 98, 2000, NT, XP, and ME). There is presently no plan to produce a Mac version. Mac users can use any of several inexpensive Windows O/S emulators to run the software.
What about collectors needing software? Any thoughts of providing software specifically geared to that market, just for maintaining info on collections not to be sold? I see and get lots of inquiries on this.
There is no “collector-only” version planned at this time, though we may consider creating one. Given the low purchase cost and the scope of capabilities the program provides, I don’t think it would be wise for me to try to second-guess how someone might or might not want to make use of them. A Swiss Army Knife without a screwdriver blade doesn’t cost much less than a knife without one, but it’s a lot less useful.
There are probably thousands of people still using BookMaster, Record Manager, and BookMate. Will they have to import their records into BookWriter and will they be able to continue to use their old software?
Users of BookMate, Record Manager and BookMaster won’t have to import their records because BookWriter will work directly with existing databases from my older programs. But, BookWriter adds a lot of new information to the old database formats and, naturally, the old software won’t be aware of it. There are cases where this can potentially cause problems. So the short answer is: Yes, users can continue to use their old software, but we recommend migrating to the new format.
What about HomeBase users?
There is a plan to produce a version of BookWriter that works directly with HomeBase files, if possible. If this is produced, HomeBase users won’t have to import their records either — BookWriter will work directly with their existing HomeBase database file. There are many advantages to this, not the least of which are simplicity and complete freedom of usage. However, ABE has deviated from the field standards that existed previously and there are some incompatibilities to be addressed. This is not a trivial issue.
What about other database formats?
For users of other book inventory software, BookWriter can import records using any of several file formats including UIEE, comma- or tab-delimited, flat ASCII and others. BookWriter provides field-mapping capabilities to suit individual needs.
What do you do when you’re not programming?
My wife Niki and I both love animals and enjoy the outdoors. She’s one of the real people who can “talk to the animals.” We have a 50-acre farm in upstate New York, well away from the cities. It is a truly beautiful area. We hope to build a new house, if and when we can afford it.
I heard you have a flock of sheep. What’s that all about?
Niki is a master handspinner and we have a flock of Black Welsh Mountain Sheep, a very rare breed. They retain many of the wild characteristics of their ancestors. They’re multi-purpose and disease-resistant and they produce good fleece and meat. They’re affectionate and just love to have their ears scratched. We have 47 now, including a few off-breed animals we received as orphans, whom we refer to as “The Office Sheep” because that’s where they spent most of their childhoods — under my desk and in Niki’s lap while we worked at our computers.
I’m a guitarist, and I produce my own recordings. For recreation, more than anything in the world I love to fish! Niki and I go way up north into Quebec where there’s no electricity, no phones, no e-mail, and few people. We’ve done it nearly every year since we were married, and I did it nearly every year with my family before that. I have a very good memory, but my mother likes to pull my leg by asking me why I don’t remember my first fishing trip — the reason being that she was pregnant and I hadn’t been born yet.
I’m also a NAPWDA certified bloodhound handler and Niki and I have both worked cooperatively with local law enforcement and search and rescue groups trailing missing persons. Not every trail had a happy ending, but our hounds never failed to find their quarry. Although some of them have passed on, they’ll always occupy a special place in my heart. I’m also a certified Smoke Diver for our local volunteer fire department. Although I’m now on the inactive roles, I do sometimes miss the action. During Interloc days, Dick Weatherford used to call daily to chat — and to make sure I was still alive!
Thank you so much for this opportunity to interview you, Tom!
On the contrary, thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk. I really enjoyed it!
If you’re interested in learning more about BookWriter, please contact Tom directly at email@example.com