Editor: What is your purpose in starting a online book database (i.e., to help online booksellers, to get a database that does what you think a book database should do, because it’s a good business to be in, all of the above, none of the above, or ????).
A: My purpose all along has been to try and unite booksellers so that they have some ability to bargain for better prices and services online. When attempts at working with existing organizations failed, or they had a different goal, I decided a database site would be the best way to spearhead and tackle the issues I felt online dealers faced. That’s where the low $100/year rate came from: the need to help sellers find an inexpensive alternative, and to encourage them to join our unofficial guild. Many have read the paraphrased quote I have posted on our service agreement page, and I think it really goes hand in hand with the spirit of our website. The quote is from “It’s A Wonderful Life” where Jimmy Stewart basically says the town needs to support his savings and loan company”..even if it’s only so there is somewhere people can go without having to crawl to Potter,” referring to the greedy old bank owner who all but runs the whole town. I see us as the little guy and, believe it or not, a few even started referring to me as the George Bailey of the online book industry because of that quote. And as I remember, he ended up being called the richest man in town, but it wasn’t meant financially. If I can earn that type of honor, that will be all I need.
Editor: Is this a long-term commitment on your part? Where do you see yourself and your database in 3 years? 5 years?
A: Because I was able to start on $1000, I really have no fears of having to recuperate any investment or fears of loss. For my wife and I, our major forms of income are outside of Bookquarters.com, probably about 85-90%. She works full time and I primarily earn income from printing services and Bookseller Monthly advertising and subscriptions. Additionally, in September I took on a business partner, Patty Johnson, who does all of the programming for the site. This has really made things easier to improve the site as needed, plus it took any fear of excessive web development fees out of the picture. For both of us this has become an extremely fun, and sometimes nerve-wracking, venture. But because there are two of us now it is easier to deal with, and neither of us want to give it up. I’ve always had a hard time envisioning where I would be even a month from now, but I don’t see how our site can fail. Patty and I are too driven to let it fail.
Editor: What lister book database inventory programs do you/will you support?
A: Well, we haven’t run into anything yet that we can’t accept or import. Bookquarters.com allows direct FTP upload, it supports BookTrakker’s “one-touch” upload feature, we accept uploads from BookRouter.com, and then through our online upload page we can take everything else: Homebase, BookMate, BookHound,simple database files from Excel, whatever you have–UIEE, tab, comma, etc. We even have eight customers who aren’t online who mail us typed lists that we manually enter–so I guess you can include that we import paper files as well 🙂
Editor: What are your upload procedures? Deletion procedures? Are “wants” listings available? For sale matches? Are any additions/changes planned?
A: I pretty much covered our upload procedure in the previous question. Deletions can be handled several ways. If you send us UIEE type text files, our script automatically detects which listings are to be deleted. For tab and comma users, we require that they create a separate delete file and use the “Upload Deletes” link on our upload page–or if they FTP, to make sure they name the file a delete file. The other feature we have, one that was positively commented on recently by a new member, is our online delete page that allows you to quickly go in, enter up to 10 book listing numbers at a time, then select and delete them. Want listings are not currently available nor is there a matching procedure. However, Patty already has most of the programming written for collecting wants, it is just a matter of putting it in place. More importantly, we’re expecting to affiliate with a website in February where libraries and individuals go to post their books wanted and how much they’re willing to pay for the book. It won’t be anything like any other “library matching program,” we won’t be involved collecting commissions or even forwarding sales. Instead, part of the agreement will be making all wants on the site available only to our members for the first few days they are listed. As well, the site we are affiliatingwith will be giving us exclusive rights to having only our members inventories searched from their site.
Editor: What customer service (for both sellers and buyers) do you/will you have?
A: As far as I have seen, we are the only site that offers online live customer service. By clicking the button on our site that says “Click here for live help” a customer is connected with me through a chat window, similar to AOL instant messenger. I’ve had quite a few people glad it was available, many asking for recommendations on where to find a book (a valuable chance to send them in the direction of one of our members who specializes in such a field), others simply looking for answers regarding other services on our site. It’s very convenient because I can turn it off whenever I am away from the computer, so it doubles as an email button in those instances. We do provide all of our phone/fax/email information very clearly on our “Contact Us” page, which is a clear link from the home page. I think, as well, there have already been some public posts on the email lists about Patty and my quick response time to problems or questions. I think between the two of us we are online around 20 of the 24 hours in a day!
Editor: Will you/do you have any quality (i.e., descriptions, shipping, and/or customer service) standards for your listers? If so, what will be/are the consequences of violating those standards?
A: I don’t think we will be restrictive unless there is a real problem seller amongst our group. I know many sellers want to see higher standards, but there are several reasons why I prefer not to get too involved. First, I can’t see trying to impose policies on very specific matters such as accurate descriptions. It is such a subjective area with so many potential variables it only invites a quagmire of involvement and would appear as heavy-handedness on our part. We stay out of all specific transactions. But if a number of customers start to complain about a particular dealer, whether it be failure to ship, not having inventory in stock, etc., then action such as refund and removal would be considered after speaking with the member. Secondly, I think some dealers may feel uncomfortable being put under a scrutinizing system, thereby potentially scaring away what would have been perfectly good members. Ultimately, a bookseller will suffer poor sales if they are unable to fulfill a customer’s needs. But if there is, as I said, a problem member who is hurting the site and hindering us from having a good reputation we will take action. We have no specific policy on such things yet, but realize situations like this are inevitable and need a stated policy. I simply prefer to be very flexible.
Editor: What are your technical arrangements (in non-technical language, please) to ensure reliability of service? Future growth? Additional services?
A: We expect to be switching web host providers very soon, as we have found even better services elsewhere. We currently run our database on a shared SQL server, but once we move this will be altered. The provisions for our site with the new host will provide us scalability to 18 gigabytes of data storage (enough for around 36 million titles), a guaranteed uptime of 99.93%, and initially 40 gigabytes of transfer (enough to handle around 10,000 visitors per day) with scalability options there as well.
Editor: Will you/do you have the capability of taking credit card info for orders?If so, what can you tell us about the safety procedures you have or will have in place to ensure the security of such info?
A: Bookquarters.com has a shopping cart that allows customers to enter a credit card. In mid to late February we will be making it a secure process.
Editor: Do you ever plan to process credit card orders through your database (rather than simply passing on the info to the lister) and, if so, will the lister or buyer bear the processing cost, and how long will it take to get payment to the lister?
A: That is something that I really have no desire to be involved in. Depending on the requests of our members in the future, Patty and I may implement a system that that processes cards for our members, but it seems a distant notion at the moment. I would rather integrate a PayPal, ProPay, or other button into the shopping cart that allows or encourages buyers to pay the seller themselves on the spot with a system the seller already uses. I’m not here to make commissions or get involved in a bookseller’s transaction. The only reason we would consider providing such a serviceis if it was feasible and if the members were sincere in needing such a system. If you have a secure server where a customer can send along their card number, it is no less efficient (for the customer) than having us bill them. In turn, however, if for some reason the book is unavailable, we won’t be billing the customer for an “invisible” item. If the seller is responsible for processing, they will know whether to actually bill or not and be solely responsible. I want them to have control over their business.
Editor: Do you have any plans for programs associated with your database which would involve anything other than direct contact between seller and buyer?
A: No, that is something we would like to avoid unless it is a program that is invaluable to the bookseller and buyer.
Editor: Do you have or do you plan to have an “all word search” capability?
A: Bookquarters.com has an all word search capability. I often complain that it is too slow, though, as it obviously has to look through everything. I think it was our member Vic Zoschak at Tavistock who suggested I should refer to it as a “full bodied” search.
Editor: What search capabilities does your database have now? What is planned for the future?
A: We provide search by author, title, subject (a combination search of title and keywords), and all word search. We also have browsing capabilities of all members’ listings, either by the catalogs/subjects provided in their listings or by “view all books.” We haven’t settled on the best form of an advanced search yet, so that is what is to come.
Editor: On what will you base your listing fees? What fees do you have now or plan to have?
A: Policy: The cheaper the better. Bookquarters.com is a special site that has peripheral revenue gathering sources that don’t require hitting up the bookseller. I think our fee of $100/year to list up to 100,000 titles is going to be safe for a long time–especially considering technology will always make things like web hosting and data storage cheaper.
Editor: Do you plan to have or now have your database searched by Addall or Bookfinder or any other mega-search site?
A: We’ve had a rough go just trying to get information from either of these services on the fees they charge to be included in their search. What has been rumored to me, however, are rates in the neighborhood of $1500 per month. First, we don’t have that much revenue at this point to put solely towards advertising–especially all in one basket! Secondly, imagine what you could do with $1500 per month to really target various avenues instead of just focusing everything at one website. I believe that these type of search facilities allow database sites to create a great deal of hype and instant results. Unfortunately, the long term result is dependency on those sites at a hefty monthly fee they won’t be able to escape. What are you really doing to promote your booksellers’ names and your site’s name? To me it is analogous to the parable of either feeding a man or teaching him how to fish. If we were to throw that much money each month at one source, we would forever be dependent on them to bring in sales–much like booksellers are dependent on larger database sites right now.
On the other hand, if we use our creativity and energy, we can much more effectively advertise in grass-roots manners, through print, various online paid advertising, and any other forum we choose. When you advertise your web site you are building a brand and at least giving your dealers a chance for return sales. With the “mega search” sites, it is virtually impossible to expect a repeat customer. Bookfinder and Addall have no search capabilities for a customer to track down “Bill’s Used Books” if they forgot what site they list on.
I would prefer to spend our money wisely, scatter it around and not be overly dependent on any one source. Those who own their own websites are taking the right path, and they know it is the truth when I say repeat sales are very much possible online and are very important. Many dealers don’t realize or expect this because too many of the database sites and mega-search sites do not emphasize the dealer, just that they have “a gazillion books.” That’s one thing that is very important to me, promoting our site as a place to find a bookseller or bookstore that carries the type of books you like to collect or read. I don’t think the mega-search sites facilitate this.
Editor: How do you plan to advertise your database (both to draw listers and buyers)?
A: Incredibly, even though we have such a low fee, we are able to do some wonderful things because of the equipment I possess for publishing Bookseller Monthly. Additionally, the mere fact that I own a publication really eliminates some print advertising costs. I have many ideas, but to list a few of what we’ve done and are going to do:
**We print out photo-quality, single-page, heavy-stock 2002 calendars for distribution at book fairs. This gives show-goers something neat to pick up, and they see our name all year long.
**We advertise on Google.com.
**We advertise on regional snack products (hey, you have to target everyone!).
**We advertise extensively in Bookseller Monthly. 🙂
**We’ve recently purchased advertising with Overture advertising online for display on sites like AltaVista, Yahoo!, and Lycos.
**We have a mail list visitors can sign up for to receive our “Thursday Night Special” of discount offers from our members.
**We will be purchasing ads in Book Source Monthly and Antique Week.
But, we also advertise our members, and give them free advertising:
**Our members receive as much as 1 free ad each month in Bookseller Monthly.
**They receive 2 weeks of free advertising on Google.com.
**We list members and their specialties in our general Bookquarters.com ads.
We have many plans for wise advertising, but we are trying to grow prudently and solidly. We know our site is only growing because sellers are supporting it, not because we have $25,000 to keep it afloat artificially. As we grow, our potential for growth simply snowballs. I expect to be able to carry out more of our as yet un-announced advertising plans in the near future.
Editor: What background or experience do you or other people involved with your database have that relates to the online book or online book database business?
A: I came from a sales environment that exposed me to all types of manipulative and unsavory type back-door dealing, typically what you would expect to see corporations doing but can never prove. That’s why I am so wary about the current online situation. I’ve been a collector of fine bindings for a decade and a seller of such for 4 years, although it has taken a back seat these past six months. Patty knows how to put it all together and has worked extensively with helping several booksellers create and maintain their own web sites.
Editor: Do you or are you planning to have professional management, bookseller management, or????
A: Bookquarters.com will never leave my site or be out of my control, unless (with Patty’s permission) I can eventually simply turn it over to the members and take a long vacation. This isn’t all about money for me, but I would never deny it’s nice to be compensated for all the work that goes into the site. I am at home all day with my 2 1/2 year old daughter, so that makes me thrilled beyond belief. Getting a “hired gun” to run the business would only indicate to me that someone is looking to pull more revenue for their own pocket. I want revenue to build the site up for our members.
Editor: What markets (geographical and/or demographic) are you aiming at?
A: Everyone. Considering we aren’t going to be running $20,000 six-month ad campaigns in The NY Times, it is really silly to consider who we are targeting. We are talking to everybody and examining all realistic and worthwhile forms of advertising to reach whoever wants to listen. I tend to feel word of mouth and solid grassroots building is the best plan. This includes the simplest things as popping into a high-traffic chat room and letting everyone know there is a great new site out there to find used books called Bookquarters.com.
Editor: What services/features does your database have that you feel sets you apart and/or will ensure the success ofyour database?
A: I think the only thing that makes us similar to anyone else is the fact that we host booksellers’ databases; everything else is pretty unique. To my knowledge, no other database-type site has weekly guest author chats to attract readers. In fact, through NewBookReviews.com we actually work with Time Warner to pull in some big names. As many know, we hosted David Baldacci, a #1 NY Times bestseller, in our chat on January 15th. Just as well, we are able to provide unique and interesting content from my Publication, Bookseller Monthly, although abe.com also carries some of our articles. As I mentioned before, I’m pretty sure we are the only site that offers live online service. We also have a unique rotating banner ad on our site that we control, selling ads to booksellers who want to post books wanted or sell particular special volumes. I like this neat feature as it allows the site to seem more alive and active, like a true marketplace and not just a sterile search engine.
We also offer many services to booksellers, such as all the printing options and website design. With what we offer, we can take a bookseller from selling on our site, to printing and mailing their print catalogs for them, to building and hosting their own web site for them, and then printing out their promotional materials for them. We are also the only site that gives the customer the ability to search within a particular bookseller’s listings from the main search bar, making it very easy for them to locate a dealer they would like to buy from again.
For collectors and readers, aside from the chat and articles already mentioned, we will be opening a specific Kid’s section with materials on home-schooling, recommendations on books, moveable author puzzles, educational games and reading contests with books for prizes. We will also be finishing our book collecting information area. Later this month we will also be including a section where readers can find book related items from other independent websites, such as cloth book covers, specialty book marks, etc.
Need more? We are also going to be partnering more heavily with NewBookReviews.com, who have a database of over a thousand book reviews written by readers, so that we can offer our browsing customers peer information on an author or title they may be interested in. Our site is going to be a center for books, that is why we changed the name to Bookquarters–Your headquarters for books and collecting online.
Editor: Please tell us anything you’d like about yourself or your database, and thank you for participating.
A: All I would like to say in following up is that booksellers should not be impatient with any of the new sites. Instant success is not in the realm of reality for any of us. Perhaps moreso than others, even though we got a “head start,” Bookquarters.com will alter and improve things slowly instead of launching everything all at once. This simply is a result of our revenue-generating system and my belief that prudent growth based on the support of people is what will ensure success. You aren’t successful if you have a “gee whiz” site that you dumped $25,000 into. Building a better mouse trap of a search engine isn’t going to get people to your site either. It all requires creativity, hard work and time. It is much more difficult an idea to reproduce the success a site like abe.com has achieved in the online market we see today. The Internet was not as competitive nor as over-crowded with web sites as it is today. And even though there are more customers, they have all had a great deal of time and saturation advertising thrown at them by ebay, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Half.com–so we actually need to not only try to grow and attract customers, but to educate them as well. The wonderful thing is that so many people are trying to pick up the ball that was left by Bibliofind, so there will be a great deal of competition–hopefully this will work to the booksellers advantage and give them better prices and services.