Reorganizing the Web for Bookselling
By Bruce McKinney
The Case for and Logic behind Wiki Bibliographies: Organizing material into collectible subjects
Online book selling is tied to dated technology and assumptions that no longer apply. We live in a faster paced world that the rare book field will adapt to or face continuing decline. The good news is that the solution won't be difficult.
More than ten years ago online book selling services emerged as the next alternative for booksellers to increase sales. It was the most significant new tool for booksellers since trade shows emerged in the 1950s and book trade magazines evolved into "wanted" and "offered" lists in the 1970s. Many dealers sold at shows, had shops or issued catalogues: a few used all of these approaches. Listing on-line became the next alternative in the early 1990's and more formally in 1994 as Interloc organized a for-the-trade service. Soon after a group of for-the-public listing sites opened. Online listing was not an overnight success but it was relatively simple and inexpensive. Marketers understood that if a bookseller had computerized inventory programmers could usually figure out how to move and format these records onto their much larger web-searchable databases where the knowledgeable could unearth otherwise difficult-to-find, hitherto mostly invisible, material. It was nothing short of a miracle: elegant and smart. No one knew how much inventory was out there but in time, we would learn.
As the book business was beginning to transform so too the public's interaction with and use of information online was evolving. News began to move seamlessly from yesterday's events in today's newspaper onto the net in something close to real time. Bank statements, credit card invoices and myriad other things that once arrived by mail now began to arrive by email. Doctor's appointments, hotel reservations and dinner options defined and mapped by neighborhood effortlessly entered our experience. In short, we succumbed to the internet's efforts at reorganizing our lives, accepting its conveniences and being altered by the experience. More than anything else it changed our expectations. The side effects of drugs, movie reviews, real estate for sale in distant cities, the schedule of the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace: one or two clicks and we have access or answers. We now routinely focus online on complex and arcane subjects, obtain information and move on. What was a miracle a few years ago has now become second nature and increased our expectations for all internet interaction.
The online experience however has been uneven. When the online masters of the universe take on a challenge a Google can define and broaden searches, Apple make telephone to internet connectivity easy and eBay turn a corner of the net into a world-wide internet garage sale.
By those standards, the book business, although online for almost 15 years, looks very out-of-date, even backward because it assumes knowledge as a prerequisite whereas today the animator is 'interest.' The roughly 20,000 booksellers who list today may have moved on-line but continue to assume collectors will spend inordinate time identifying material. Some do, most do not, for collectors are subject to the same rising expectations as the internet community at large. Today collectors want to spend their limited time considering interesting choices, not reading road maps to the next possibility. "Find my stars in the Milky Way" is what booksellers are hoping but potential book collectors see evidence of better organization in other fields and are, at the margin, drawn away. Two examples: coins and paintings. The bookseller today is too often