Rare Book Monthly
Articles - November - 2003 Issue
LIFEBOAT: Staying Afloat in the Rising Floodwaters of Internet Book Sales
By Renée Magriel Roberts
Harwich Port. With the success of Amazon.com in the realm of bookselling, we may perceive the Internet as revolutionizing — in the sense of improving — the bookselling business. From the point of view of the customer, some things have certainly improved dramatically. For example, a single click of a mouse now gives the customer access to an incredibly wide selection of new and used books that were previously unavailable unless a buyer was willing to invest considerable time, money, and effort. However, from the point of view of the traditional bricks-and-mortar shop, the Internet has created a near-crisis and has forced many reputable sellers to completely rethink or even to abandon their businesses.
A traditional seller relies on the location of the shop, its look and feel, the physical presence of the books, the knowledge and communications skills of the sales staff, and the intangible-but-vital relationship-building that comes from providing great customer service. In this “real world”, the initial competitive bars are high. Great inventory is not easily or inexpensively acquired, nor is “book knowledge”. Inventory is right out on the shelves, available for inspection. Good people and a great location cost money. Any established shop is a significant investment in marketing, capital expenses, stock, and customer good will.
The Internet however, has turned the business upside down and inside out. Location, for example, no longer matters in the sense that the customer has no clue where the website is physically housed, or even from whence the books are eventually shipped. Nobody can see if your books are in a genteel Eastlake glass-fronted bookcase, or whether they are stacked in old cardboard boxes in your garage. You cannot tell if your bookseller is in a frock coat, or if s/he is wearing a bathrobe. There is no way to know if you are dealing with a team of educated experts operating out of a shop in a well-heeled commercial center, or a recluse who only emerges from a squalid apartment in the middle of the night to buy booze and cigarettes. You could be buying your rare book from an antiquarian bookseller of some repute, or from a clever thief who steals from booksellers.
The keys to Internet bookselling are inventory, inventory, and inventory. In order to compete on the Internet, the bottom line is that one’s inventory must be on-line. That is, it has to be tortuously entered into a database, with complete data on the specific item, particularly used books. A partial check-list would include the ISBN number (if applicable), the title, author(s), publisher, place and date of publication, edition, condition of the boards and the dustjacket, type of binding, whether it is signed or an ex-library book. Then, of course, one must list the price, and whatever additional detailed information on the structure, condition, and contents of the book is necessary for buyers to make an informed evaluation of their potential purchases.