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Technology and the Future of the Antiquarian Book Trade

The following speech was presented at the 2008 ILAB Congress, Madrid. It was delivered to an international audience of professional antiquarian booksellers, but may be of interest to others as well.

Presidents, Committee Members, and Colleagues. I would like to congratulate the Asociación Ibérica de Librerias Anticuarias for organizing and hosting their first ILAB Congress. And I thank them for the opportunity to speak to you today. When Tom and Heidi Congalton invited me to join them here at the Congress, I happened to be reading Aristotle's Children, by Richard Rubenstein. It reminded me that Spain is a very appropriate setting for a discussion of the evolution of the book because of the celebrated role that Spain has played in that history. Here in Spain, shortly before the dawn of printing in Europe, the works of ancient Greece were rediscovered. Writings of Aristotle and Euclid that had been lost to Europe for hundreds of years after the fall of Rome were saved. And most inspiring was that this reclamation of text and this renaissance of reason was accomplished through the multi-cultural Spanish climate of the 12th Century. Perhaps the world today would be a better place if more people recalled that Spanish era when Muslim, Jewish, and Christian scholars worked in mutual respect and cooperation. Here in Spain, then, as now, Amor Librorum Nos Unit - the Love of Books Unites Us.

Amor Librorum Nos Unit - we are united in our love of books. But what is it about books that we love? I believe our appreciation of books is two-fold. As readers, we love the stories that they tell or value the information that they share. We appreciate the careful or elegant combination of words. We value good writing that relates new, interesting, or informative experiences to us. We rely on authoritative, professionally edited and fact-checked sources in our non-fiction. In fiction, we love the soaring of the imagination, the escape from our lives into the lives of others, and writing that teaches us more about ourselves. All these elements that we value as readers are an appreciation of books as vessels of text. To readers, a book derives its value from its content. For many readers, this kind of device I'm holding in my hand, Amazon's Kindle - an electronic book reader, is the future of books as text. How do I know this? A Spanish poet told me so. Last night I was reading Elisa Ruiz Garcia's article "The Book in Late Antiquity: An Intimate Object of Desire" from Bibliofilias, the lovely volume produced in concert with this Congress. In her article she wrote of the Roman poet Martial, a citizen of the Roman Empire but we should also remember born here in Spain, and she explained Martial's appreciation of the development of the codex. She quotes his joy in being able to hold in a single volume both the Iliad and the Odyssey, and his appreciation that all one hundred and forty two books by the historian Livius could now fit "on sheets of vellum of scant size." Readers have always appreciated the ability to hold an increasing amount of text in progressively smaller containers. The printed book as we have known it for many centuries is marvelous in this regard. But the book continues to evolve and if the past is any indication, readers will adapt to this evolution and continue to appreciate more text in less space.

However, in addition to being readers, we are also antiquarian booksellers. To echo the excellent points made so eloquently last night by Michael Steinbach, as booksellers we love to hold books. To feel their weight, to appreciate their binding. We love the smell and texture of the paper. We love the tactile sensation of turning the pages. We value the illustrations, the typography, and the design. All these book qualities that we value as booksellers are an appreciation of books as objects. When we think of the noun "book," it is as a singular "thing" in our minds like "tree" or "automobile." But books are actually two things in one: the traditional book is simultaneously both a text and an object. I believe the future of books and bookselling is an inevitable diverging of these two properties. Again history, and specifically Spanish history, tells us so. Last night Dr. Julian Martin Abad, in his history of Spanish collectors of incunabula, told us that by the 17th and 18th Centuries those collectors stopped writing in their incunables. The books had ceased to be primarily valued as text, and became primarily valued as objects.

As booksellers we see the separation of books as objects, and books as text, when we examine why people buy the books they buy. I believe the worldwide book market divides between customers who buy books they want to keep as a permanent part of their library or collection, and customers who buy particular books to read them, to use them, and then once read or used, to discard them. There is an antiquarian book market, and a used book market. The market for used books is enormous. In 2004 in the United States consumers spent over two billion dollars on used books. Their average price was under $20. But for the bookseller this market, while large in terms of the number of books available and purchased every day, has been evaporating. I believe the same technology that allowed this market to mushroom to its present size will also very soon destroy the profession of selling used books. I realize the potential destruction of the market for relatively inexpensive used books is probably of little direct consequence to most of the dealers in this room. But as Presidents of your respective national associations you also have a responsibility to your national members, many of whom derive their income from the buying and selling of inexpensive books.

At present there are literally many millions of books that can be purchased for just a fraction over the cost to ship them. I think there are two types of businesses that can afford to underprice the conventional bookseller. The first business is the non-professional hobbyist. This is someone who can afford to offer books at the lowest price because their daily livelihood does not depend on selling books. They have other means of support. The book owner who has little interest or investment in his books to begin with, the small town library with extra book donations to get rid of, the retired person who enjoys scouring flea markets and places no value on his time -- these people can all afford not to run a profitable book business. Consequently, they have driven prices of readily available books down over the past fourteen years.

The second type of business that can afford to sell books for a dollar, or even a penny, is the so called "mega-lister." These are profitable businesses, because the people who run them have invested in the technology, and the efficiencies of scale, to make them profitable. I would like to take a moment to share with you the inner-workings of such a business that I have observed first hand. Suppose your business is in the United States, for example, and you want to ship individually purchased books to your customers and actually make a profit on the small difference between how much Amazon pays you to ship the books and how much it actually costs you to ship the books. In order to lower your own costs and make the highest profit on the shipping charges of Amazon, you need to ship your books via what is called bulk media mail pre-sort. Among the conditions to qualify for this especially low shipping rate is that you must send out at least 400 packages a day using this method. That means the bookselling company must sell at least 400 books a day that are domestic orders. And presumably the company would have to sell at least another 50 to 100 in order to have a safety net or buffer. Working backwards from this goal of selling at least 500 books a day, the company must have a very large inventory of books priced extremely competitively. They cannot afford to price books at the average price, they must underprice their competition on a book-by-book basis in order to ensure that they obtain that minimum of 500 orders. Furthermore, in order to be profitable no employee, that is to say no living person, can spend more than a few seconds with a book. Maximum, machine-like efficiency must be used at every stage of the book's "life-cycle" in the company's inventory. That is, in acquiring the book, in cataloguing it, in shelving it, in locating it when it sells, and in packaging it for shipment. Each and every one of those steps must be facilitated by machines as much as possible. Books must be treated as commodities on an assembly line if they are to be sold profitably for a penny. But it can be done. It is being done. It may not be bookselling as we envision it. Imagine selling books where the goal of your business is for you never to touch or see your books. I'm sure to most of us that is exactly the opposite of what we want to be doing. But this kind of hyper-efficient mega-listing business performs the basic function of selling books to customers and so, although it lies at the very far end of the spectrum of bookselling, it is indeed part of that same spectrum to which we belong.

So we have two types of used book sellers, enabled by new technology to sell used books for almost no cost to the customer. We have the hobbyists, with no overhead and no labor cost, and they number in the many thousands in the United States alone. And we have a few companies, probably not more than a hundred or two worldwide, that use technology to sell books for pennies and eek out a profit in their volume, which is very considerable. The combined efforts of these two types of used booksellers is such that the current market price for many millions of books is almost nothing. The average working bookseller, one who needs to make a profit but does not run a large bookselling factory, cannot compete in selling these books. The present and future markets for used books are delights to buyers, and very bleak for sellers.

However, if you are exhibiting here at the feria del libro antiguo, or you exhibit in Paris, or London, or New York, or Los Angeles, none of my dire predictions matter very much. Right? If you are selling incunables, or fine press publications, or scarce and desirable first editions, or any of the kinds of antiquarian books that sell for hundreds of dollars, or thousands of dollars, or hundreds of thousands of dollars, then the future of the used book is not of great concern. So finally, what is the future for antiquarian book selling?

First, the future of antiquarian bookselling is not by selling through third party sites that take a percentage from each sale. That may be the future that those companies hope to see, but their interests are not our interests. To me, those on-line listing sites are not places to sell books, but rather places to meet new customers. And if you look at your relationship with those listing sites in this way, their fees become much more palatable. But you have to work at it to make this conversion from merely selling individual books online, to actually meeting valuable customers there.

I think a great many booksellers have allowed the Internet to make them lazy. They have become passive sellers. They cast their books out on the Internet and then they just wait for orders to come in. And the revenue of those orders is diminished by fees and commissions that the bookseller's partner, the large listing company, can change whenever they wish. So I believe the appropriate response of booksellers to the simple fact that large companies operate in their own financial interests, is to regain one's independence from these companies. And that is what we have tried to do at Between the Covers Rare Books.

I want to share with you some facts and figures about the income of Between the Covers Rare Books. Our book sales can be roughly divided into five sources: 1) printed catalogs; 2) quotes to customers, which are either phone calls, emails, or printed quotes; 3) our own website; 4) bookfairs we attend, most importantly the ABAA fairs; and 5) sales made on the Internet through third party vendors such as ABE, Amazon, Biblio, Barnes and Noble, and of course the ABAA and ILAB sites. In descending order, this year at Between the Covers the greatest portion of our sales income, 39%, has come from private quotes to customers. 23% has come from printed catalogs. This year 18% of our sales came from our own website, while 11% of our sales came from third party Internet vendors. Finally, 9% of our sales came from book fairs. We all know it costs money to make money. In addition to purchasing our inventory, there are other expenses to each of those sales sources I just enumerated. There are expenses to printing catalogs, and expenses to developing and operating our own website. But we can control, manage, and budget those expenses ourselves. We can adjust how much we spend on our catalogs and our website, both in terms of the actual production costs, and in terms of the labor costs. So the portions of revenue fully under our control, that is catalogs, private quotes, and our website, represents a full 80% of our income. I am very proud of this - these ratios and percentages were no accident. Two years ago it was 45%, last year it was 60%, and now it is 80%.

How did this change come about? How did we progress in just a few years from relying on other companies to provide over half our business, to relying on those other companies for only a tenth of our business?

As an initial step, four years ago we invested in a more comprehensive inventory and customer database, a program tailor made for our needs. Among the reasons for this investment was so that we could analyze our business and better understand where our sales were coming from. Between the Covers Rare Books has been in business for several decades, but in the past few years we have been better equipped to study the sales trends within our own business because we invested in the ability to tag and track different types of sales.

I think most of our colleagues in the American book trade would consider Between the Covers Rare Books to be a successful book business. And I believe we are a successful book business. Before I go further, I must state that I believe the preeminent reason Between the Covers Rare Books is successful is Tom Congalton's book-buying acumen. Tom is a very good bookman, and we rely very much on his ability to continuously acquire good books for our inventory. We all know it is much easier to sell books if you have good books to sell. So that part of our business, the most crucial part of every antiquarian business, is something I never have to worry about because Tom takes care of it, and has done so since he formed the company in 1985. So instead I worry about the other end of the business, selling the books. And this is where we have effected some very deliberate changes in the last few years in response to the Internet, and in response to the bursting of the Internet bubble.

First, we have actively concentrated on our institutional customers. This was a consumer base about which we paid only half-hearted attention as recently as five years ago. But since then, we have dedicated more of our office workforce to researching the holdings of libraries and quoting institutional customers. These efforts have paid great dividends.

At the same time we pursued our second major initiative, which was to very actively attempt to convert every single instance that we sell a book to a new customer into a repeat and long-standing relationship. Many booksellers look at the Internet as a venue for selling individual books to individual customers. They often lament that every sale they make on the Internet through a search service is what we call in America a "one shot deal." We look at every sale we make on the Internet through a search service as the first of what we hope will be many transactions with a new customer. I admit, often my optimism is not rewarded. Often we never hear from that customer again. But we try hard to convert that sale into a long-term customer. Last month I met Hannes Blum, the CEO of ABE, and I listened as he rationalized the fees ABE charges partly by explaining, "We bring you new customers." In other words, ABE expects you to take that initial sale and turn it into something more durable. I have no problem with ABE, because I can cite numerous customers who first found us through ABE, and then subsequently made multiple purchases directly from us. I believe this should be the goal of every bookseller who sells on third party sites geared toward collectors. How do we at Between the Covers accomplish this?

To start, we include one of our print catalogs with every purchase. When possible, we include a subject specific print catalog. The more specialized the book, the greater the likelihood that we will have subsequent sales. To give an example, a few years ago Tom was called to look at a collection of Western Americana. Although we primarily deal in literature, it was a nice collection and Tom purchased it. We created a catalog of the collection and sent it out to our mailing list of regular customers. But our regular customers were primarily purchasers of literature. They ignored the catalog and it sold poorly. Next we put the books on the Internet, where they were found by collectors of Western Americana. With each purchase we included a copy of the subject catalog. With great frequency these first-time customers called us upon receipt of the book and ordered several additional books from the catalog. At present we have approximately twenty different subject specific print catalogs to include with orders.

And of course we use print material, such as bookmarks and coupons, to steer people toward our website. And this, finally, was the last of our major initiatives in the past few years. The other day I spoke with David Szewczyk of the Philadelphia Rare Book and Manuscripts Company, and he observed that today a dealer's website is analogous to open shops of yesteryear. I think he was absolutely right. And I think most dealers, including many major dealers, miss this. Most dealers treat their websites as if it were their business card, and nothing more. Most dealers have websites simply because they think they should have a website, and their lack of interest and direction is readily apparent on their sites. Most dealers have not asked themselves the questions "What do I want to accomplish with my website?" and "How exactly am I going to accomplish that?"

The analogy between dealers' websites and open shops is very helpful. Although I am going to speak about how this analogy can be applied to the website for Between the Covers, which is naturally the website with which I am most familiar, if you look around the Internet you will see that there are several booksellers who have applied this same principle in their own ways, and in complete independence of each other, and yet they all have created very compelling and successful sites. So, for example, the Philadelphia Rare Book and Manuscript website is very much like a large building with rooms divided into different book subjects, but with large measures of spontaneity, serendipity, and personal selection thrown in. The website of David Brass features a frequently updated blog, so that it is rather like dropping in and having frequent chats with a bookseller.

Rockingstone's site for Oak Knoll Books is a marvelous example of how to create a well organized and dynamically driven book site for a large inventory. And of course this is only a small sampling of North American examples. Booksellers from many other nations are no less inventive, and are similarly exploiting the potential of the book shop / book site parallels. This morning Mitsuo Nitta shared with us one of the most attractive and impressive examples of this parallel that I have yet seen, on his Yushodo site (at http://www.rarebook-yushodo.jp/). So what are some of the elements of a good book shop that can be exploited as models for a good book website?

A shop must have a good location. On the Internet location means optimized visibility by search engines. And by search engines I mean Google. To give a specific example, earlier this year we reprogrammed our site so that each book in our inventory had its own webpage seen by Google, and the title of that page was the title of the book. This gives us a great deal of visibility when people search for that book in Google. Currently about two thirds of our web traffic comes from Google. I want to speak about Google a little more, but first I would like to continue examining the parallels between websites and open shops.

An open shop needs an attractive storefront window. Similarly a bookseller's website homepage should be lively and engaging. It should invite customers to come in, to spend time browsing, to make a purchase, and to want to return in the future. Like a good storefront window, a bookseller's website should display a sampling of inventory on the very first page the visitor sees. And this sampling of inventory should change frequently. The design of a bookseller's website should be consistent with the image the bookseller wants to project, but it must also be attractive and original. It must convey the bookseller's identity and personality. Very few bookseller websites accomplish this. Most, including the sites of a number of major dealers, are horribly boring. They look very much alike and they are completely devoid of personality. Nothing about them invites the visitor to actually go deeper within the site.

Like any good open shop, a bookseller's website can and should contain a backroom. One of the ways our website offers the equivalent of a backroom is to show recently acquired inventory for a month before it appears on third party websites. That is, customers can see more of our inventory on our site. I do want to note, by the way, that we extend the first month stock exclusivity to ILAB and ABAA as well so that we purposely contribute to the unique value of visiting ILAB.org and ABAA.org. Returning to our website, we have an even more exclusive backroom, if you will, in what we call private pages. These are web pages featuring inventory quoted to particular individuals. They are password protected, they are not linked to the rest of our website, and they are not seen by Google or the rest of the Internet. This can be very effective. Last year, for example, we sold a $30,000 archive using this method.

If you are familiar with Between the Covers catalogs you know that we try to illustrate every book in color. If you are familiar with commercial printing then you know that full-color printed catalogs are very expensive to produce. On the other hand, it costs virtually nothing to put color pictures of books on the Internet. And it is very easy to do. I teach the basics of rare book photography in about an hour at the annual Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminars. Photographs of books bridge the physical distance between sellers and customers. Not only do they help convey the condition of the book, but I believe photographs of books reinforce the fundamental reason collectors buy antiquarian books. This reason, as I stated before, is that collectors value books as physical objects. A photograph of a book works subliminally as visual proof to the customer that the physical object exists, and that they can own the physical object. Photographs or scans of books contribute very immediately to sales of books online. On a dealer's own website, in particular, there is no limit to what the dealer can accomplish if he wishes. That is why, on the Between the Covers website, we show a photo for every book in our inventory. That is approximately 70,000 books with photos. Furthermore, we have extended my enthusiasm for book photography and created live, three dimensional models of over a thousand books in our inventory. On the screen the visitor to our website can view those books from any angle. Although the rotating book feature is proprietary to Between the Covers, all booksellers should remember that on their own websites they need only be bound by their budget and their creativity. They do not need to confine themselves to constraints found on other book websites. And in terms of budget, we spent less money on our website than we usually spend on 9 months of printing catalogs. But before we spent a penny on the website, we had planned it all out and this, I believe, saved us quite a bit.

Bookseller websites should be both searchable and browseable. They should serve the needs of both customers and booksellers. I say needs of the customer because most customers come to a website looking for something specific, and a bookseller should meet this need by having a comprehensive and easy to use search option. I say needs of the bookseller because we have inventory that may or may not be what the customer is looking for. The challenge to the bookseller is in selling books that the customer did not previously know he even wanted. This can be difficult, and we find printed catalogs are very good at this. But we try to accomplish this on our website by recommending books at every turn, particularly as part of our search results and when a customer is looking at a specific item. If a visitor is viewing the details about a particular title, on the edge of the screen we'll show them other books by the same author, or other books on the same subject. We don't want to distract them from buying the book they were searching for, but we also hope that on our site, as in a real bookstore, one book will lead to another and then another.

Finally, it is vital to offer more than simply a search of one's inventory. Particularly if the same books can be found just as easily at some third party website, where the customer will have even more options. You must give Internet buyers a reason to visit your site. At Between the Covers we offer illustrated bibliographic reference information. We offer articles on rare books. We even offer literary video games. Even if they do not make a purchase during their visit, we want people to have a positive experience at our site. We want them to remember us and return. And we want them to tell others about our site.

Also, we are very careful and deliberate about the information we give out on the Internet, and consciously choose how it differs from the information we give out on our website. I believe far too many experienced dealers are careless in the manner in which they share their expertise. You are both ethically bound and professionally committed to accurately identifying and describing the books you offer for sale. But there is a big difference between saying a book is a first issue, and saying a book is a first issue with "Wolf" for "Sheep" on the first line of page 53. The first is how we would describe the book on ABE or Amazon, and the second is how we would describe the book on our own website and in our catalogs. There is a difference between identifying an issue in a book description, and explaining or interpreting the issue point in that same book description. Why do we make this distinction?

You are the world's experts on antiquarian books. You all worked very hard for many years to gain your expertise. Why are you giving it away for free every day on the Internet? I encourage you to strike a balance of information. You should be dispensing just enough information online to convince potential customers that you are an expert and a professional. You should not be educating your competition. By competition I don't mean your colleagues in this room. By competition I mean the owners of books who are not professional booksellers but think, because of the information they found online, that they can identify, catalog, and sell the book themselves and eliminate our trade. ABE empowers them. eBay empowers them. Amazon empowers them. Please do not empower them yourselves by giving out valuable bibliographic information unnecessarily.

Online book descriptions do not need to be as bibliographically detailed as printed catalog descriptions. They only need to convey enough information to convince a legitimate customer to either make a purchase or to contact you for more information. Remember, when you explain the details of an obscure issue point in a printed catalog, as most of you have done for decades, that information may be seen by a few hundred people, and perhaps only a dozen or two will actually file the information away for future use. But if you explain the details of an obscure bibliographic issue point in your online description, that information is then available at any time, forever more, to anyone in the world who is interested. On the Internet, as the saying goes, "you can't unring a bell." I implore you to be judicious in the content you provide. More information to interest potential customers, less information to educate competitors. You might, for example, describe a book as being in the first state, per a certain bibliographic reference work, without explicitly explaining what constitutes that state. That subtle difference, if carried out by a large portion of ILAB members, would, I believe, go a long way toward ensuring the strength and necessity of our profession in the future.

Earlier I mentioned that about two thirds of our website traffic comes from Google. And I have also belabored the dangers of having other companies controlling your profitability. So I am not entirely happy that we are dependent on Google for our traffic. But I am happy that 100% of that traffic is organic. By this I mean we pay Google nothing. Currently we do not invest in Google Adwords. And although Google is a private company than can change whatever they want about their search engine whenever they want to, they will probably always strive to help web users find relevant information. So rather than trying to "buy" our way to the top of search engines by either paying for placement or trying to "trick" Google into ranking us highly, we built a deep website with a tremendous amount of content. Google, and web users, value this content, and so the more unique information we put on our website the higher we rank. In this way I hope we have to some extent immunized our site from the vagaries of search engine optimization.

Many booksellers treat their website as though it is a by-appointment office, with a bland exterior and a locked door. Many booksellers expect their visitors to convince themselves to collect and buy books. I encourage you to treat your website as an exciting open shop. Then you can direct your new customers to your website after they have purchased your book from a third party vendor. If you do these two things you will gain more customers who will make subsequent purchases directly from you, so you will not pay listing fees or commissions, and more of your sales will be directly under your control. There are a number of companies that specialize in making interesting websites for booksellers, among them Rockingstone, Bibliopolis, and Foreseeing Solutions.

Earlier I spoke of my enthusiasm about digital text and my belief that one day electronic books will become a conventional part of literate society. But that day is not here. Similarly, antiquarian bookselling on the Internet, despite being a dozen years old, is still very immature. In my own experience, books above $5000 or $10,000 do sell on the Internet. But they sell on the Internet with much less frequency than those same books sell through print catalogs. Books sold on our website average four times the price of books we sell elsewhere on the Internet, but books sold on our website still average only a third of the price of books we sell through our catalogs. So while our Internet sales grow every year, we still derive more of our income from print catalogs and private quotes. Ultimately the progression we strive for is from a random on-line purchase, to more expensive and repeat purchases through our website, further on to even more expensive repeat purchases through our catalogs. Each element is a key component in a larger chain that we have deliberately constructed so that we take control of our profitability and minimize the role that other outside companies have in our revenue.

In conclusion, the future of Internet antiquarian bookselling is certainly not with companies like ABE or Amazon. They don't know anything about antiquarian books themselves, and they don't own antiquarian books. We have the knowledge, and we have the books. So the future of Internet antiquarian bookselling lies in our hands, because the future of all antiquarian bookselling lies in our hands. Large Internet companies reach many millions of people, but they are less valuable as ways to sell individual books, and more valuable as tools to meet collectors. The Internet is a good place to sell some books, but it is a better place to meet customers. The important customers are not one-time buyers, but collectors and institutions, a much smaller group representing bigger and better sales. The web is a tool to reach them and to sell to them, but it is up to the bookseller to make those sales, not to wait for them. eBay and other sites popularize collecting, so the challenge for ILAB and its national organizations is to educate consumers. We must educate them that the most knowledgeable dealers and the best books are ILAB dealers and their books. And we must educate them, individually or collectively, that the best books are bought and sold off the Internet. And I am confident in predicting that the best books will always will be bought and sold not online, but offline.