On Sunday, 9 June 2019 at Firsts: London, Biblio hosted a round-table discussion called The Evolving State of Internet Bookselling. We were lucky enough to feature the following participants:
- A.N. Devers (moderator): author, journalist, arts critic, and owner, The Second Shelf
- Susan Benne: part of the rare book industry for 20 years as a bookseller, director of the New York Antiquarian Book Fair, and as Executive Director of the ABAA
- Jonathan Kearns: owner, Jonathan Kearns Rare Books
- Luke Lozier: Principal, Bibliopolis
- Brendan Sherar: Founder & CEO, Biblio
- Anthony Smithson: Manager/Director, Keel Row Bookshop
The talk covered a variety of issues related to how the internet has shaped bookselling in the modern era and what the future of internet bookselling might hold for bibliophiles everywhere.
The importance of diversity in materials and the collectors of those materials was highlighted, as well as making a solid online identity for yourself as a seller. A strong social media presence has become increasingly important and bookselling is progressing steadily away from plain, print catalogs and towards telling the story of a book through images, interests, and provenance.
Intrigued? Listen, or scroll below for the complete transcript:
A. N. Devers: Good morning everyone. Hello, my name is Allison Devers. I’m a writer and arts journalist, and also the owner of a bookshop in SoHo called The Second Shelf, which is a bookstore of first editions, rare books and antiquarian books primarily by women. I’ve been asked to moderate this talk, and I’m very happy to be here.
We’re here to discuss this morning the evolving state of internet book selling. I’m just going to introduce everybody very quickly. Then we’re going to immediately start a conversation. We’re going to speak for about half an hour, and then we’ll have about 15 minutes for questions.
I’ll go around this way. We have Johnathon Kearns of Johnathon Kearn’s Rare Books. We have Anthony Smithson, Manager and Director of Keel Row Books. We have Susan Benne who has been in the trade in various capacities for over 20 years, and we have Luke Lozier of Bibliopolis who is the principal, and Brendan Sherar the Founder and CEO of Biblio.
I think if everyone on the panel when they speak if they want to elaborate on their roles before we start talking, that’s helpful as well. The title of the panel, Evolving State of Internet Book Selling, suggests a lot of different things we can cover. I thought I would just ask a very basic starting question which is, where is internet book selling right now or where has it been for the past few years, and where each of you seeing change happening at this moment, or where is the interesting part or the challenge for you? I will try my best to highlight and ask questions to cover a range of topics. So the future, where are we, and what’s interesting and challenging about the future of internet book selling?
Who would like to start?
Johnathon Kearns: I can start. You asked where we are at the moment. We’re still blocked in a model that was initiated 15, 20 years ago when we first started thinking this way, when we were attempting to duplicate the experience of a bookshelf, but online. I think the way it’s evolving and changing is that the concept of a fixed marketplace where everyone can take and put their book, is gone. It’s not going to be happening any more, and we’ll end up with this archipelago of floating marketplaces, which will move closer to each other and then disperse. Like Facebook and people selling lots of books on Instagram and on Twitter, this kind of stuff, then also from their main website, and then also from another platform. You spread yourself across many disparate areas.
Anthony Smithson: Well, I run a high street shop, so the main challenge for me in selling books online now, is it’s a much more labor intensive process than it used to be in cataloging a book, taking it to a fair, and you’re pricing the book and putting it on a shelf. The labor involved in photographing the book, cataloging it, getting it up there, using this software, getting a handle on this software, and then uploading it to multiple marketplaces at the same time, is a very labor intensive process. There’s so many [inaudible 00:03:46] old fashioned bricks and mortar premises, I have that to contend with too. So, I think that one of the great challenges to booksellers is knowing which proper place to sell their books through, and finding the layout and/or working at the scalability of getting those books on the internet in the first place. How do you go from having two and a half thousand books online, to having 25000 books online, and the issues around managing that when you’re out of stock?
Johnathon Kearns: And does that help?
Anthony Smithson: Yeah, and does that help?
A. N. Devers: We had a meeting yesterday, and one of the things we talked about was that it’s actually impossible to meet all of the needs of the different internet marketplaces that exist. For a while, that felt like that was what internet book selling was. That there was one landing place, or two landing places, where you could put all of your books, and that’s where people went. For instance, I don’t yet have my books listed anywhere. The one place I sell my books online, well two, really, is Instagram, where I don’t even tell people they’re for sale, and Twitter, where I link my Instagram to my Twitter. The people see pictures of books and they get very excited. They message me, and I probably sell one in five of the books that I take a picture of. That is, actually, not very labor intensive.
This is one way that you can start thinking about how to take some of the work away from the process. Is to be strategic about what books you post. Do it quickly. Be excited about it, and see what happens.
Now, it’s not necessarily going to get you 20000 books online, but perhaps that isn’t necessarily going to serve booksellers as much right now, for what the internet marketplace is.
Susan Benne: I would also say that, because book selling, before the internet, in any way, has been a very capital intensive business, you need to have money to start your business, and especially when stores were bricks and mortar, rather than internet only. It created certain barriers to entry. So, now, almost anybody who has books, even just a collection that they want to sell, can go online and create a marketplace. They can create their own website in certain sales platforms. They can sell their books there.
That means that there’s going to be a lot more material for sale that isn’t going to be what would have been more of the top of the market in the quality. That’s not necessarily a good thing.
On the other hand, whereas there were barriers to entry, say you were a young woman and worked for a bookseller, you were dependent upon that bookseller to promote you, and introduce you to other people, to help create the network, so that you could eventually go out on your own as a bookseller. And if that didn’t happen, then those networks weren’t there.
Whereas online now, and we’ve actually worked to create virtual communities on Facebook and other places on the internet, so that women and other people can meet each other and create those networks, create those connections with other dealers, with customers, with libraries, where it used to be so dependent on that interpersonal communication and introductions. That’s a good thing.
Luke Lozier: You speak of barriers to entry for booksellers, but I think what everybody is worried about for the future should be barriers to entry for collectors. Future collectors. How to get young people, or for that matter, the first group of collectors. You talk about the archipelago of places to sell. We need to find, where are these people? They’re everywhere, of course.
Anthony Smithson: They’re out there.
Luke Lozier: Right there. Right. What we do at Bibliopolis, at least, is we try to give people the tools to manage that archipelago from a single source, so we can reach out to those collectors. For example, recently people have started to list on eBay through our system, and it’s a totally different group of people that are buying books on eBay, Abe, and Biblio, and other places. These are people that nobody has ever sold books to before, and I’m curious as to whether that’s a group of people who are longtime collectors, or maybe these are the new collectors that we can pull in, and grow into real customers for longterm.
Brendan Sherar: I think, from my perspective, to add to a lot of the points that have been made here, as the Operator of a traditional marketplace site, our traffic and sales over our 16 year history mirrored, in a lot of ways, what we considered the typical collector. Older, typically male audience, that reflects what, I guess, the book selling trade has classically considered a book collector.
But what we’ve noticed, over the past five to six years, is a really remarkable shift in terms of the traffic that’s coming to our website. We’re seeing an emergent audience that’s much younger, that’s more female, to the point that that traffic now actually exceeds that of that classic image of the older male book collector.
But what’s interesting in going back to the question of the challenge, is that audience isn’t converting as well in terms of the actual purchases. They’re clearly coming. They’re finding something of interest on our site, but we are somehow not meeting that need. Whether that’s the medium in which we present the material, or the opportunities we give them, there’s a disconnect between the expectations this younger, more female audience, and I think what the classic internet marketplace is able to provide.
For us, that’s the dominant challenge right now. It’s how do we actually take those people? There’s clearly a desire to fill a niche in that market. How do we meet that?
Johnathon Kearns: I think … Do you mind if I … ?
A. N. Devers: No.
Johnathon Kearns: Thanks. I think addressing that particular question, there are always the same barriers to entry [inaudible 00:10:44] they’re always linguistic. They’re always presentations. We are a very opaque trade. We have our own language. We have our own ways of describing things. We haven’t changed any of that, and we haven’t tried to, since Gutenberg onwards. I think we’re rapidly entering a phase where we are going to have to address that quite strongly, and try and figure out why it is that our methods of self identification are not traversing the divide between what used to be a book collector, and what is going to be a book collector in five or 10 years time.
And that covers the entirety of the trade. Book fairs, catalogs, how we present ourselves on the internet, how we show ourselves to people in public. It’s from the top down. We have to be converting and changing absolutely everything, and thinking about everything that we do, in order to make this transition move further forward. It’s everything.
Anthony Smithson: Can I add to that? I think in terms of conversion rates, in the generation of co-actors coming onto the Biblio site, I think it’s sometimes it’s obviously, it can be a question of affordability, but it’s also a question of trust, I think. That’s why fairs like this, and bricks and mortar bookshops, are still so important. Because, it’s often the first personal contact that a collector has with a bookseller. It can be a question of trust.
You see something on the internet [crosstalk 00:12:14]. The question is, is it value for money? Do you trust that seller? Do you have a relationship with that seller?
Announcer: This program meets on the mezzanine level. [inaudible 00:12:32] will focus on highlights from the John Wolfson Rare Book Collection Exhibition, staged in Shakespeare’s Globe. That’s at mid-day, on the mezzanine level. Shakespeare’s Globe. Highlights from the John Wolfson Rare Book Collection.
Anthony Smithson: Book collectors don’t spring fully formed. [crosstalk 00:12:57].
Announcer: At 12:30, they’ll be [crosstalk 00:13:05] Café, it’s called Getting To Know Early Printed Books. [Leo Corduffin 00:13:10], who’s a leader in early printing, will introduce you to quirky, the beautiful, and the amazing [crosstalk 00:13:15]. In the process, he will provide brief introduction to the [inaudible 00:13:25] and what makes it so interesting. That’s Getting To Know Early Printed Books [inaudible 00:13:40] at 12:30.
Anthony Smithson: [crosstalk 00:13:40] There’s a line in Silence Of The Lambs, where Hannibal Lector, I know this seems a bit divergent, but where he’s talking to Clarice Starling, and he says, “People covet what they see.” Talking about a serial killer, but in this instance, we’re talking about rare books. People generally covet what they see. When they come to a book fair like this, and they physically see the actual object and get their hands on it, there’s a world of difference between that and seeing an image and a catalog description on the internet. Or even just seeing a catalog course. There’s a relationship and a sense of trust that’s developed between a bookseller and customer when they’re buying a book under those circumstances that can’t be duplicated online.
Which is, as I said, why bricks and mortar premises, I think at fairs like this, are so more important will continue to be relevant in book buying terms, and why it’s important that we need to reach out to that Instagram generation and get them into these fairs to find small books at 50 pounds, and 75 pounds.
A. N. Devers: I guess one thing I would say is that it’s becoming a bit more easier to get people excited about books using social media. You have to be excited about the books on social media, that is what I’ve learned. I sell and get people in my store.
I am in a very hidden spot. I don’t have a high street store. My store is absolutely obscured from any street traffic. I get people coming into my store all day long who tell me, “I saw you on Twitter. I saw you on Instagram. I saw you here and there.” The way that I talk about books on those platforms, is to be very specific about the books in a way that is exciting and joyful about what’s special about them.
I think that sometimes the trade suffers a bit, if I can say this, from thinking that they have to be like everybody else. That washes out our excitement, because we’re worried about other people’s books and how they present them, when we really should be focused on our specialties, narrowing down our specialties to communicate a message. And using those platforms to say what makes our books great.
That allows people to have trust in you online, and bring you to book fairs and draw people out. I don’t know if anyone wants to …
Johnathon Kearns: I think it’s vitally important not to disappoint people’s sense of wonder. And we tend to do that quite a lot. The sense of wonder that is engendered by the rare book trade, as it’s been seen from the outside all tweedy, kettle boiling, and all that. I think people often encounter us, and then some go, “I don’t understand half the words. I know that there’s something here that I want, but you’re making it very difficult for me to want it more.” I think we do that quite a lot. And at certain points in the history of the trade, we’ve done it deliberately in order to position ourselves on a hierarchical level. I think the internet is destroying those traditional hierarchies, and attempting to hold on to them is a daft idea. We should just start being a lot more egalitarian about things.
A. N. Devers: [crosstalk 00:17:01] I’ll pass it to you.
Luke Lozier: I think we should think about, what is collectible? You’re talking about the sense of wonder. Sometimes not only a first edition, but you mentioned yesterday that you sell books, Virginia Woolf without a dust cover for 40, 50 pounds to someone, and they feel like a collector. These people are growing up now, and books are going to be cool. Whether they’re rare books, or not. They’ll become more rare over time, just because we’re not printing as many books.
Selling second editions, or association copies, you’ve got a Jane Austen that’s a second edition association copy, so it’s still special. We need to be thinking about broadening inventory. I think there’s no reason that we can’t be selling cool books, even though they’re not rare.
Brendan Sherar: I might add to that a little bit from personal experience. My daughter is actually back at the Airbnb, so I can call her out without embarrassing her here. But she’s 18 years old, and I would consider her a book collector, but she doesn’t fit the mold of the traditional book collector. She doesn’t care so much whether a book is necessarily signed, or a first edition, she cares how it’s going to look on her shelf. How it’s going to present an image of herself.
When we talk about social media, that’s an important thing to note. This younger generation really curates their identity with online profiles. For them, their books can be a presentation of who they are and their identity. So, for her, she wants books that their covers may look good together. So, she’s looking for particular editions.
They may be, speaking in US dollars, obviously I’m from America, they may be $20 books, or they may be $50 books. She’s young, so obviously her spending power isn’t that great. But to Luke’s point, that’s the key thing. It doesn’t necessarily have to be what we would say is the traditional intrinsic value of a first edition to this younger demographic.
That’s something that we’ve been looking to find a way to appeal to, or recreate. I think Allison has clearly found a way to do that with her shop.
A. N. Devers: Just a specific example, I sold five copies of Flush by Virginia Woolf this week in seven days. One first edition in jacket for many hundred pounds, three without a jacket, that were first editions in varying degrees of state, for between 40 and 90 pounds, and one second impression for 20. I tell the internet I sold them. Once there was a run, other people came to get the rest, because they were excited that Flush was a bestseller in my store for a week, and now I have no more copies.
It’s fun to tell people the books you sell. I might be one of the few people I see doing this, but I tell people what I sell in my shop on Twitter. I say, “I sold this today. We sold that today.” I don’t want to be bragging. It’s exciting because people get excited about what people are reading, buying, and spending money on.
That’s something that you can do. Be happy that you sold a book online.
Johnathon Kearns: Transparency.
A. N. Devers: Transparency is okay.
Susan Benne: I would say, adding to that, you’ve been especially good at building your brand through yourself, because you are your brand, so it’s incredibly important, and it’s something that I’ve noticed not all booksellers necessarily think about when translating what they’ve done offline into online. That it’s very important to think about how you’re presenting yourself, and how you’re presenting your material.
Like what Johnathon was saying, the vocabulary of cataloging and bibliography, is not necessarily going to be something that’s accessible to the general public. These are all things to think about, and the images that you put out there of the books and how you present yourself, are going to be much different when you’re translating that to an online presence.
Johnathon Kearns: A large part of that is the fact that keeping online presences, keeping them separate, keeping the professional things separate from personal things, is rapidly becoming impossible. Somebody is looking at your business, they’re going to go, “Oh, right. Okay, so you sell this and that’s your website.” And then they just Google you. They also get your Twitter, your personal Twitter, your professional Twitter, your personal Instagram, your professional Instagram. Keeping them all separate is very difficult.
You sell these books. You love these books. You are a bookseller. That is either reflected, or not reflected in everything else that you do. So, really people coming to you, are seeing you as a much more complete entity now than they ever did before, when you were standing in the shop and they walked in and got your books. They’re already walking in with a bunch of preconceptions.
This cropped up a while ago in a conversation about, I’m not sure the right use of the word, but problematic materials exhibited at book fairs with no explanation, and no context. So, we feel we should be able to bring in things to a book fair that we have for sale. This is a thing. You can place it in its context if you talk to us, but we need to signpost that a lot more. Because, you don’t get to have the conversation. You don’t have dialogue. You can’t say to someone, “Me wearing this silly hat is not the thing I look like all the time,” because they’re just going to look at the image, look at your presentation, and go that’s what we’re like all the time. So, we need to be much more aware of that. We are indivisible from our product [inaudible 00:23:14]. Sorry about that.
A. N. Devers: It’s okay. I’m just not sometimes very good at how am I divisible from my product. I put it all out there, for good or bad.
Johnathon Kearns: You’re my point. You’re the illustrative point.
Susan Benne: It works for you.
A. N. Devers: It works for me. Not everyone is going to be comfortable with it. My experience on social media predates my book selling, so I have that background to bring to it, that other people might say, “Well, I can’t do that.” But I guess my point would be that I actually think that most booksellers are very exited about their books. Most booksellers really like what they sell. And it’s our job as booksellers to figure out the platforms that work for us to communicate our excitement about those books. That is who you are, as well.
But, we have a lot of traditions in the trade, and also a lot of social convention, generally, in different cultures, that prevent us from feeling comfortable doing that. That’s actually everybody’s own responsibility to figure out their comfort level with where and how they sell online.
Johnathon Kearns: But a lot of your comfort level is not a choice here, is the thing, it’s one of the points I was trying to make. We don’t have the choice. We like to think that we can separate, this is my business, this is my personal life, this is the rest of it, but the way that the internet operates, especially for younger people, is that those things are totally one thing.
A. N. Devers: I locked my Instagram account for my personal, recently. I think there are ways you can [crosstalk 00:25:04]. There are ways that you can make choices that allow your comfort level to exist. But the thing is that you have to be aware that what you put out there is part of what people see you as.
Johnathon Kearns: And you have to be okay with that.
A. N. Devers: And you have to be okay with it. I think that’s true. But one thing that’s really important that I think we haven’t said yet, but we talked about yesterday, is that, it’s not just about young people, but we are at a place were diversity and inclusivity, or what is the word in the academic parlance is intersectionality, you cannot leave people out. You can be a specialist in something, but it’s really important that you contextualize your specialty and not leave people out of interest.
People want to support diversity in books, but also in the trade, and in book selling. That means a lot of different things, and I thought maybe we could just talk about that word, diversity, and what it means to everybody, before we open it up for questions.
Susan Benne: From my perspective, it’s incredibly important to have diversity in terms of the voices that are represented. What I mean by that, is the people who are selling books, or the printed material, or histories, because these are going to end up in special collections, and if we’re only hearing from a small group of voices, what scholars, researchers, and students are going to be studying is going to be very skewed. So, making sure that the people who are selling the books, the material itself is diverse, and those who are helping getting the material into collections have diversity and diverse perspectives is incredibly important.
Luke Lozier: Just to shorten that a little bit, there’s diversity in booksellers themselves, the material they sell, and in collectors. So, there’s these three different … They all have to work together, but all of them have to be taken into account all the time.
Brendan Sherar: Thinking about it from an economic perspective, there’s a real hopeful note, I think, in thinking about the potential for inclusion and diversity in the trade. It’s, as we all know, historically been a trade that’s been fairly narrow in its appeal to certain groups of people, and other groups have not participated as much. I think if all of us can find strategies to broaden that, and to bring, whether it’s the younger generation, or whether it’s more women, or ethnic minorities into the trade, what we’re effectively doing for ourselves, is we are expanding [crosstalk 00:28:06] the market over night, which is an enormous potential there [crosstalk 00:28:10]. With that, I think [crosstalk 00:28:20] I think we’re at a point with the internet that enables us to do something that’s not been possible in the past, which is to reach these audiences. In doing so, I think there’s tremendous opportunity and hope for the trade to grow.
Susan Benne: I agree with that.
Anthony Smithson: I would only add that I think that the market will determine the books that we’re going to be selling, and it will determine the booksellers too, so if there’s a thirst for particular material, the booksellers are going to have to raise their game, step up, and start handling that kind of material, whatever background those booksellers come from.
As a bookseller that sells material across a wide, diverse range of fields, I run a general secondhand antiquarian bookshop, I’m always thinking about context. You can lift a book, and in one context it’s completely unsaleable, and transplant it into another context where it means something completely different to somebody else. There’s no better way of finding that vibe within a separate context, then online.
Johnathon Kearns: I think the need to push envelopes is coming. We’re seeing that a lot at the moment. In my opinion, I think that most of the groundbreaking work has been done over the last three or four years in the way that the trade has changed and the way that books are being presented, is all being done by young women in the trade, coming in as either sole traders, or taking over from the other businesses [inaudible 00:29:57]. Because, they’re selling to areas … It’s like a point that we make at YABS every year, which is that 10 or 15 years ago, if you were selling to an acquisitions librarian at a major institution, it was a man in his 60s. Whereas now, the likelihood of it is, it’s a woman in her mid 30s, who is just entirely building different collections about different things, and who will naturally be looking for people who can supply that need in a sensitive fashion, and in an inclusive fashion, in a way that isn’t just happening upon it by accident.
The lessons in the trade at one point might have been from the top down, how is this 100 year old business handling this, but now I think it’s in the opposite direction. You look in the opposite direction and see businesses that are one woman in Idaho who has a stock of books and fan zines and various other things, she’s pushing envelopes and making new markets in a way that everybody can learn from, rather than the opposite way around. And you, obviously.
A. N. Devers: That’s very nice. It’s time for questions. I know we really spoke about … We can take questions that are very specific is what I want to say, about things we didn’t cover. There’s other things about internet book selling that we totally didn’t touch that are nuts and bolts, so, please free to ask questions and maybe you will help me with the mic?
Johnathon Kearns: Do you have any questions? We’re going to take two right there. [crosstalk 00:31:41].
Audience Member: A question really, for Biblio, if I may. Can you share any plans you have for future developments on the site? Anything that’s new and exciting you think that we’d like to hear?
Anthony Smithson: [crosstalk 00:32:00] I’ll take a second one [crosstalk 00:32:01].
Audience Member: My question is flipping it around the other way, with the whole transparency thing. That everybody can see what you’re doing. How do you think it affects the buying aspects of the trade? Because I’ve found that increasingly problematic, is what we pay for a book and then what’s it acceptable to make on a book in an age a lot more visible [inaudible 00:32:28]. I find myself having the conversation quite frequently these days. [crosstalk 00:32:36].
Brendan Sherar: The question, if I could reiterate was, what sort of things does Biblio have on the horizon that we’d be willing to share [inaudible 00:32:46]. A major reason we’re here at this fair is we are looking to expand our presence internationally, outside the US. We’ve had a site here in the UK for about 10 years, and I think five or six years in Australia/New Zealand. But it’s been a very passive thing for us. Most of our marketing efforts have been focused in the US. So, this, for us, is a real intentional move to invest in the UK market, and also begin expanding our focus in Europe and other places.
As far as product development comes, some of the key things that we’ve been working on are options for consolidated shipping to reduce cost for customers to be able to buy our books across the pond. We are working on both [inaudible 00:33:39] versions of the site. We’re increasing the types of payment methods that are available for customers to purchase with. Ashleigh, am I forgetting anything…there are a few things, but that gives you the general flavor of what we have ahead.
Additionally, we don’t like to say the word redesign, because for us, that accompanies all kinds of pain and turmoil we don’t like to undergo, so instead call it the re-skin. We’re working on that, so our website will be updated in the coming year, and just make it look more modern, hopefully to appeal to this newer generation of collectors. Thank you.
Johnathon Kearns: Can I have a go at Jonathan Frost’s question? The increased transparency and the need to be increasingly transparent, there’s no denying that that’s going to be a thing that happens. You just need to be more transparent. But if I have a problem with my car, and I employ a mechanic who’s been a mechanic for 20 years, I’m not paying him for the day he turns up, I’m paying him for the 20 years. That’s what we do. I’ve been a bookseller for 25 years, so if I price a book, you’re buying it based on that 25 years. The fact that you can look back two years ago and find out that I bought it in an auction house for 400 quid, and I’m selling it for 975, is okay. As long as you can explain it.
It can be problematic if someone goes, “Yes, but I know what you paid for it.” But then, that’s going to happen all the time anyway. You just go, “Yeah, but I added value to it in the intervening period.” Is how I would see it. Because it’s expected it uses skill and ability. This is not an easy trade. You need to know stuff.
Anthony Smithson: That’s what catalog descriptions are for. You’re putting your book in there. As I said, context. You’re taking it out of one context, which is an auction five years ago, which only had maybe 48 hours worth of viewing, where the book was only on sale for a very short space of time. You’re taking that book, adding value to it. You could have seen something about the book that was not spotted by another bookseller. And you’re re-contextualizing it and adding value in putting it up for sale. Johnathon is quite right, he says it’s experience.
A. N. Devers: I think that narrative in telling story about the books is exactly what the investment we make in the books is to make them worth the money that we put on them. I’ve had books that I bought very early, when I didn’t have a lot of experience, and I thought eventually I’m going to be able to say something about this book.
There’s a book that I hadn’t really done anything with, or shown anyone, something I bought two years ago at a fair, that I finally got my narrative, my story, did enough research, to be able to really articulate what was so special about it to the right couple people, and I sold it. I sold it for a good margin. I don’t feel bad about that. I feel like I did good by that material. [crosstalk 00:36:39].
Johnathon Kearns: That was that thing. Recently I bought a manuscript from the early 19th century, it was quite cheap, it’s publicly visible how much I paid for it, somewhere on the internet. And then I sat there and I spent about a week making my head ache and my eyes go bad trying to decode this person’s handwriting, and then halfway through it, I suddenly went, “Oh, yeah, Byron, all right, okay. That’s pretty cool.” If I hadn’t done that, then it wouldn’t … The price it’s at now [inaudible 00:37:11]. You’re not going to know that unless I sit there and hurt myself trying to figure it out. That’s what we do.
Susan Benne: Just adding to what everybody else said, the takeaway is, people, even in a product centric industry, as opposed to a service industry, people don’t buy things, they buy services. The other analogy I would use is, when you have an ailment, you can go online and you can Google what your ailment is and self diagnose, or you can go to the doctor, who specializes in what your ailment is and actually get it fixed. There’s going to be a transaction involved in that, and some value added into going with that route.
Brendan Sherar: Lovely.
A. N. Devers: Anybody?
Johnathon Kearns: That was the perfect analogy.
Anthony Smithson: Yeah, it’s great.
A. N. Devers: Are there any more questions?
Johnathon Kearns: Should have gone to you first.
Audience Member: I guess slightly related to the last question, but I was wondering how in the internet is developing as a source of stock for you, and are you increasingly looking around yourselves, as booksellers, on the net to see what’s around and if you can find that other people have not noticed what it is, and that sort of thing? Is it replacing your own previous ways of finding books?
Audience Member: I’m a book seller from South Africa, and we’ve been selling online for a number of years, but we face a number of probably fairly big challenges being so far away. Not only being postal, but also being perception based. Who are you? Can we trust somebody from South Africa? If there’s a book for 100 pounds with a London dealer, and we’ve got it listed for 60 pounds, who are you going to choose? Are you going to choose the London dealer, because they’re close to you and you feel more comfortable dealing with them?
So, my question is really, does anybody have any advice, or any input into how to bridge that gap, being so far away? Coming here from South Africa, I feel a great … It’s wonderful to see such trade. Sitting where I do, there isn’t much of a trade. There aren’t many people who are serious dealers.
So, the question is, is there any advice on how to make one’s online presence more inclusive and be part of the big gang, while still a unique offering from South Africa? Because we do, we have a unique stance within the trade.
A. N. Devers: For you, I didn’t have a lot of money when I started my business. I started it out of pocket for about a year before I did a Kickstarter and then raised money. I found a lot of the books that I ended up selling for decent money, in unusual places on the internet. Non-book selling places. Places were there were antiques. Places where there were vintage items. Places where people list things for sale and put a pice on them, but might not know what books are. It takes an enormous amount of time finding those places, but once you find them, you look again, and again.
Sometimes those places actually develop this trade too. They realize they’re getting those things sold, and they end up raising their prices, and you have to go looking. But sometimes, it’s a community. People then know what you’re looking for and bring you things, sometimes.
I think the internet is wonderful for that. I have found some real treasures. I’m talking about things like Etsy, which is a crafts marketplace for most people. They sell their homemade goods, but they sell vintage things there as well. I find things on Biblio and Abe all the time, then I usually try to write the bookseller to ask questions. There are people there selling books sometimes and not necessarily able to articulate what it is and you need to check on what it is before you buy it.
I look in all sorts of places online. I think it’s really fun, but I’m a person who grew up in that environment of moving a lot, and going places, and finding things. It’s what I like to do.
I don’t know if anyone wants to add to that, but if not, we can [crosstalk 00:41:43].
Anthony Smithson: Getting back to the issue that I raised earlier, it’s incredibly time consuming, never mind about Facebook, and Etsy, and Instagram, searching for material that way. Or even eBay. You’ve then got all of the auction houses. There are literally hundreds of auction catalogues that you can be trawling through, which is why keyword search is obviously a primary, and why specialization in your own field helps enormously, because you can focus in on those things.
You really do need to do that, because the internet is really endless. You could spend every waking hour of your life, just trawling through list, after list, after list. So, you have to [crosstalk 00:42:35] focus on what you want and what works best for you, really. What works best for your business. [crosstalk 00:42:40].
Johnathon Kearns: To just illustrate this diversity of approach, I know a guy who scours the hashtag shelfie on Instagram, zooms in on the pictures of people’s bookshelves, then he contacts them and asks them if they want to sell those books.
Brendan Sherar: Clever.
A. N. Devers: Haven’t heard that before. About this selling when you’re in a less robust marketplace in a far away country, does anybody want to talk about how we build community and get people trusting [crosstalk 00:43:16]?
Anthony Smithson: Do you have a bricks and mortar shop? That’s a major advantage. And then from anybody buying online, they want to know that you’re an established bookseller. If you have a high street premises, there’s a degree of authority there immediately. You’re remember the South African Trade Association? So, again, I don’t know what to add to that.
Audience Member: We’re well established, but it’s more the perception of what’s the difference between South Africa and Nigeria? To buying and being scammed. I think that’s a personal thing, it’s not a trade oriented perception.
A. N. Devers: I try to order quite a bit if books from South Africa, because I have clients who are women who want to read writing by South African women. I would say only 50% of it got delivered. I think that is a challenge for you. However, I think Instagram, hashtags, showing people sending the books. Take a picture of the mail going out. Be excited about the books you sold. That’s the transparency. People see you doing your job. It’s not actually that hard to be joyful about getting orders.
Audience Member: I think the problem comes in [inaudible 00:44:35] because it’s perceived-
A. N. Devers: So, you’re going to have to position on the internet differently than just using some of the platforms. If they find the books on the platforms, they might find them if you do more of that through your Instagram, then they go to the platform and search the books you have. It’s all circular, and you should do it specifically about certain books to test it out, in a way. Maybe.
Johnathon Kearns: Yeah, build an identity.
A. N. Devers: Yeah. That’s what I would do. I think that we probably are out of time. I hope that we covered some interesting things. I’m very thankful to have gotten to talk to all of these amazing people about how we sell books.
Johnathon Kearns: Anthony had to go sell a book.
A. N. Devers: Anthony had to go sell a book, so that’s great. Thank you guys. Thank you so much.
Amber is the current marketing coordinator at Biblio. A lifelong love of the written word brought her to Biblio and she happily spends her days talking about books and delving into the wide world of antiquarian books.
You can also find her in the garden or writing about brewing and plant adventures at Pixie’s Pocket.