Thursday, June 29, 2006

Aaaarrrgh! Or, why I deeply regret that we don't SKU

Once upon a time we started our online bookstore. We started with one bookcase and gradually added many more. Without giving it much thought we automatically shelved our books alphabetically by author and divided them into five sections (fiction, children's, etc.). This is what normal bookstores do. It seemed sensible.


Now I know better. An online bookstore is not a normal bookstore. Normal bookstores are designed this way to encourage buyers to browse. If you set up your online bookstore this way you will do lots of browsing.

If I was starting over again I would use a SKU (Stock Keeping Unit) system. This means that you write a number inside the book, or on a sticker that you affix to the spine, after you list it. You file the books by this number. This saves times when you shelve the books. This saves time when looking for a sold book.

Not convinced? Please don't use a SKU system if the following activities sound enjoyable to you:

  • A book of poetry sells. Or at least the database says it's filed in the poetry section. You dutifully trot off to the poetry shelf but the book is not there. You sigh and go back to the computer. You look up the book on Amazon to see if there is more than one author or to see if maybe it's a children's book of poetry and therefore maybe you shelved it in the children's section instead or if there's a least a picture of the wretched book. It's an older book so Amazon doesn't have a picture of it, doesn't have a description of it, has nothing at all. Thanks, Amazon. You even do a Google search in desperation. That was a waste of time. You tread not very softly back to the bookcases - your children see that you are in the I Can't Find A Book zone and give you a wide berth, because if they don't give you a wide berth they know that you will find a way to blame them for the misshelved book - and scour the other sections, and many many minutes later find it shelved under the editor's name instead of the author's name (of course you didn't put the editor's name in your database). Oh the books you could've listed, the books you could've packed during the minutes you were looking for the poetry book.

  • You have before you a stack of books that need to be shelved, books that were listed several weeks days ago so they aren't fresh in your mind. The first book has three different authors. It's a work of non-fiction but it seems to be about religion and you vaguely wonder which category you chose for this book in your database. You could go check on the computer but you're feeling lazy and that would take time. You live on the edge and shelve it, assuming you picked the right author and the right category and you won't pay the price when it comes time to find the book when it sells. Wrong.

I suppose eventually I'll get around to switching our system to SKU. But because that requires spending hours or days unshelving and reshelving each and every book it's possible that the children's photos will get organized into albums or that the we will even put new insulation in the attic before that happens.

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Sunday, June 25, 2006

More bookseller encouragement

This time from John Updike, in today's New York Times:

"Booksellers, you are the salt of the book world. You are on the front line where, while the author cowers in his opium den, you encounter -- or "interface with," as we say now -- the rare and mysterious Americans who are willing to plunk down $25 for a book."

Updike gives a link to an article that gleefully envisions the end of the bookseller and offers his critique. I refused to click on the link to the article because thinking about a "universal library" and the digitalization of books, or mere snippets of one's favorite books, into a virtual bookshelf, much like iTunes, makes me want to don my bunny slippers and hide under the covers as I marinate in denial.

"The book revolution, which, from the Renaissance on, taught men and women to cherish and cultivate their individuality, threatens to end in a sparkling cloud of snippets. So, booksellers, defend your lonely forts. Keep your edges dry. Your edges are our edges. For some of us, books are intrinsic to our sense of personal identity."
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Friday, June 23, 2006

We Are The Future

This dose of bookselling encouragement was served up by Craig Stark on the BookThink forum,in response to the inferiority complex we online booksellers can sometimes get when comparing ourselves to the old school antiquarian 84 Charing Cross Rd type booksellers:

"I think a lot of new school booksellers have felt this way, but the way I look at it is, it isn't the old school booksellers who are going to show us the path to success in the coming years. It's all most of them can do to just adapt their businesses to the Internet. We, on the other hand, were born to sell online. We're in our element. We're the future."
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Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Distracted by Mr. Clean

Washing walls is normally not a temptation from me. Today, however, I bought a package of Mr. Clean Magic Erasers and now I'm an addict.

The Magic Eraser is a sponge that does not use chemical cleaners but is an abrasive that works like fine sandpaper. Booksellers can very carefully use these erasers to remove foxing from the edges of books (see this article for more details). I didn't stop there. Like an artist searching for a canvas, I sought out every available dirty surface. I cleaned the chrome edges of the Formica table. I cleaned an entire wall and now it no longer looks like it desperately needs to be repainted. I cleaned the inside of the microwave. I cleaned the Stokke wooden chairs my little ones use at the table.

I'd still be magically erasing now but I wore out the first eraser. One more white sponge awaits me and I will save that thrill for tomorrow. The downside to the Magic Eraser is the cost. About $1 a pop, so once can't use it with abandon. You can get a $1 coupon here. I see that Amazon sells 24 packs for $21.95. Oh, the temptation.

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Monday, June 19, 2006

Something for myself for a change

While scouting for new inventory on Saturday I was happy to find a copy of Gilead : A Novel by Marilynne Robinson. I rarely find a book for my own personal library while scouting. This book won the Pulitzer Prize last year and I meant to purchase it after reading a library copy. Now I don't have to.

If you haven't had the pleasure of reading this work of elegant literature, I recommend you do so. A letter written by a dying preacher in Iowa to his young son in the 1950's probably doesn't sound like fascinating reading, and if you require fast-paced, thrilling drama, then this might disappoint. An Amazon reviewer said this, "It is another example of what the English language is capable of. The prose is spare, as the subject demands. But it quickly becomes a meditation on how even the simplest life can be touched by grace and wonder. I am not a Christian. In fact, I am an atheist. But this book communicated to me the nurture that can be derived from heartfelt, clear minded, prosaic Christianity."

The preacher, John Ames, marries late in life and has one young son. "It is still true that I will never see a child of mine grow up and I will never see a wife of mine grow old. i've shepherded a good many people through their lives, I've baptized babies by the hundred, and all that time I have felt as though a great part of life was closed to me. Your mother says I was like Abraham. But I had no old wife and no promise of a child. I was just getting by on books and baseball and fried-egg sandwiches."

I happy to have this book sit on my shelf now and I hope to find more copies so I can give them away. I'm not ready to reread the book, however, and am desperately seeking suggestions for novels to read this summer. I'm giving Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne a try right now.
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Friday, June 16, 2006

Leaves Again

Another "summer school" text arrived yesterday: ABC for Book Collectors. It was written in 1952 by John Carter and is now in its eighth edition.

This is not a cover to cover read but rather a reference work of 450 alphabetical entries of the technical terms of book collecting. In my last post I wrote about The Dealer's Thesaurus and the tendency of old school booksellers to use the word "leaves" instead of "pages" when describing a book. I immediately turned to the Leaf entry in ABC for Book Collectors. This book pulls no punches: "The inaccurate and slovenly misuse of page for leaf appears to be on the increase and should be pilloried when found." I'm not sure which I appreciate more: his strong opinion on leaves, or his use of the word "pilloried." I will now have to give even more serious consideration to using the word "leaves" in lieu of "pages." After all, how many Amazon descriptions have this word?

Some more entries from ABC for Book Collectors:
  • Dropped Head - "..which means that there is no title-page, the title being placed at the head of the first page of text; chiefly applicable to pamphlets, leaflets, etc."
  • Wrappers - "A wrappered book, in antiquarian parlance, is what would now be called a paper-back, and it has nothing to do with dust-wrappers or dust-jackets."
  • Bastard Title - It was a bit of a surprise to see a brash term like this, considering that the author thinks the word "pages" is unsophisticated. A bastard title is the same thing as the half title page: "the leaf in front of the title-page."
  • Extra-illustrated - "...copies which have been added to them, either by a private owner or professionally."

I'm tempted to take this new knowledge and write a description like this for one book, just for fun, just to see if the book would ever sell or generate customer inquiries: "The bastard title has marginal worming, the wrappers are slightly cockled, but otherwise a sparkling copy, save for one carelessly opened page and a dropped head on the terminal leaf rather than on the header leaf due to a printer error."

I removed a book from our inventory the other day because Fourth Daughter paged through it too enthusiastically but perhaps I should have changed the description to the following: "Every leaf carelessly opened and extra-illustrated by a young artist using a crayon and strawberry jam mixture, the book is generally shaken, a wad of chewing gum tipped in, soil on head and tail of text block complete affecting the interior, but a pristine copy in all other respects."

Who says writing descriptions can't ever be fun?

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Tuesday, June 13, 2006

First Day of Summer School

I decided that this summer I need to learn more bookselling terminology and ordered a few books to help me in this cause. My first textbook arrived yesterday, Dealer's thesaurus: 6,000 ways to describe books & historical paper and if you are a bookseller I'd say you should run right out and buy it except the cheapest copy out there is $65.00, so it's not an impulse buy. A couple of weeks ago, before I ordered my copy, the cheapest copy was $99.00. I hesitated for several days (have I ever spent $65 for a book? perhaps not) and, lo and behold, a seller listed a copy for $65.00, so I bought it.

If you're not a bookseller you probably can't imagine why this book is so interesting. There are no paragraphs or complete sentences. It's 195 pages of lists of phrases used to describe books. It was published in 1993, pre-internet. The author combed through the paper catalogs of other booksellers. "I spent hours wondering how to describe faults I would encounter," she explains in the introduction. "I quickly learned that collecting useful phrases on index cards when I came across them was more efficient than searching for a phrase to fit the situation at a given moment."

These useful phrases are in this book and I've already used a couple of them in my descriptions. Some of the phrases are a hoot, such as this one under binding faults: "some moron used tape to secure the front cover." Here are some other phrases:

  • marginal worming injuring letters in the running heads
  • pages are slightly cockled
  • occasional foxing to terminal leaves
  • one page carelessly opened
  • a few leaves ruffled
  • pages lightly damp-rippled; otherwise very good
  • with the spine largely perished
  • generally shaken

How does one carelessly open a single page? One better not carelessly open a book with a largely perished spine. I like the words "cockled" and "damp-rippled." I've noticed that the word "leaves" is often used instead of "pages." So that's another way to sound like a professional bookseller. Maybe I should start saying, "don't color on the leaves" and "don't rip the leaves" to the children.

Booksellers who write those descriptions, which I see way too often, that do everything but describe the book ("We ship fast - U save $") or, worse, don't write any description at all, obviously haven't read the Dealer's Thesaurus. This book will always be at hand when I list books.

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Monday, June 12, 2006

Empty, lost

Standing in our empty storage room on Friday was a relief, after so many weeks spent moving our books. All of our listed books are now in our home and I was eager for the first Friday order to arrive because I knew I would only have to walk a few steps, rather than hop in the car, to go retrieve it.

It was a $20 book. woo hoo. Except that it wasn't on the shelf. It wasn't in any of the five boxes of unshelved books. I spontaneously dropped everything and shelved those five boxes of books in my frustration to find the $20 book. During the two hours I spent shelving books I felt slightly desperate like I do when I can't find my keys when I'm late, or when I used to look for a child's pacifier in the middle of the night. Shelving all the books was an important task to complete but I did not feel any satisfaction because the $20 book was still missing. I looked everywhere. I thought of ways to blame the children and searched their bags of play things. I even became somewhat dramatic in my thinking, with the "Oh no, I'll never find another book, I've ruined our business by culling our inventory so dramatically and moving all these books" soundtrack going through my head.

Then an order arrived for a $32 book. I found it. Whew. I noticed it was from the thrift store where I never find anything decent, except for this $32 book, so I made a mental note to stop there again. We've had several more orders since Friday and I found all the books. I didn't ruin our business after all.
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Monday, June 05, 2006

Outdoor Bookstore

Over the weekend we had a yard sale for books we no longer want to sell. Hundreds of books. After the sale we posted a "free books" sign and sent an e-mail to Freecycle. Freecycle is an e-mail group in every large community where you can give away unwanted items or place requests for items, all for free. My favorite Freecycle e-mail so far is one that was titled: "Wanted: llama poop."

A Freecycler stopped by and asked if she could take away all the children's books so she could mail them to children in Africa. Of course she can take them all away! Because I've carried so many boxes of books this week, having someone offer to take books away is almost as wonderful as someone offering me free U2 tickets. Another freecycler stopped by with her young children at 10:30 p.m. with a flash light. It rained early this morning, which I didn't expect, so the outdoor bookstore party is officially over. We'll have to take the books to the recycling center now, instead of the thrifts.

I don't know which title is more amusing: How to Massage Your Cat or Memoirs of a Sleep-Walker. We removed both of those books from our inventory yesterday, along with 100 others. If those books appeal to you I'm sorry, you'll have to buy them from someone else. I lingered overly long over How to Build an Addition and set it aside for further reading. When you sell books and have four kids an addition is appealing. And lugging 80 cement blocks and all that wood sounds easy right now. I don't suppose the zoning laws would permit using books as a foundation. Oh well.
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Thursday, June 01, 2006

Throwing Books

Experiencing panic at the sight of one's child paging through a picture book is probably something that happens only to a bookselling parent. After two years of hearing me say, "No! That book is listed!" my two youngest daughters were wide eyed and very quiet when I offered them the opportunity to spend part of the morning throwing books.

"You can throw them. Sit on them. Kick them," I said and showed them the pile of children's books we have recently purged from our inventory. Instead they sat and paged carefully through the books and read aloud to each other. After several minutes Fourth Daughter said, "Look mama! I'm throwing books!" She then proceeded to throw the book they way one might throw a delicate antique Christmas ornament with the intent of not having it shatter.

I've trained them well. Or have I?
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