HOLT UNCENSORED #126
by Pat Holt
Friday, February 4, 2000:
WHO IS KIDDING WHOM? LETTERS
HOW NORMA DOES IT
BOOKSELLERS ON THE WEB: PART II
WHO IS KIDDING WHOM?
Who makes money selling books on the web? Amazon.com said yesterday that it's finally pulling a profit in the book division, although the company "did not disclose the net margin or say how it achieved the profit," reports the New York Times.
Quite a hat trick, wouldn't you say? It does seem that whenever its figures are down - and the company's operating loss of $605.7 million in 1999 certainly takes the breath away - Amazon.com holds a press conference or makes an acquisition or somehow employs all the bells and whistles to keep those day traders interested and the rest of us distracted.
But this time is different. I don't believe for a minute that Amazon.com made a profit in books in the 4th quarter of 1999. It was enough of a gamble for founder Jeff Bezos to blurt out to Time Magazine that Amazon.com could make books pay by the end of the this year, 2000. That, too, was going to be quite a feat of magic.
Until the company can prove that it's making a profit with books, why should anybody believe it? Perhaps the New York Times might think about withholding such headlines as "Books Made Profit" until it, too, has the evidence.
This matter of Internet book sales is so important that I'd rather start at the other end of the spectrum counting pennies on a book-by-book basis and see what it takes for ANYBODY to make money selling books on the Web. To begin this discussion, read on.
HOW NORMA DOES IT
Who makes money selling books on the web? Let's take a peek at the book department of Goodwill Industries, where Norma Montgomery fingers her way through a dozen long shelves of often tattered, sometimes moldy books, offered here at 99 cents for paperbacks, $1.99 for hardcovers.
“Aha. See this?” she says, smoothing out the wrinkled cover of a dog-eared “Atlas Shrugged.” “Ayn Rand always sells. Doesn't matter the condition. George Orwell, too." She methodically works her way across the top shelf, grabs a paperback by Elmore Leonard. "He's hot right now," she says. She skips a Ken Follett mystery. "I can only sell him in batches of eight or so."
Last December, Norma lost her job as a word processor and decided not to scramble for work in the corporate world ever again. At 56, having bought and sold a few titles on the Internet through the Ebay.com auction site, she began selling books in earnest.
At first, the profits came in pennies - for example, she bought three Amy Tan paperbacks at 25 cents and sold the lot for $2, which, minus Ebay's 25-cent transaction fee and 5 percent cut, netted her 80 cents.
Soon the profits came in dollars. Collecting 39 Doc Savage paperbacks at 3 for a dollar, she sold all of them for $3 to $17 each. "That was a big buy," she recalls. It took a while to find the first three Sue Grafton mysteries, for which she paid about $1-2 each, but then she sold the lot for $12. "You can't do that after 'D,' " she says of Grafton's titles. "There's a glut."
A big sale to Norma is one "in the double digits." A first edition of an early Louis L'Amour sold for $17. After she bought Patricia Cornwell's "Black Notice" in a bookstore for full price, she read and sold it on Ebay for $12. Had she sold it to a used-book dealer, she would have gotten $4-5.
Ironies are everywhere. Abby Hoffman's "Steal This Book" is hugely collectible now, and Norma got $20 for it (he must be rolling over in his grave). Science fiction books in awful condition can command a very good price if the cover illustration is by Boris Vallejo. "Dick and Jane" readers, if you can ever find them, go for $30 and $40 apiece.
"Oh, look at this," she says, flipping open a Stephen R. Donaldson hardcover that science fiction collectors would love - except it's a book club edition. "Won't pull enough," she mutters and returns the book to its shelf.
Norma has never been a bookseller, knows nothing about retail and doesn't own a computer or printer - she uses a keyboard and her TV screen to get on the Internet through WebTV. But by now she is running 60-70 auctions a week and averages $6 a sale. Her Ebay bill last month was $100; her Ebay income for the same period was $1400.
With a small mortgage, a paid-for car, every inch of space in her house taken up by books and two cats that don't seem to mind, Norma believes she is indeed on her way to making a living from the worldwide used-book bazaar populated by millions on Ebay and other auction sites.
“Whoa, look at this," she exclaims. It's a "Mists of Avalon" trade paperback, "I'll probably get over $6," she says. "Marion Zimmer Bradley can be quite lucrative."
Really? Why, it seems simple. My friend Terry and I, two novices who have come along to "help" Norma (really to watch her work), hit the stacks with huge expectations and make every mistake in the book, so to speak. "Norma! Here's an Ann Rice first edition -- ."
"No good," says Norma, now crawling along the lowest shelf. "Everybody who wants her has read her." How about Tom Clancy? "Same problem." Danielle Steel, Michael Crichton, Jackie Collins? "Too common," she calls out from the back.
Norma has warned us that literary quality is not a component in determining collectibility. Long-term popularity or bestseller status seems to pertain but not necessarily to stimulate resale value, either. Most Anne Rivers Siddons hardcovers won't sell, Norma says; some Jude Devereauxs do.
Among older writers, Arthur Hailey is almost always a "no," says Norma, while Mary Stewart a resounding "yes." Science fiction writer Orson Scott Card is "very collectible" for the right price, even in a book club edition. So is C.J. Cherryh. "I do well with Anne McGaffrey in lots," she says. Frank Herbert always sells in "special" lots.
"Uh-oh, remainder mark," says Norma, studying a hardcover that bears a felt-tip pen mark across the top of its pages. "Not too bad." She winks: "Some people try to get rid of it with a little sandpaper, but that's unethical." Norma doesn't mind sharing her own secrets. Did you know that smelly old books can be put in the freezer to kill the mold? Or that stickers can be removed without a trace by using rubber-cement thinner and a razor blade? Norma knows 'em all.
Who's out there buying these books? "I make my living largely off of science fiction because kids go online, and they will buy," she says. "Half my customers are younger people, but there is also a nostalgia market." In mysteries, John D. MacDonald paperbacks sell in batches, as do Earl Stanley Gardners.
Outside her specialty, Norma keeps her antenna out for the strangest titles. Dog-training books are big, but some more than others - dachshund guides always, akitas not too often. Genealogy sells well, sports almost never - "they [sports fans] don't read," she says. All audio books sell. Cult books sell. James Herriott in batches will get you double-digits every time.
"But how do you feel about your place in 'the bookstore wars?' " I ask. Norma loves independent booksellers and would never shop at a chain or Amazon.com (though she allows some of her international customers to pay with Amazon.com gift certificates). "I think of myself as a very small online bookstore," she says, "in a very large field. I can't take many chances on things that sell marginally, and once my kitchen pantry fills up with books, my 'inventory' is done. I barely know where to put 400 shipping bags, which come in huge boxes, or 5 hundred-feet rolls of bubble wrap.
"I think an independent bookstore could do wonderfully on the Internet. Take batches of books, for instance. A bookseller has the room to store partial lots while looking for missing titles. With some of these authors, a full set of books can bring incredible profits. It doesn't take long to figure out what books sell, even marginally, and what don't on the Internet," she adds, "and you get a lot of help. I've learned more from Ebay's book chat room than anywhere else because people tell you everything they know. They want you to succeed."
And this is the point, Norma says, that everybody should know about the Internet: There may be millions of potential buyers out there, but each sale, when it happens, is intimate. "You make these incredible relationships," she says. "A woman historian in New York state bought a biography of Isadora Duncan for her town archives," Norma recalls. "She couldn't have been more grateful."
The same goes for the buyer of a textbook on nurse midwifery (who paid $35 for it, by the way; Norma had bought it for $2). "I've corresponded with people who own greyhounds, which I used to own, because the books they bought from me meant so much to their collection."
Of course, the amount of detail work it takes to sell books on the Internet is so time-consuming that Norma jokes that she's making "perhaps 50 cents an hour right now! I lose money on every international sale because I'm not used to figuring postage yet and tend to absorb mistakes. But it'll get better.
"Look at my working conditions: I don't have to travel very far to find books to sell; I'm learning how to find the more valuable titles; and the Internet has changed the whole notion of retail location. This may be a place where millions of people come to look at your goods, but the thing you always have to remember is that it only takes one person to make the sale."
BOOKSELLERS ON THE WEB: PART II
Not much space left to hit too many stores, but here are a coupla beauts, and be sure to check other ideas from readers in the Letters section below.
BOOKLINE BOOKSMITH: Brookline and Wellesley, Massachusetts
Events are popping up everywhere at this cheeful website with its circusy atmosphere and an invitation to GET ON THE BUS for a terrific barbecue party with Southern writer Lewis Norton, enter the store's CONTEST! or buy CHEAP BOOKS! or meet REAL LIVE AUTHORS! - all in fat cartoon-red type so you can't miss the exuberance of the staff. Typical of this independent bookstore, the contest offers a two-way opportunity by asking readers to send in book reviews one assumes the store will use as in-store promotions, with the winner receiving a signed hardcover ("And did we mention that signed books are priceless collectibles?"). With its searchable database and online newsletter featuring buyers' quotes and Zoe the "Dog of Distnction" unfortunately misspelled, Brookline Booksmith has so much personality you feel as though you've just walked into a busy, friendly, bustling, businesslike bookstore as playful as it is devoted to good books.
BOOK PASSAGE, Corte Madera, California
I can't help it - here's another obvious one that's a great example of a busy and diversified independent store hauling everything it stands for (privacy, knowledge, diversity, owners' picks, just-out-of-the-box specials) onto its website for all to behold. Book Passage is a general bookstore that specializes in travel and mystery literature, hires authors to teach courses in travel and mystery-writing, conducts panels to help writers find agents, editors and publishers and carries on daily author signings of incredible range and variety. The site offers no discounts but charges NO SHIPPING, and its Book Bytes (film clips in Quick Time 4 format) offer readers a chance to see authors in action at the store. The owners' activism finds a wonderfully engaging forum here. Current issues in "the bookselling wars" are discussed with clarity and and conviction in the online newsletter while the daily business of bookselling is carried on with professionalism and pride. Some say the home page is a bit overcrowded, but not to me - I see it as lively and bursting with information and services that are thrilling to contemplate.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Re your piece on booksellers on the web: Skylight - hasn't been updated since November. Wordsworth - database still referring to books "to be published this October" (that's October of '99). Pat, I love your column but this part of you drives me nuts. Why can't you just admit that Amazon has the best web site? As a reader, if I just want to browse, there is no place better to start. Nobody on the web has the dollars to put in that Amazon does, and that shows. Sure, I liked the feature on the guy who sells "Infinite Jest." But I read it. What else you got?
Here's my point - if I'm looking for something new to read, Amazon has more categories to browse, with more up-to-date info and richer content than anybody else. Yes, if I want independent personality and features on real people and real stories I'll go where you point me. If I want something to read, I'll go to Amazon. That doesn't mean I'll buy the book from them, or that I support their evil corporate ways. It just means they have a better web site.
Allegheny College Bookstore
Holt responds: Of course you're right - I also use Amazon.com as a reference tool. But look at the next step, reader LeBar! Beyond providing the facts of a title, everything Amazon tells us is suspect: The so-called bestsellers, staff recommendations, the authors supposedly "Destined for Greatness" titles are all for sale to publishers. Most independents have searchable databases - not as snazzy as the hundred-million-dollar wonder, but who cares? Maybe it's time those of us who appreciate honesty and trust in independent bookstores wean ourselves off sites like Amazon.com.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Please do continue to list websites of good independent bookstores, "obvious" or not. I want to spread my business around. Hope you'll list Brazos Bookstore in Houston
Holt responds: What a beauty is http://www.brazosbookstore.com with its gorgeous photos of the store and art exhibits, great bargains (20 percent off travel books) and 25th anniversary sale! It's not a searchable data base but the Southwest atmosphere is everywhere apparent and instantly welcoming.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
In your survey of online bookstores, don't omit Daedalus Books, http://www.daedalus-books.com/ .
Actually I greatly prefer reading their printed catalogue to bumbling around their website, but the website has improved a lot and it's pleasant to look through when the catalogue is at hand and tolerable without.
Daedalus has recently been increasing its coverage of the "spirituality"/"wellness"/angels sort of thing, which I tend to . . . ignore and look through its other listings, which include a great array of worthwhile books. I find its blurbers do a better job of indicating the degree to which a novel is likely to interest me than I can manage for myself in a bookstore.
Now, if only I had space for the books I already possess. . . .
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Just to add my hearty support to Asher Brauner's dislike of "Americanized" British fiction. I can live with American spelling, though I don't see the necessity, but recent experience of a Barbara Vine (pseudonym for Ruth Rendell) novel full of, for instance, "gotten" really jarred me, particularly since it was apparently considered unnecessary when it came to Ruth Rendell!
And I gave up on Harry Potter: I'll read it on my next visit to England. Frances Green
Holt queries: I'm not sure I follow re "gotten" - can you give an example? It's not "she had gotten out of the car" is it? That would send me running from the room.
Frances Green answers: That kind of thing, yes! I think every (presumed) original usage of "got" had been replaced: I really can't believe she'd have written it in that style and then switched back again for Rendell work.
Now I'm wondering if the reverse process occurs in British editions of American fiction. I do some private "fanfic" writing around a British TV show, and British usage is a constant discussion topic among the list members, which heightens my awareness of the whole issue.
My enjoyment of Connie Willis's "To Say Nothing of the Dog" was marred by various non-Brit usages, particularly the use of "cunning" in the "cute" sense: right for the period if the character had been American (a la Louisa Alcott), but not for an English character. I kept looking to see if I'd missed something in the text that would identify the character as American . . .
Dear Holt Uncensored:
One of your readers complains about the "localization" of British books in the U.S. (the preferred term in marketing and editing for rewording within the "same" language). I agree with the sentiment but disagree with lumping the Harry Potter novels into that complaint.
There are many criticisms that could be made of Rowling's writing--plots as thin as paper and as old as John Ronald Reuel himself, for instance--but it is certainly NOT insufficiently British. A few vocabulary terms have been replaced, and these seemed to be specifically to avoid real confusion ("boot" for "trunk" and "public school" for "private" would leave distinctly strange impressions in USian 9-year-olds).
But many common aspects of British life are taken for granted--the pub, the Ministry, the food--and I feel certain that children will enjoy the immersion in a new culture, unhindered by shifted definitions for words they thought they knew. Even the experience of boarding school itself, something North American kids probably have never even thought of, is a whole new world opened up by these books.
I would refuse to read a work that had lost its native flavour. Yet I intend to have a complete hardcover set of Harry Potter, so that in three or four years my daughter will be able to dive in.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
. . . You rarely talk about how independents can EARN the continued patronage of their customers. It's just assumed that any independent, be it Powell's or a grubby store where the owner chain-smokes at the register, deserves to thrive. It doesn't always look that way from the customer side of the counter. I believe that any independent which expects to keep customers needs to be very forthcoming with special orders -- something few of them emphasize. Let me explain my thinking on this.
Casual readers who buy a few books a year may come in with no more definite idea in mind than, for example, "something good with vampires in it." Hardcore readers -- the people who spend huge sums on books -- are much more specific. Not Anne Rice, but Chelsea Quinn Yarbro; not any random Yarbro, but the one title missing from their collection. Hardcore readers also enjoy browsing for browsing's sake, but when they want exactly title X by author Y, they aren't going to accept substitutes. Independents will often come up short on this, because they're usually smaller stores than chains and therefore have fewer titles. (Specialty bookstores aside, like the excellent Adventures in Crime and Space in Austin, Texas http://www.eden.com/~acs/ which often have a huge selection in their one or two chosen fields.)
It's at this point that an independent, if the owner has any sense, is going to offer to special order the title. . . . If getting the bookstore place a special order is like pulling teeth as well as being pricier and slower, the customer is likely to turn to the Net instead. Yet this is exactly what retailers often do: A shrug and a "sorry" is about as much help as you usually get, at independents and chains alike.
"But I can order it for you" should be a reflexive conclusion to any sentence that starts "We don't have ..." Instead, the customer almost invariably has to prompt the retailer that special orders are possible, and that the book under discussion could be ordered. Most of us don't bother if it's going to be that much of a hassle. At one point, dealing with a local three-unit chain (not sure where you'd classify it on the independents vs. chains scale) I had to start the special order process by explaining to the clerk what "Books In Print" was. I didn't try that again.
If a small independent has few titles on the shelves and is also reluctant to special-order, the cumulative message to the customer is -- never mind what you want, read what I feel like stocking. This is not only arrogant, it's suicidal. Even in the tiniest backwoods town, no book retailer has a monopoly any more. Once the independent is fixed in a reader's mind as "those people who didn't get me X when I wanted it," then arguments that the independent is a free spirit unlike a soulless corporate giant won't cut much ice. Customers want the book they want. Books, like people, are not interchangeable for something similar and just as good.
Holt responds: All so true, and yet . . .sometimes aren't you so knocked out by the originality and adventurism of an independent bookstore that it doesn't matter how good the service is? The selection of books is so out of the ordinary that you no longer care what YOU came in to order and find yourself buying books the store recommends? These stores keep literature chancy, risky, unpredictable and often out of our ken. That earns a place in my heart along with the more professional ones.