The Alibris warehouse in Sparks, Nevada.
By Karen Wright
As an online and brick and mortar bookseller with eighteen or so year's experience, I was curious as to how some of the "big boys" run their businesses. Since my store is within thirty minutes of three of the biggest; Amazon, Alibris and Barnes & Noble, I thought I would contact them and see what was up in their neighborhoods.
I spoke first on the telephone with Alibris's A.J. Kohn, Director of Marketing and Sales. When asked what their goal was, he told me that, "We are trying to accommodate all facets of the bookselling market. It isn't an easy place for everyone."
I asked him about the problems that we booksellers face with so many folks out there pricing and selling books when they don't know what they are doing. He said that Alibris is experiencing some of the same problems alongside us, and they are "trying to gain insight. It is increasingly difficult to get stock that will move as price points disappear." He noted that "A number of people who have been selling books online because they thought it would be a great sideline business, are finding it is more difficult and involved than they thought. They are selling their inventory and getting out. It takes a bit of time for things to shake out and reach some sort of stasis. We think it may swing back to something more savvy."
I called Mark Nason for a tour and interview of the Sparks, Nevada, warehouse. It is a 100,000 square foot behemoth of a building. Mark Nason and Brian Duart are the Operations Managers, or as he says, "the guys who are in charge of keeping the business end of the store running smoothly." I asked him what the main focus of his job was. He replied that "growing sales overall" is his primary concern. Nason gave me a guided tour of the warehouse.
He introduced me to Christine Putman, the Quality Assurance Manager, and Ken Aaron, the Catalogue Manager, the two highly trained "book people" who keep the book end of the store moving. Christine and Ken are both bibliophiles and former bookstore owners with many years of expertise with used books.
Christine handles all the really pricey volumes that come through the store, verifying autographed copies for authenticity and researching points to make sure that books are as advertised. She also handles high value quality assurance disputes with customers. The less expensive books are looked at by another staff member to make sure they are in good shape, no staining, water spots, highlighting, etc., and that they are signed or the correct edition, but at 8000 books per day coming through the store, Christine doesn't have time to check each and every volume.
Sorting books at Alibris
Ken Aaron runs the Catalog Section. These are the books that are in Alibris's stock in the warehouse. And a vast, vast number of books there are! There is row upon row of used books standing like sentinels to literacy on six-tiered, gray metal shelves. These are what Mark calls "common" books; in other words they are low-priced books of every ilk, valued at $5 to $20 or more. They are of a type that one finds in just about every used bookstore. They occasionally buy small numbers of remainders from a remainder house, sometimes they buy stock from estates or sellers who are closing their book businesses, and some of the books are from orders gone awry and returned to Alibris by a customer. These books come into the cataloging department and are put into their online inventory, then they are shelved until an order comes in, at which time a staff member pulls the correct book and fills the order. It runs pretty much like any other bookstore except for the volume.
This immense catalogue of books, however, is not their central focus. The books that we booksellers have in our inventories are where they get their primary stock. As Mark Nason pointed out, Barnes and Noble bookstores sell coffee, but they are not coffee experts. Alibris sells books, but they are not book experts, we, the booksellers are, and for the more valuable books, there is no substitute for our expertise. He made another comparison: That Alibris is the lumber company that puts the trees through the sawmill and makes the planks, it is their online booksellers who are the woodcarvers that make the planks special.
We walked through the steps taken by a book that isn't sent directly to the customer by an Alibris bookseller. These are generally books that go overseas, or that were ordered through Borders and will be sent to them to distribute to their customers. It also includes volumes that will go to libraries and schools and the like. The book arrives by mail from the bookseller. It is opened by the first line of defense, the Receiving crew. They unwrap the books and send them to another staff member who checks the books for condition, and invoices and sorts the books by destination. The volumes then go into large plastic totes that are placed on a snakelike conveyor belt. The totes are marked with a bar code that is read by the conveyor belt and spit into the proper shipping area by automation.
The books are then packaged and sent out. As Mark pointed out, they don't ship each book separately. If they have a number of books to go overseas, they save up a large crate full and ship them all at once. If they have twelve copies of Catch 22 from 12 different dealers to go to one school or library, they collect them all and send them all together in one package, thus saving themselves and their customers a great deal of postage.
I mentioned to Mark that I always wrap my valuable books in brown paper or bubble wrap before I send them out. A couple of times, I have received emails from Alibris telling me not to wrap the books so heavily. Mark said that one pet peeve in the Receiving area is over-packaging books. I argued that the books needed to be well protected as the Post Office does not always treat them tenderly. He said that unless it is a valuable book, say over $50 or $100, it is not necessary to pack them in any more than a protective envelope or small box, and puleeez, no peanuts! I warned him that if I felt it necessary to heavily wrap a fragile or expensive book, I would and his receivers would just have to curse me. He noted that with 8,000 books coming in each day, perhaps three books might sustain some damage. I thought that was a pretty good average, as long as one of the three wasn't one of mine.
From left, V.P. of Operations Mark Nason, Catalogue Manager Ken Aaron, Quality Assurance Manager Chris Putnam.
With the exception of the conveyor belts, most of the work in the warehouse, including receiving, shelving, and packaging, is hand-done by the crew. One automated beast, however, is the "ravioli" machine. For single book orders -- in other words just one book to a single customer -- the ravioli slaps a cover of corrugated cardboard around the book and squishes the edges down so that when the package comes off the belt, it appears to be large brown ravioli with a label. It's very cool!
I have occasionally received one of Alibris's Fulfillment Rate Notices. You get those when you have a book listed, but then it is not available when ordered. Now we all know there are lots of bothersome reasons for this. You forget to delete from your inventory, you don't upload your new inventory often enough, your shelver misplaces the book, or someone picks up the book and carries it off without benefit of paying for it. Alibris's shelf stock is organized with a number for each. It is shelved by that number and no one other than their staff has access to the books. Their fulfillment rate from their own catalog stock is 99.999%, Mark told me. So of course, I complained to Mark about these annoying notices, since I do my utmost best to keep my own inventory up to date without their state-of-the-art technology. He said, however, that if a customer orders a book from any Alibris or Borders store, the order goes to the bookseller. If the bookseller doesn't have the advertised book, it makes everyone down the line look bad and annoys the customer. He noted that it is important to make sure the customer's experience meets his/her expectations. I think that is all well and good; however, sometimes we can't always get what we want when we want it.
We chatted about employees. They have 50-60 employees during the busy season who work from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. five days a week. Since there are three major booksellers in the area, they try to make their employees work time as pleasant as possible, they meet or beat the pay rates the other large booksellers offer and, in addition, they are located in a more convenient area of town than the other two, so employees don't have to commute as far. In fact, they were getting ready to have an employee bar-b-que for the Friday lunch hour. My biggest gripe, if I worked there, would be that there are no windows.
We discussed the controversy about the big online bookstores putting independents out of business. As Mark noted, there are two sides to that controversy. For the customer, having a bigger variety of books for less money is a positive thing. Of course, Mark said the sellers "may have a different opinion." He felt that until a book is in a catalog somewhere, it doesn't exist. If it is in a garage, basement or attic, no one knows about it. Once it is online or in a bookstore then it exists and the book buyer can find it. They just put the books out there so that can happen.
As we ended our tour, Mark Nason said emphatically, "Alibris is not the Devil. This is how we get the books people love in front of people who love books."
Essentially, he is correct. Every business goes into business hoping to put someone else out of business. This is America and we are, if nothing else, business oriented. Alibris, like all the other big corporations is a business designed to make money and the only way we small booksellers can compete is to buy carefully and offer something unique or rare. To paraphrase Mark Nason, the niche for independent booksellers is to choose books that you know will sell. If you've chosen correctly, then you win. It may not be what we booksellers want, but it is what is, so we must come up with ways to make the best of it.