Simpler Solutions for Bookseller Automation
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By Renée Magriel Roberts
Long ago in a galaxy far, far away I was not a bookseller, but a VAR (value-added reseller) for AT&T. Our company designed automated accounting systems for retail/point-of-sales, as well as a wide variety of vertical markets. We modified standard accounting code, created comprehensive automation and transitional accounting plans, and provided not only hardware and software, but also ongoing training and support. The Force was with us, but we got to see the Dark Side of automation on more than one occasion.
When I looked at Monsoon automated pricing software in my last article (December, 2005 - http://www.americanaexchange.com/NewAE/aemonthly/article.asp?f=1&page=1&id=320) in AE Monthly, it was not only from the point of view of a bookseller and potential buyer, but also from the hard knowledge of being in the sales and development sides of the software business.
The Monsoon article received quite a bit of feedback from fellow booksellers, so I thought it might be useful to expand on some of the principles of good automation which I suggested in that piece. When I buy software there are things that I look for, both in the product and in the company from which I am purchasing.
First of all, I never, ever, pay a programmer to create custom software for me. Unless you are a programmer yourself, and completely capable of both understanding and taking over the evolution of a product, just skip this route. There are plenty of standard software packages, readily available and either free or inexpensive. Hiring a programmer (either an individual or a company) is tantamount to putting your entire business into the hands of a stranger who does not wake up in the morning with your best interests at the top of the list.
Take, for example, the sad experience of Global Book Mart, as quoted in the IOBA book site (www.ioba.org):
"In August of 2000, we learned that owning your equipment and owning your proprietary programming does not necessarily afford protection from unscrupulous parties. The computer programming firm retained to perform work on GBM demanded that we pay them approximately $187,000 which was not provided for in our contract, or in the alternative, to relinquish to them a controlling interest in GBM, or they would commandeer our equipment (which was physically housed in their facility to have a direct T1 connection), programming and data.
If you want to be in the software business, YOU have to either be the programmer, or be as knowledgeable as the programmer. YOU have to have physical control over your servers, your applications, and your data, unless you feel that these things are expendable and/or are completely protected, both legally and physically.
"These same programmers used our equipment to pirate the GBM database and bookseller data for use on a website they registered, http://www.bookcrawler.net which included the use of all of our proprietary code and copyrighted materials, with the exception of changing the name. We were even told by one of these parties that should GBM booksellers not be willing to contract with their new site, these programmers intended to purchase inventory and duplicate the efforts of booksellers. We consulted our attorney and notified all of our booksellers of these events on August 10, 2000. Within 2 hours of our notifying our booksellers, the programmers physically unplugged our servers and severed communications...."
Next, let's talk about what kind of software to use. I never use non-standard software and I try to avoid using software that has just come out on the market, unless it is an update of a product that I already have. I like my software to have all the bugs worked out of it --I do not like being used as a guinea pig. Software development is not an exact science, but a process of continuous improvement and evolution, as we can clearly see from the good and not-so-good versions of Windows.
Simpler Solutions for Bookseller Automation
I'm currently using Windows XP Professional, HomeBase, Microsoft Office, and Endicia (Envelope Manager) which pretty much covers all the basic bookstore functions. For accounting I use Quickbooks, a Symantec product. Homebase is free and distributed by ABE, Windows and Office are from Microsoft, and Endicia is a product of www.endicia.com, which I use to create the postage and track packages delivered by the USPS. It also integrates with www.upic.com (U-PIC), my package insurance company. I use eFax Messenger (www.efax.com), a free software package available when subscribing to this internet-based fax service. Adobe Photoshop Elements edits my photographs. None of these products are unusually expensive and I am not married to any of the companies who produce them.
Automation does not necessarily solve business problems. As one bookseller wrote after reading the Monsoon article,
"We have a fairly large inventory and have been talking with Monsoon for several months now, trying to decide if we want to go that direction or not. (There would need to be substantial investments in not only the software but warehouse space and a newer computer system). On one level it seems like the answer and almost too good to be true, but on another level it just doesn't "feel" quite right. We have spent almost 20 years building a quality inventory and I would love to move it faster, but don't want to devalue it."
Don't let any perceived lack of knowledge about automation get in the way of your hard-won knowledge about the book business. The way to get involved with any kind of automation is to narrow down what you are automating, and then do it simply. The market has standardized, computer prices have come down, and software is a lot cheaper. If automation seems too expensive or too complicated, start with the most basic standard application and learn it to your satisfaction before moving on.
You do not want to be at the mercy of the dealer or company that sold you the goods, which is the case when purchasing a custom program, or one with a narrow distribution, like Monsoon. Not only is it ridiculously more expensive, but it is every programmer's dream to have the exclusive rights to and control over an application that you are dependent upon to run your business.
There are better ways to improve sales performance. For example, take the time to read the Help files and figure out how the applications you are using really work. HomeBase is used by many booksellers, but not necessarily as well and effectively as it could be.
When entering data into HomeBase you need to be aware of how people will retrieve it. To figure that out, look at the advanced search screen on www.abebooks.com. Each of these fields can find or eliminate your listing from a search, depending upon how you do the data entry. One small example of this is the Author field. The search engine on ABE does not use fuzzy logic; if somebody misspells a word (or if you do) the search engine will eliminate it from the results presented to the customer. Therefore, if you are dealing with an author who has variant ways of spelling his or her name, or common misspellings, include them in the Author field in order to maximize search engine results.
If you want to make additional automation investments, invest in an external hard drive for backup (and backup frequently) and a battery backup (inconsistent power levels can harm your hard drive and your data). A bigger screen makes all of the bookstore functions much easier and LCD displays are a lot easier on the eyes than CRTs.
If you feel you do need help with automation, then invest in training -- learn how to use standard applications first. If you are still considering non-standard applications insist on speaking to multiple customers as references. Find out what the entire process was like before making a commitment. You may discover that the simplest solutions are not only the best, but will help you avoid making expensive or fatal business mistakes.
Renée Magriel Roberts can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.