Bibliopolis and Bookhound - Birds of a Feather
Luke Lozier, Mat Jones, and Alan Green of Bibliopolis.
By Karen Wright
I had been trying to download my antiquated Access book inventory to Bookhound 7c through Biblio.com off and on for months. Bibliopolis, creators of Bookhound, allows the bookseller to download Bookhound 7c free through Biblio.com. I really liked the features and the way it worked, but every time I tried to download my inventory into it, I ran into a snag. Biblio couldn't download from my inventory either, because it wasn't in any of their standard forms. So finally, with encouragement from Biblio, I found Bibliopolis online and lo and behold, their offices were in Berkeley, California. Berkeley happens to be one of our favorite towns and it is just five hours from us. We decided to go talk to the Bibliopolins and see what they were all about. I called them on a Wednesday and we went in down to the Bay Area on Thursday to chat for an hour.
My husband, the navigator, got us there without incident. My stories wouldn't be complete if we didn't talk about food. Before we went to our appointment, we had to stop for breakfast at Bette's Oceanview Diner on Fourth, less than a block away from the Bibliopolis offices. All I can say is - try Bette's if you love breakfast and gooey pastries. It's essentially an upscale diner, but the prices are reasonable and the food is yummy!
Then, tummies full, it was off to their offices. They are in a neat, old, revamped, corrugated, industrial tin building on Fifth Street, just off the freeway. I knew I would like Luke Lozier, Mathew Jones, and Alan Green, the partners in Bibliopolis, the minute I walked in the door and was greeted by Betty and Penelope. Betty is a part Rottweiler, maybe part lab mix with a sweet smile and a taste for doggie treats which are always present in my jeans pocket. Penelope is a tiny, fuzzy, cute pooch who is quite content to sit in Mat's lap and help him with the computer work.
Between the three men, they have more than forty years experience with books and computers. All of them come from San Francisco bookstore backgrounds with Luke Lozier having worked for William Stout and Alan Green having worked with Green Apple Books. Luke and Alan were primarily responsible for setting up the computerized aspects of their respective bookstore's businesses. Mat Jones had worked in bookstores, but really had come from a pure computer background.
According to their website, "Our mission at Bibliopolis is to help independent booksellers establish, maintain, and grow their Internet presence with easy-to-use products and services that can evolve when the market demands it." We found this to be true. The three men have owned the present company for five years, but before that Bookhound/Bibliopolis was the brainchild of Alan and a former partner. Their primary purpose was designing databases for booksellers. Luke started his company in 1999 called Bookseller Solutions, building bookstore websites. At that time, Luke and Alan found themselves working together at times on projects and decided it was a natural partnership. They partnered up with Mat, the computer whiz, and now their primary focus is to build websites for booksellers and get Bookhound distributed more widely.
In order to get their excellent product out into the bookselling marketplace, they formed an affiliation with Biblio.com to offer Bookhound free to booksellers. One did not have to list books on Biblio.com to use Bookhound, but why not do so since Biblio.com doesn't have a monthly fee; they only charge a commission on sales. Our interview was pretty much a casual, open discussion, so hopefully, I have equated the correct quote to the correct speaker, but at least all the info is here.
Bibliopolis and Bookhound - Birds of a Feather
The outside of Bibliopolis' corrugated tin building.
We asked why they would give this product away. They explained that they thought it would be nice to let everyone use it free. Bookhound is the only bookseller software that is MAC and windows (cross platform) useable. Others are tied into third party search engines such as ABE, which is tied into Homebase. Bookhound is not tied into anyone. You don't have to sell on Biblio.com to use Bookhound. Bookhound is also a freeway to do ISBN lookups. You generally have to purchase other software to do ISBN look-ups. Bookhound also manages online sales and is designed to put out professional print catalogs, and lists, and contains a full fledged inventory system which gives sales reports. In fact, I told them Bookhound has so many features that the average bookseller would probably never learn how to use them all.
Since a lot of my business is with appraisals and consignments, I wondered if Bookhound had elements to deal with consignments. Alan said that the previous version of Bookhound did, indeed, have a consignment feature. But the new 7c version does not. They agreed that it is too difficult to furnish proper support. They noted that booksellers are a diverse lot and independent and no one does consignment the same way. Each bookseller has a different method of keeping track of their percentages. That requires lots of hands-on support. Each client wants them to customize their program to their own system. "When you're giving away a free product that's going to be distributed widely, it just isn't feasible to spend that much time on support," said Luke. "But, Bookhound has plenty of space to put notes into your database to keep track of consignments. We designed Bookhound to be able to handle 'work-arounds' so that the user can do things such as place optional fields or tag inventory certain ways. It is loose enough for independents. Homebase has certain limits and its features are tied into ABE and you're going to end up doing things the way ABE wants you to do them. Part of your independence with Bookhound is the ability to break out of someone else's business model and go your own way."
Alan likened it to sailing a nuclear sub using paddles; all the bookseller needs to do is row. Most will only use a small percentage of the features. But, it is designed to be a stand-alone bookshop software. PBA could use it. It can and is used to distribute art, and there is a work-around capability so that it can be maneuvered to handle most bookseller needs. Once you have the site working, it's fun and easy. In addition, if you have a problem using Bookhound, and Biblio.com is stumped, as they were with my inventory system, the guys at Bibliopolis are readily available to offer support. They actually answer their own phones and they get back to you quickly. Wow!
The other aspect of Bibliopolis is designing websites for booksellers. Do all booksellers actually need their own websites and shopping carts, we asked? Alan told me that their clients' websites do sell books, and they do quite well. If it is done right, booksellers get organic traffic from Google and other search engines and people will find you and will buy books. And, it provides tools for repeat clientele. "We have some clients who have been with us eight or nine years," said Luke. "A couple of our clients have dropped selling at third party locations because they have enough sales to do so." He noted that these independent clients are usually very specialized, offering collectibles, antiquarian books, rare books, or specific subjects.
"But there's a process you have to go through before you can do that." Luke and Alan told us. He said that in the short term it takes a while to get folks to come to your website. You have to offer good books, but more importantly, you must offer really good customer service. A bookseller should seek out repeat customers with unique inventory, high end books, collector's items, and rich descriptions of the books. The bottom line is that the bookseller needs to present the books in a way that makes people want to buy them. If the book is badly wrapped and damaged or not as described, the customer is not going to come back for more.
Bibliopolis and Bookhound - Birds of a Feather
Betty of Bibliopolis.
"With your own webpage," Luke and Alan continued, "in the long term, booksellers will be able to maintain control of customer data and be responsible for the whole transaction. Third party sites are crucial in the short term, but eventually you want the customer to go to your own site so you don't have to give up as much as 20% of the transaction. We also feel strongly that every bookseller with a website should have their own shopping cart system. That should be the plan. If you have them at your website there is no need to give up a percent to someone else. Long term it pays for itself. You can slowly convert your business to your website and it will become an extension of your storefront."
Should every bookseller have their own website, we wondered? Alan said that they interview each prospective client and sometimes they dissuade some of them because they do not have enough books, have never sold online before, and/or don't have a usable database. They recommend that they first sell through a third party such as ABE, Biblio, or Alibris, using an inventory system such as Bookhound, then build up their inventory until they have enough experience and inventory to need a webpage. They noted that they are probably not going to sell many books on a web page when they only have a very few books, and it is not right to charge them their monthly fee if they can't do them justice.
I asked how one website like mine can get out to everyone? Alan said that was the key question. Luke said "There is no one answer. It takes time to build up repeat clientele and there is no typical way. It depends on how many places you are listed. If buyers can find unique books they can only get on your website and you offer really good customer service, then you get a reputation and repeat customers. They won't type in your website unless they know you, they will type in the name of the book and if you are the only one or one of a very few with the book and you have unique, rich, accurate descriptions then you will have unique terms that Google can find. ISBN lookups are not unique, they are the exact same as anywhere else and the client is looking for the best deal."
Technology is not the only element. Bottom line is that the bookseller also needs to present the book in a timely fashion packaged properly, with follow-up promotional materials in the package. "That’s what you guys know; the booksellers," said Alan. "The customer experience is important; our webpage is just an enabler."
In a few words; good reputation means repeat business.
What about the penny to dollar sellers - do they need a website? It seems to me that every person who ever owned a book thinks they are a bookseller these days. They take every book in their own library and from every library sale, yard sale, or second hand store, and sell them for one penny to one dollar, no matter what the book is actually worth. Their profit comes from postage leftovers. To me, that is not professional bookselling.
Alan answered that. "The Internet business is a double-edged sword. It has opened up sales venues for amateur booksellers and other trades as well. Part of our founding principles are to maintain the professional side of bookselling, or at least to counterbalance that race to amateurism. We're not interested in spending a lot of time aiding the penny seller, we want ease of use for experienced booksellers, an emphasis on the professionals. He noted that the penny sellers are contributing to literacy in that they get the books out there, but that they are 'essentially just selling widgets.'"
Luke opined that one of the ways they will help do that is that they are providing a scholarship to the Colorado Book Seminar and that Alan will be going to the Seminar this year as a faculty member to talk about the importance of websites for booksellers. He also noted that the Seminar is an opportunity to educate booksellers and to help encourage amateurs to become professionals. "It's not about discouraging amateurs," he said, "it's about teaching them that instead of selling their $20 book for $1; they should sell them for $20, if that's the market. The point is that, while it may be an uphill battle short term, long term I think that professional booksellers are going to have a leg up with their knowledge of books."
Bibliopolis and Bookhound - Birds of a Feather
Penelope of Bibliopolis.
The guys reiterated that professional booksellers know what's rare and antiquarian, and what's important in a rare book. The professional bookseller's knowledge of actual books as artifacts, pieces of art, or collectibles becomes more and more valuable. Amateurs do not have that. As we work more toward ecommerce, the knowledge of actual rare books or antiquarian books will become more important. It will be the people who have spent more and more time learning the trade that provide the best hope for the trade. Their position at Bibliopolis is like a clutch, where the two sides meet. The 500 year-old, venerable profession coexisting with some of the newest 21st century tools. If it's done right it teaches both sides of the business. If the penny sellers become the future, that's a profession, but it's a different kind of profession. Bibliopolis is more interested in maintaining the tradition - Gutenberg and all.
At present, Bibliopolis is designing a new and better website for the AABA. They have bookseller clients all over the country (see their client list) and several international sellers. They also have a listing on their webpage of books for sale and who has them divided by subject. There is a bookseller blog with info on coming book events, anecdotes, and just plain chat. In fact, I highly recommend that you go to their webpage, www.bibliopolis.com or give them a call in Berzerkly, as we westerners call it, at 510.705.1806, or email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
So here's what I learned: Bibliopolis offers complete e-commerce, website design, development, and hosting services for independent, used, and rare booksellers. They work hard to generate new customers from search engines such as Google and help you to build repeat business with tools such as weekly e-mail updates informing customers of new inventory in their categories of interest. Their system is easy to use, they provide excellent support services, and they are really nice guys. They are very reasonably priced, very approachable, and seem to love the book business as much as we booksellers do. What more could a bookseller want?
Afterword: We had dinner that night at "The Brazen Head" on Buchanan and Greenwich in San Francisco. It's been around since 1980 and bills itself as a restaurant and public house. The food is mostly classic American cuisine such as crab cakes, salads, New York pepper steaks, ribeyes, seafood, and other stuff of that ilk. It was quite good, not exceptional, but had a cozy, mature, hideaway atmosphere missing in so many restaurants nowadays. Prices were mid to upper-mid range with drinks and good wine. The best food we had all weekend though, was the night before at Toomie's Thai in Alameda. The duck was exquisite and the prices were quite reasonable. We can't say enough good about it. Ta, ta for now.