Dan Gregory Talks Tech for the Trade
“The future of internet antiquarian bookselling,” says Dan Gregory “is certainly not with companies like ABE or Amazon. They don't know anything about antiquarian books themselves, and they don't own antiquarian books. We have the knowledge, and we have the books. So the future of internet antiquarian bookselling lies in our hands.
“Large internet companies reach many millions of people, but they are less valuable as ways to sell individual books, and more valuable as tools to meet collectors. The internet is a good place to sell some books, but it is a better place to meet customers. The important customers are not one-time buyers, but collectors and institutions, a much smaller group representing bigger and better sales. The web is a tool to reach them and to sell to them, but it is up to the bookseller to make those sales, not to wait for them.”
Gregory, 41, teaches the “Books and Technology” course at the annual Colorado Book Seminar. He also wears the General Manager hat at Between the Covers (ABAA/ILAB) – a New Jersey antiquarian firm that does indeed have a snazzy web site and has made a substantial investment in the tech side of its business.
On the phone Gregory comes across as more of a book guy than a geek. Indeed his book credentials are long and strong. He started in a bricks and mortar bookstore around the age of 20 and came up through the ranks of the original Borders’ store in Philadelphia from 1990 to 1996.
Those were the days when Borders was still the best kind of BIG - big enough to have everything you’d ever want to read on its shelves and big enough to host a steady stream of readings and signings by contemporary authors who came down from NY (where there was no Borders) to meet-and-greet at the Philly store.
Through his work there he cultivated his own taste in books. Just as importantly book signings heightened his awareness of collectability, first editions, and helped him meet other book dealers, including his current employer where he has worked from 1996 to the present.
If you’re a mega-lister and your idea of a profitable transaction is one where you make a dime a pop multiplied by many thousands of pops, Gregory’s advice might not be your cup of tea. On the other hand if you’re a bookseller who has a specialty niche, wants to move up in the trade but has neither the time nor money to really bankroll the next big thing you’ll find his explanation of “what works now” persuasive.
“The future of antiquarian bookselling is not by selling through third party sites that take a percentage from each sale,” says Gregory. “That may be the future that those companies hope to see, but their interests are not our interests. To me, those on-line listing sites are not places to sell books, but rather places to meet new customers. If you look at your relationship with those listing sites in this way, their fees become much more palatable. But you have to work at it to make this conversion from merely selling individual books online, to actually meeting valuable customers there.”
According to Gregory his company’s sales can be roughly divided into five sources:
“1) printed catalogs; 2) quotes to customers, which are either phone calls, emails, or printed quotes; 3) our own website; 4) book fairs and 5) sales made on the internet through third party vendors such as ABE, Amazon, Biblio, Barnes & Noble, the ABAA and ILAB sites."
He itemizes the sources of income as: “39% of our sales came from private quotes to customers, 23% from printed catalogs, 18% from our own web site, 11% from third party internet vendors and 9% came from book fairs.
“So the portion of revenue fully under our control, that is catalogs, private quotes, and our website, represents a full 80% of our income. I am very proud of this - these ratios and percentages were no accident. As recently as a few years ago it was 45% and now it is 80%.
Dan Gregory Talks Tech for the Trade
Dan Gregory in caricature.
“How did we progress in just a few years from relying on other companies to provide over half our business, to relying on them for only a tenth of our business?
“As an initial step, we invested in a more comprehensive inventory and customer database, a program tailor-made for our needs. Between the Covers Rare Books has been in business for several decades, but in the past few years we have been better equipped to study the sales trends within our own business because we invested in the ability to tag and track different types of sales.
At the same time, “we have actively concentrated on our institutional customers. This was a consumer base we gave only half-hearted attention as recently as five years ago. But since then, we have dedicated more of our office workforce to researching the holdings of libraries and quoting institutional customers. These efforts have paid great dividends.
In addition, he says, we very actively attempt to convert every single instance that we sell a book to a new customer into a repeat and long-standing relationship. How do we accomplish this?
“To start, we include one of our print catalogs with every purchase. When possible, we include a subject specific print catalog. The more specialized the book, the greater the likelihood that we will have subsequent sales.
In his view “the dealer's website is analogous to open shops of yesteryear. But most dealers treat their sites as if it were their business card, and nothing more.”
To him the most successful sites are “very much like a large building with rooms divided into different book subjects, but with large measures of spontaneity, serendipity, and personal selection thrown in.
”An open shop needs an attractive storefront window. Similarly a bookseller's home page should be lively and engaging. It should invite customers to come in, to spend time browsing, to make a purchase, and to want to return in the future. Like a good storefront window, a bookseller should display a sampling of inventory on the very first page and this sampling should change frequently. The design should be consistent with the image the bookseller wants to project, but it must also be attractive and original. It must convey the bookseller's identity and personality.
“Very few bookseller sites accomplish this. Most, including the sites of a number of major dealers, are horribly boring. They look very much alike and they are completely devoid of personality. Nothing about them invites the visitor to actually go deeper.
“Like any good open shop,” he continues, “a bookseller's site can and should contain a backroom. One of the ways we offer the equivalent of a backroom is to show recently acquired inventory on our own site for a month before it appears elsewhere.
“At our own web site,” he says, “we have an even more exclusive backroom in what we call ‘private pages.’ These are web pages featuring inventory quoted to particular individuals. They are password protected; they are not linked to the rest of our site, and they are not seen by Google or the rest of the internet. This can be very effective. Not long ago we sold a $30,000 archive using this method.
“A shop must have a good location,” Gregory continues. “On the internet location means optimized visibility by search engines; and by search engines I mean Google. We reprogrammed our site so that each book in our inventory had its own web page seen by Google, and the title of that page was the title of the book. This gives us a great deal of visibility when people search for that book in Google. Currently about two thirds of our web traffic comes from Google.
Dan Gregory Talks Tech for the Trade
“Earlier I mentioned the dangers of having other companies controlling your profitability; so I am not entirely happy that we are so dependent on Google for our traffic. But I am happy that 100% of that traffic is organic. By this I mean we pay Google nothing.
“We do not invest in Google Adwords. And although Google is a private company that can change whatever they want about their search engine whenever they want to, they will probably always strive to help web users find relevant information.
“So rather than trying to ‘buy’ our way to the top of search engines by either paying for placement or trying to ‘trick’ Google into ranking us highly, we built a deep website with a tremendous amount of content. Google and web users value this content; and so the more unique information we put on our website the higher we rank.
“If you are familiar with our catalogs you know that we try to illustrate every book in color. If you are familiar with commercial printing then you know that full color printed catalogs are very expensive to produce.
“On the other hand, it costs virtually nothing to put color pictures of books on the Internet and it is very easy to do. Photographs of books bridge the physical distance between sellers and customers. Not only do they help convey the condition of the book, but I believe photographs of books reinforce the fundamental reason collectors buy antiquarian books. This reason is that collectors value books as physical objects.
“That is why we show a photo for every one of the approx. 100,000 books in our inventory. Furthermore, we have created live, three dimensional models of over a thousand books in our inventory. On the screen the visitor to our web site can view those books from any angle.
“In terms of budget, we spend less money on our web site than we usually spend for printing catalogs. But before we spent a penny on the web site, we had planned it all out and this, I believe, saved us quite a bit.
In Gregory’s opinion one of the greatest challenges facing booksellers is “selling books that the customer did not previously know he even wanted. This can be difficult, and we find printed catalogs are very good at this. But we try to accomplish this on our website by recommending books at every turn, particularly as part of our search results and when a customer is looking at a specific item.
“If a visitor is viewing the details about a particular title, on the edge of the screen we'll show them other books by the same author, or other books on the same subject. We don't want to distract them from buying the book they were searching for, but we also hope that on our site, as in a real bookstore, one book will lead to another and then another.
“Finally, it is vital to offer more than simply a search of one's inventory, particularly if the same books can be found just as easily at some third party website, where the customer will have even more options. You must give Internet buyers a reason to visit your site,” he says. Some of these reasons include: “illustrated bibliographic reference information, articles on rare books, even literary video games. We want people to have a positive experience. We want them to remember us and return; we want them to tell others.”
Just as he stresses the importance of content, he also cautions against giving away too much for free: “You should be dispensing just enough information online to convince potential customers that you are an expert and a professional. You should not be educating your competition.
“By competition I mean the owners of books who are not professional booksellers but think, because of the information they found online, that they can identify, catalog, and sell the book themselves and eliminate our trade. ABE empowers them; eBay empowers them; Amazon empowers them. Please do not empower them yourselves by giving out valuable bibliographic information unnecessarily.
Dan Gregory Talks Tech for the Trade
Gregory believes that “one day electronic books will become a conventional part of literate society. But,” he adds, “that day is not here yet."
Similarly, antiquarian bookselling on the internet, despite being about 15 years old, is still “very immature.” He says in his own experience, “books above $5,000 or $10,000 do sell on the internet. But they sell on the internet with much less frequency than those same books sell through print catalogs.
“Books sold on our website average four times the price of books we sell elsewhere on the internet, but these sales still average only a third of the price of books we sell through our catalogs. So while our internet sales grow every year, we still derive more of our income from print catalogs and private quotes.
“Ultimately the progression we strive for is from a random online purchase, to more expensive and repeat purchases through our site, further to even more expensive repeat purchases through our catalogs. Each element is a key component in a larger chain that we have deliberately constructed so that we take control of our profitability and minimize the role that other outside companies have in our revenue.
“We must educate our buyers individually or collectively, that the best books are bought and sold off the Internet. I am confident in predicting that the best books will always will be bought and sold not online, but offline.”
Susan Halas is an antiquarian dealer based in Hawaii
Reach her at email@example.com
Much of this article is excerpted and condensed from a recent speech Gregory gave to ILAB members in Spain. The link to the entire text and other links he thinks are worthwhile follow:
Between the Covers
Full text ILAB speech
Colorado Book School 2011