Is the world ready for The Book Spider?

Last time I spent a lot of time complaining about the lack of progress in
internet selling
over the last 10 years. I think the criticisms were
fair, but I also have a number of ideas for improving the process. Keep a
few things in mind as I go through some of them – they are all serious
ideas, at least insofar as I thought about them seriously whether they
were prima facie ridiculous or not; they all are intended to point to a
deficiency in current systems; they are all my ideas so if you use one and
make a whole lot of money you can send royalty checks to:

Tom Nealon
c/o Pazzo Books
4268 Washington St.
Boston, MA 02131

Clicks and bricks, bricks and clicks – people throw these around, and they
are certainly descriptive of a business that operates both real world and
virtual stores, but what they lack in practice is a true synergy between
the businesses. I know for our shop that we’re really just running two
largely parallel businesses out of the same location. Sure you get a
certain number of people who found a book online and swing by to pick it
up, but by and large, the clicks and the bricks remain pretty discrete
from each other. There’s a book shop in Cambridge (MA) called Lorem Ipsum Books that opened
to beta test an online selling system (now called Ka-Zam). I’m not sure what they’re
doing now – as far as integration – except that all books are priced
online and in their shop by the same algorithm, and they used to talk
about having an audio component (bells, whistles, croaking frogs) in the
store whenever a book was sold on the internet. I’m not sure exactly how
this is working for them – I know the software is starting to move, and
the shop, which opened about 6 months after ours 5 years ago, is still
there, so it can’t be too bad. This seems like a nice start (even if my
Luddite streak prevents me from being excited about algorithms pricing my
books), but lacks the real connection that seems necessary.

So I had this idea – why not install robotic cameras in the shop, let them
run up and down the shelves on tracks and photograph the inventory. Every
night the camera automatically activates and wends its way through the
store – depending on your store set up you may need a couple cameras or a
strange variety of wall mounted camera tracks (though shop owners would no
doubt quickly learn to set up their stores for maximum camera efficiency)
– and photographs your inventory, generating a seamless image that’s
zoomable and dragable for easy browsing. At the end of its trip through
the store, the camera would lock itself up in a handy and attractive
housing at the end of one of the shelves.

For all of us who own shops but don’t put all of our books online for a
variety of reasons (economy, lack of time, low online prices, laziness), a
link to this virtually real store (in lieu of the rather ineffective “We
have thousands of other books offline, why not drop us a line and add to
your order”) would no doubt produce a bevy of add on sales to internet
orders. It would let locals browse at night and send in holds on books
they’d like to buy, allow near locals to look around and see if it’s worth
the trip, plus solve that age old question “Are there mischievous sprites
moving books around at night so that I can’t find them in the morning?”

The Book Spider (below, an artist’s rendering):

The Book Spider - advances in book inventory systems
The Book Spider 1.0 will crawl along your shelves at night (or during the
day if you have understanding customers or an internet only business)
using its retractable flat bar code scanner to inventory books by simply
slipping the scanner in between titles. Early features include a dirt and
wear sensor for grading (reverse engineered from cutting edge vacuum
cleaner technology), a GPS sensor for positioning (that can also be used
for book location with our handy palm-top add-on) and a removable flash
memory stick (though we recommend running on Blue Tooth). It’s true that
pre-ISBN books are a problem, but we have solutions in the pipeline:

A de-shelving accessory along with an OCR system that can scan and
recognize title and copyright pages. Coupled with our Edition/Points of
Issue add-on (only $199.95 and $24.95 a month!), the Spider is proven 99%
accurate in correctly identifying editions (studies at a noted mid-western
University show that ABE sellers are only 37% accurate so this is pretty

For those sellers who, and who can blame them, view pre-ISBN books as too
much trouble, a camera accessory that will photograph the offenders and
upload them to ebay for sale – templates with helpful descriptions like “I
found this in my grandmother’s attic and it seems really old” or “Rare and
valuable but a little dirty – $99” are included with the accessory (only

Linking shipping weights and photos to books, while clearly the future of
bookselling, is a pain in the ass. We try to take photos of books that
merit photos – though when you’re making your way through a large pile of
new stock, there are a variety of arguments against taking photos that can
occur to you. With this in mind, a flatbead scanner, photobooth, scale
combination would be awfully useful. Put the book on the scanner or
upright for a photo, it will weigh the book, drop the images into a
pre-arranged folder for auto upload, and import the weight into your
database. All photos are optimized for the internet and pop up for
preview – nix the bad ones, take another angle, and they’ll all be
attached to the record currently being edited in your database. This
seems easy – can someone bang this together for me?

Finally, and I’ve complained about this before and will no doubt do so
again, book sellers continue to price books according to supply rather
than demand. At best we use some combination of old print catalogs,
incomplete but useful books like Ahern’s Book Collecting, American Book
Prices Current, and experience with titles to supplement the prices we
find for a book online. In truth though, most titles are priced according
to what we find at ABE or Amazon, because even the best price guides
contain only the slimmest representation of what a book seller runs into
on a daily basis – especially at the lower end. This is pretty backwards
– with all the sales information floating around the internet, no one has
been able to harness it to improve pricing techniques past what they were
50 years ago – even all the fancy algorithms being used are just based on
supply with no demand component. The problem, of course, is that ABE et
al horde this information as if it were pure gold – which, ironically, it
is, but for book sellers not for them. What I would like to see is a book
selling cooperative that would share book price information amongst
themselves – even 500 booksellers (or less than 4% of the 13,500 that ABE
boasts) sharing 10,000 – 20,000 listings each would be enormously and
immediately useful. It’s a clear move into the future of online book
selling, and would start to move all of us away from the tyranny of the

There would be difficulties in convincing book sellers to share their
data, but the current state of affairs only benefits the listing sites who
have kept a monopoly on sales information. No individual seller, no
matter how competent, can match the information harvested by these sites,
and while a used book seller union (I hope I don’t lose my capitalist
membership card for suggesting such a thing) is one of those mythological
creatures, much talked about and much mocked, banding together for
discrete and specific purposes like sharing pricing data, could also be
the beginnings of that as well.

That address for royalty checks again, just in case you misplaced it while
reading this:

Tom Nealon
c/o Pazzo Books
4268 Washington St.
Boston, MA 02131

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