Keys to a Prosperous Book Store

Here was one of the better responses I had to the question “What can we do to take our businesses to the next level”. A very informative reply, as usual, from Guy Weller aka Mr. Pickwick of The World Book Market. Of course you may not all agree with every remark but I’m sure some of you will pick up a great tip or two. Comments are always welcome here; we also have a more in depth discussion at the new forum.


Funny, isn’t it – it used (until VERY recently) to be about the slowest-moving stream of all, the calm old world of second-hand bookselling!

Now – turmoil and constant change as online markets swirl about like dust-storms, and we cling to our small huts on the hillside as the winds rage.

But to respond in more detail to your question, I would counsel that taking one’s business to the next level is a two part step:

1. Re-examine and consolidate what one already HAS (whether in a B&M bookshop or online, or both); and

2. Plan and introduce new strategies and techniques in pursuit of new and hitherto (largely) unattended fishing grounds.

I would recommend that Step 1 should always precede Step 2 in this exercise. Simply running off and seeking new market areas and leaving the existing ones to fend for themselves is not, in my view, much of a plan.

Within the first step, I would take (and have taken) a long, hard look at what I am selling both in-store and online, and what I am not, and would then start a major overhaul and cull both of stock and general approach.

If I had a B&M (which I do) I would enlarge its horizons a little to accommodate all sorts of value-add lines and activities. I would set up a small but good range of CDs and DVDs, comics, ephemera etc, and I would ensure that I had at least one locked glass cabinet in my shop which carried an interesting range of “book-related” items: bookends, pipes, collectible, whisky paraphernalia, old cards and a host of other things.

Some jewellery, even. Anything to help create the impression that there was something more general in one’s offering than merely books.

No matter WHAT sort of bookstore I had (and there are many types) I would also make sure I had another locked glazed cabinet with at least a small offering of lovely old leather bound books and rare specimens, from $500 upwards.

If necessary, I would simply go to rare book auctions and purchase these, treating any such outlay as a business (capital, not stock) investment much as I would my bookshelves, carpets and signage. If and as they sold, it would not matter over-much if they carried no huge profit or markup – you would simply use the incoming funds to replace such stock with like items.

This latter area acts as an Icon for customers, adds a “Wow!” factor, and gives a class badge to your other books, many of which you will “sell on the rebound” after someone has pored over the top-end stuff.

It will also give a sharp uplift to offers from people in your store asking you to purchase their own “old books”, and you would likely obtain a number of such “specials” over time from that source.

I would make sure that I had a comfy-chair reading area in store; played lovely and soothing music throughout the day (we use Mozart, mainly); had at least a little area with a kiddies table and a few soft toys; that I enrolled all my regular customer in my “Zeeba Booklovers Club” with a nice little numbered card guaranteeing a fixed future 10% discount either in-store or online; and a range of other such things, most of which you have probably already covered yourself.

For my ONLINE existing business, I would try and move as far away from the bottom-end of the marketplace as possible – that end of it is simply in ruins, online.

I would stop listing stock below a set figure (this would vary from seller to seller), but let’s say $US 15-20 for argument’s sake.

If I had a B&M, I would set myself to list ONLY the best 10% or so of my entire stock, and leave the other 90% for sales in-store.

If I was the purely-online type, I would do much the same (perhaps permitting myself 30-35% of all stock in, and would bundle the remaining stuff and cut a deal with a large B&M owner to take the rest for either a small pittance paid or (better) for a credit line in his/her store – thus selecting books from more obscure sections (trade, mining etc) which were undervalued by that store, but which are known winners on-line.

I would abandon the attempt at mass market sales online pretty much altogether, and ease myself more and more up the ladder, which is where significant $ returns are still possible online, and where the competition is considerably thinner. A section of leather bound classics for example should be considered.

So much for Step 1 – and please note this is just MY take on your question, and others would handle some or all of the above very differently indeed, I would guess. there is no “right” or “wrong” approach, in my view.

Step 2 – the expansion side of things.

Here the Internet is the critical factor.

As I keep pointing out at the ABE Forum (generally to muted giggles there) the practice worldwide of people buying books on the Internet is only just beginning, and will wind up sharply over the next 5-10 years.

All the available statistics and data are quite clear on this point, and it may be taken as gospel, not some wild theory of mine.

Our task here is to PRE-POSITION ourselves for such future, rich markets, rather than assume that they will suddenly erupt all around us (which they won’t).

Without being silly about it, my MAIN advice to any online seller with an eye fixed on the future would be to join a group such as the WBM and stick with it, since such a group as ours already offers and will be offering a wide range of tools designed to maximise one’s future selling power on the Internet generally, not just at its own “sales site”.

After that, I would expand the number of sites I listed at, making a strategic choice of sites covering a range of different markets.

I would set a Budget Level for what I considered a good spread of sites, and then fit as many as I could within that pre-set cost cap, paying wherever possible the up-front annual or monthly fee as opposed to “commission only” deals.

I would favour sites which provided passage and traffic to my private website, which latter is the “node” around which I would be looking to slowly build my real Internet bookselling future.

In my case, I set $2500 p.a. (all numbers in $AUD) as my “spending limit” for Internet exposure, and have allocated that allowance as follows:

ABE ($650); WBM/private website ($450); Biblio ($140 monthly rent $US 10); Antiqbook ($$500 annual fee, no commission thereafter); ($500 annual fee, no commission threafter); Alibris ($500); Choosebooks ($0, commission only site); Biblioz ($0, on-seller, no commission charged); ($200 annual fee, no commission thereafter).

I get sales on all those sites, pretty regularly. My minimum price online is $AUD 34 ($US28) and my average list price is $74 across my 5300 listings.

At ABE I pay 8% + c/c fees, at Biblio 7.5% less discounts for fulfillment, at Alibris 15%. At ALL the other sites above I pay no commission whatsoever on sales under this strategy.

Now $2500 ($US 2100) is really a small price to pay for the coverage gained from listing at the TEN sites above-listed – average of just $US 200 or so for each, per annum. Peanuts.

The combo of sites leads to many books which will NEVER sell at ABE still being picked up at the smaller sites at my higher prices, because they are less-well represented there.

So that would be my advice point 2, to someone not already there – plan a set of strategically-chosen sites and then list at them all along the above lines. The WBM onload tools are obviously a huge help here.

Advice point 3 would be to make much more of a cosy, one-to-one customer relationship out of one’s on-line selling.

Keep a database of customers who ask in their orders/enquiries if you have other such stuff, or by the same author, and service this database regularly.

Ask ALL your customers when you despatch an order if they would like to get future catalogues from you in this general area – around 10% or more of them will say “Yes” and you can thus build fairly quickly a database of customers to whom you can send regular email catalogues. (WBM will help here by automating that Send Catalogue process – our WBM-BB database already has it automated for individual customers).

With libraries, other trusted booksellers and some regular ordering clients, offer them an Invoice-based system of payment – you will get many new orders this way, and only the occasional bad debt.

In other words, the raw materials for building the “next step” are those already flowing through one’s existing systems – many of us let many, many future market and sales opportunities simply slip by down the river, simply because we have not spread our nets across its width.

The seeds of our future market growth are actually buried already in our garden, and just need watering.

We do not necessarily need to go out and purchase new paddocks in which to sow them.

Well – you DID ask! [LOL!]

Guy Weller (Mr Pickwick)

6 thoughts on “Keys to a Prosperous Book Store”

  1. I have also come across a website for Indian books.It is quite a nice website.There are all kinds of books,catering to all age
    groups and especially for children

  2. Great ideas. I think you could extend the “locked cabinet” concept to the online store as well – perhaps offering one rare or unusual book a week to keep customers coming back.

Comments are closed.