BookSense.com Boots Up
Judith Rosen -- 9/18/00
Set to launch in the next few weeks, the service works out the last bugs and details
Starting in October, the ABA will begin distributing a weekly advertising-supported consumer e-newsletter. A prototype will be available at the fall regional trade shows. With the permission of the booksellers, the newsletters will be sent directly to customers who ask to be on the stores' e-mail lists.
These and other bits of information about the site were discussed by BookSense.com director Len Vlahos and marketing officer Michael Hoynes at four workshop/demonstrations in California, Massachusetts and Iowa held during the first few weeks of August. PW attended the presentation in Cambridge.
In other news, Hoynes noted that promotion for the Web site will ramp up immediately, starting with the combined August 21/28 issue of the New Yorker. BookSense.com will be part of all future Book Sense advertising, including spots on NPR slated to begin airing the first week in September. Hoynes noted that Book Sense now has more than 1,100 participating stores, giving it more stores than Barnes & Noble and Borders, which have 520 and 390 stores, respectively.
Working out the BugsTo date, said Vlahos, just over 90 booksellers have gone live with BookSense.com- powered sites--or about 9% of Book Sense stores. Baker & Taylor's Title Source database of 2.2 million books, which includes cover art for 457,000 titles, is up and running, and more art is being added daily. Admittedly, he acknowledged, BookSense.com still has a ways to go to catch up with Amazon and Barnes & Noble, but Vlahos boasted, "Our search engine is the best search engine available to independents. We're as good as Borders now."
Although Vlahos said that he was aware of roughly 80 bugs that will be corrected in the coming weeks, one not on his list is the local bookstore finder. Despite some criticism about its broad sweep--a Cambridge zip code, for instance, pulls up stores from New York to Virginia--he noted that the feature was intentionally programmed to list all BookSense.com stores within a 500-mile radius. One store-search adjustment currently in the works is to break down the list by specialties, so customers can request a list of mystery bookstores or cookbook stores.
As for pricing, Vlahos quipped, "We have some experience with price fixing." Consequently, there is no BookSense.com price. The price of a book on the site varies depending on which "local" store the customer picks. The customer then pays whatever price, shipping rate and gift wrap fees that store specifies.
Even so, a number of pricing refinements are yet to come. At present, bookstores can only specify price by binding--BookSense.com marks all of the store's hardcovers, trade paperbacks and mass markets up or down by a fixed percent. In the near future, pricing by individual ISBNs will be available, although stores won't be able to download prices into the system.
Far more problematic for some booksellers is the BookSense.com shopping cart's inability to handle books or items not on the Baker & Taylor database. This means that they can't sell signed copies or sidelines without adding a separate cart for fulfillment through their store. Vlahos called this "one of our biggest challenges," and said that ABA is committed to finding a way to download booksellers' inventories into the system next year.
How It's S'posed to BeWhen the commercial site is up, books will be drop-shipped from wholesalers first--Baker & Taylor and Ingram this year, with other wholesalers, such as K n and Book People, to be added in 2001. For now, booksellers are handling their own order fulfillment. In the future, unless the customer selects the pick-up-at-store option, orders a short-discount book, or wants the order shipped outside the U.S., it will go to the wholesalers first. "One thing," Vlahos noted, "we heard loud and clear is: no back orders from wholesalers." So, if a wholesaler is out of stock on a title, the order will bounce back to the bookseller for direct fulfillment.
Because all BookSense.com orders clear through the ABA account, a bookseller can be on credit hold with Ingram or Baker & Taylor and still have its BookSense.com orders shipped. BookSense.com handles all wholesaler payments directly, in order to get maximum discount, and automatically deducts charges from the booksellers' accounts. Booksellers will receive copies of e-mail order confirmations sent to customers, along with a daily order report from ABA. They will also get notices of sales tax collected by BookSense.com on behalf of their stores. This money will be refunded to them, so they can make local tax payments directly. Sales tax is collected only from customers in areas where stores have nexus (a legal term meaning the Web bookseller also has a physical store). As for returns, BookSense.com booksellers are required to accept returns that are in good condition, less than 30 days old and have a proof of purchase. The customer gets a store credit, which the bookseller recoups from BookSense.com.
Individual store sites that use only the BookSense.com back end, including the database and shopping cart, as well as those that use all BookSense.com content, must agree to feature at least one Book Sense 76 title and the Book Sense e-bestsellers list, which is updated daily, based on the previous seven days' sales. Additionally, independently created sites must display the BookSense.com logo and banner ad on their home page. Still under discussion is whether they may substitute the Book Sense bestsellers list for the Book Sense e-bestsellers list. Initially, the banner ads will be sponsored by Book Sense publishing partners, but, said Vlahos, "next year we will sell them to other companies." The banners will not be limited to book-oriented businesses.
BookSense.com is already in discussion with the Christian Science Monitor, among others, to set up affiliate arrangements. Again, BookSense.com will track the sales, pay the affiliates and bill the bookseller directly. Booksellers should expect to pay a commission of between 5% and 7% of the sale. In addition to securing national affiliates, Vlahos promised to help booksellers find local partners.
He reminded those who complained about the loss of additional margin on affiliate purchases that "these are sales that didn't cost you anything." Vlahos also cautioned booksellers to keep in mind that "your margin's going to be squeezed or you lose a sale to Barnes & Noble."
In other concerns, booksellers asked that BookSense.com rethink the way it handles out-of-print books. Baker & Taylor's database currently lists several hundred thousand o.p. titles, and for antiquarian and used booksellers, this can be problematic. Some suggested not listing o.p. books at all, others thought that adding the year when the book was first published would help customers better understand the discrepancy in pricing.
Hoynes stressed the importance of the Book Sense gift certificate program to BookSense.com retailers. The certificates are being redesigned with a smaller Book Sense logo and a space for a large store logo. Currently, however, BookSense.com booksellers will have to ship a physical gift certificate to those who order one, and customers will not be able to redeem the gift certificates online.
One thing that impressed many attendees was the ease with which Vlahos was able to set up a mock Web site using the BookSense.com templates. He simply typed in or checked off all the options he wanted, without any programming codes. Many special features have been written by the BookSense.com staff to speed the process of creating and updating sites. The only HTML needed is for putting headlines into bold or italics, and BookSense.com customer service will talk users through the process.
Vlahos said that because of his familiarity with BookSense.com, he could create a site in as little as two hours. Most retailers, he estimated, can expect to spend between one day and several weeks to launch their sites.
All in all, the mood of workshop participants was positive, although some issues still remain for used and antiquarian book dealers and for booksellers who carry a lot of nonbook items. For booksellers at general stores, like Beverly Bittarelli, manager of Book Ends in Winchester, Mass., BookSense.com makes a lot of sense. "I presently have BookSite.com," she said, "but I was really impressed. I signed up for the beta test. My goal at the bookstore is simply to have a Web site where people can order books." Caryn Case, owner of Compass Rose Book Shop in Orleans, Mass., had already signed on before the demonstration, but her site is not live yet. "I left there with all new excitement about it," she commented. "It was just the kick in the pants I needed to get it rolling."
It's not only booksellers who were moved by their first contact with BookSense.com, it's also the general public. According to Vlahos, both CNN and Yahoo picked up on the quiet launch of the BookSense.com site. As a result, within the first eight days, BookSense.com got 300,000 hits, 40,000 page views and close to 40 orders without even rolling out its advertising campaign or finishing working out the kinks.
Kepler's Honored in Readers' Choice Kepler's Books and Magazines of Menlo Park, Calif., has been awarded the San Francisco Chronicle Readers' Choice Award for the Best Bookstore on the Peninsula, taking first place for the third year in a row.
This year's award has moved Kepler's to the Readers' Choice Hall of Fame, an honor reserved for stores that have won for three consecutive years. For the poll, which is conducted through the newspaper, readers vote on their favorite retail stores and services throughout the greater Bay Area.
Benefiting from a location that serves the booming economy of Silicon Valley as well as nearby Stanford University, Kepler's has enjoyed several successful years. According to Nancy Miller, assistant manager of marketing, the honor is especially nice in a year when the first-place winners in San Francisco and the East Bay are chain stores, a Borders and a Barnes & Noble, respectively.
Founded in 1955, Kepler's is one of the area's oldest independents. As one might expect, books locally referred to as "Silicon Valley interest" and frontlist fiction are among its bestsellers. One of the Bay Area's largest children's departments, with more than 20,000 titles, plus a wide selection of scholarly books, distinguish the mix of the store's 100,000 titles.
"Recent times have been like paradise around here," Miller told PW. "That is very much due to the influx of intellectual as well as economic wealth in the area." Being in the midst of a community that is at the vanguard of online shopping, Kepler's has countered by offering services such as same-day local delivery for books ordered on its Web site, www.keplers.com.
Kepler's is proudly displaying its Readers' Choice award in the store: an oval plaque that shows the Chronicle's signature movie-man figure jumping out of his seat, applauding madly. It is a sentiment shared this month by everyone at the store.
--Barbara R ther
Volume 246 Issue 38 09/18/2000