While the rest of the book industry obsessed over all things Internet—convinced they were hurtling toward a future in which Web marketing trumped television, PDAs replaced bookshelves, and Amazon.com and its many imitators dominated retailing—bargain book wholesalers pretty much ignored the hype.

But now that the fever of unrealistic expectations that gripped other segments of the industry has broken, bargain book wholesalers are quietly discovering how the Internet can transform their business—one order at a time.

"It's just so fast," says Ben Archer, v-p of A1 Overstock (www.a1overstock.com), the remainder division of WebNotions Inc. "We'll put some things up on the front page and some of them sell out within six to seven hours. It's just a constant, quick kind of movement." Like many wholesalers' b2b sites, A1 Overstock's is relatively new, having just launched at last year's CIROBE.

Archer's comments echo those of many of his colleagues, who have found that, even at this relatively early stage, the Internet promises to make the book wholesaling business more competitive and potentially more profitable. Already, Web ordering has accelerated the pace, forcing participants to speed up or risk getting stranded in the slow lane.

In the time it takes for a sales rep to shake hands and exchange small talk with a customer, a retailer sitting at a computer can buy up the last copies of a popular title. And about that retailer—he may be thousands of miles away, maybe in a time zone where it's the middle of the night, working for a company almost no one has heard of. For him, the Internet is the great equalizer. For wholesalers, it's a way to reach thousands of customers who never make it to the trade shows and are too small to rate a sales call.

That's not to say it's all good. The benefits come with headaches—from technical glitches to disgruntled customers who don't like getting aced out on an order by someone quicker with the mouse. Also, there are fears that the remainder business will lose its flavor as online efficiency supplants old fashion collegiality. "In a way, it will take some fun out of the business if you don't have contact with your customers," says Dean Winegardner, CEO of American Book Company (www.americanbookco.com). His company began taking Web orders just this summer, but already Winegardner sounds nostalgic for a time when offline was the only way to order. "I don't know," he muses. "I enjoy talking to the customers."

For now, though, the emergence of online ordering shows no sign of eclipsing the need for traditional methods of selling bargain books. The 2002 CIROBE was widely considered the busiest ever and no one seems to think the Internet will reverse the show's momentum. Consider what has happened in retail bookselling. In the past five years, as Barnes & Noble.com was increasing its annual book sales from $61.8 million to $422.8 million, Barnes & Noble Booksellers was still able to increase its sales nearly 30%. Likewise, the bargain book wholesaling business seems to be evolving into an industry where new and old ways of doing business complement each other.

The Fastest Keyboard Wins

To push the B&N vs. B&N.com parallel a little further—just as the strength of the two channels varies depending on the book and the customer, the Internet's benefits rise and fall depending on the type of book being sold, the needs of the customer and the focus of the wholesaler.

The hotter the book, the more the speed of the Internet counts. Archer recalls having a shipment of Barbara Ehrenreich's bestseller Nickel and Dimed at a trade show. Once word got out, customers flocked to the booth and bought out the title—or so they thought. Turns out, while they were on the floor placing orders, another trade show attendee was upstairs in his pajamas, sitting at his laptop, snatching up the last of the copies.

Sometimes, a title moves so fast the only way to even know about it is through the Web. That was the case in June, when Daedalus Books (www.daedalus-wholesale.com) got a 1,100-copy shipment of the paperback of Naked by David Sedaris. "We sold every copy we had in the month of June and it was almost all on the Web," says director of wholesale operations Tamara Stock.

Wholesalers are split on the continued need for print catalogues. But if they do use them, wholesalers say some titles never get listed because they sell out on the Web in between catalogue mailings. "We have books that we've barely priced and they've sold out," says Jeff Press, president of World Publications (www.wrldpub.com). Nevertheless, Press, who notes that only about 10% of his business comes through the Internet, sees limited potential for online ordering. After all, for every Naked or Nickel and Dimed, wholesalers also have to move dozens of lesser known titles like 77th Art Directors Annual and Ablaze with Light & Life.

Matthew George, remainder buyer for Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops in Milwaukee, Wis., says he uses the Internet to find about 70% of the books he buys, but he agrees that some shopping shouldn't be done in cyberspace. "There's a kind of book that I'm not inclined to buy over the Internet—any large, oversize, gifty kind of book where the presentation is the thing that will sell it," he says. "When it comes to a popular fiction title, I don't need to see it to buy it."

Press also questions whether the chains and other big buyers would ever move their ordering to the Web when they can visit World's showrooms in New York and Boston, get visited by sales reps and attend trade shows. What Press does see is an increase in business from small, independent retailers, many of which are operating overseas. "It certainly gets us out there and into the hands of people who wouldn't find us otherwise," he says. In fact, Press believes access to wholesale books on the Web is giving birth to many tiny operations, further increasing the pool of potential customers.

For retailers old and new, the Web makes the process of finding and ordering books more egalitarian. Daedalus has a mailing list of 1,900 bookstores in the U.S. alone, but only five sales reps: four in-house and one commission. Do the math and it's obvious most bookstores aren't going to be getting a phone call to alert them when the next Tom Clancy or Nora Roberts is on its way. But they can all watch the Web.

"Unless you happened to be on one of the sales reps' A-list, you didn't necessarily get timely information," Stock says. "Now anybody can see what's new any day, any time."

That's giving rise to a whole new approach to ordering, turning some retailers into online junkies who keep a near constant watch on wholesalers' sites, ready to pounce the moment names like Grisham or Cornwell appear on the screen. George isn't quite that vigilant—he typically logs on to his favorite wholesaler sites once a day to see what's new—but he's become a big fan of the Web's immediacy. "It's great because as soon as a book comes in it's posted; you only see a rep once a month," he says.

Web sites have also become a de facto marketing tool for wholesalers, used to supplement their appearances at trade shows. For Webster Wholesale Books (www.websterwholesalebooks.com), which does not print catalogues, the site is the best way to reinforce in-person contacts. "At the shows, we can hand them cards and say, 'check out our Web site,' " says Webster's Tim Ryan.

An expanded base of customers, more timely information and speedier ordering all add up to faster turnover of inventory. As if that weren't incentive enough, there's another big advantage—suddenly setting up an account and waiting to pay an invoice starts to look inconvenient. Says Ryan, "It's easier for them to say, 'What the heck, I'll just pre-pay with a credit card.' "

It's Not Pretty, but It Works

With no accepted industry standard, wholesalers' b2b Web sites vary greatly in form and function. Their development is usually less a matter of deciding what a site should be able to do than figuring out what can be accomplished given the limited time, money and technical expertise a wholesaler has to put into a site.

"We'd like to make it prettier," Ryan says of his company's site. "There are some things we'd like to add." The homepage, all text except for one book cover, has a look that might generously be called utilitarian, and it doesn't get much flashier from there. Upgrading it would take money the company isn't inclined to spend at the moment. As it is, the site manages to account for about 90% of the business the company does on an average day. "For basic orders, people think it's okay," Ryan says.

The b2b Web site for Daedalus is more advanced, with pictures of the company's warehouse and employees that can be accessed from the log-in page, a sophisticated key word search, and the option of skipping the book cover picture for customers who already know what it looks like and want to move faster through the process. In developing the site, the company benefited from expertise gained through years of having a retail Web site—and from the successes and mistakes of wholesaler competitors who got out there earlier.

The bells and whistles are still shiny new, the site having been launched just this spring at BookExpo America. So what took the company so long? "We decided to do it in-house because we didn't really want to spend the money to go outside," Stock says. "But our in-house people didn't have the time."

Time is no small barrier, even after a site is launched. Marie Roukas, president and owner of Warehouse Books (www.warehousebooksinc.com), says she updates the listing of books on her Web site about once a month. It's a two-person shop—just Roukas and her husband—so a run of unexpected family obligations can put her even further behind. To keep the site up-to-the-minute, she says, "either I'd have to hire a part-time person, or work even longer hours, which is pretty much impossible."

Still, with the three-year-old site, Warehouse can get information out to customers faster and less expensively than through offline methods. The site enables the company to forgo printed catalogues, saving tens of thousands of dollars a year.

Overall, the Internet evolution is meeting more than a little resistance. Wholesalers say many of their customers see online ordering as cold and impersonal. Some retailers use the Web for research, even going so far as to fill their virtual shopping cart full of books, then insist on calling the company to place the order. Others have trouble even getting that far online. Newcomers to cyberspace find themselves baffled by terms like "log-in" and "password."

"The biggest issue is just getting customers signed up," says Stock of Daedalus, which launched its site at BEA this year. "That seems to be a major hurdle. Once they get signed up, they have fun with it."

American Book Co.'s Winegardner reports that since his company launched its site this summer about half have embraced it, while the other half prefer to stay offline. "Believe it or not, some of our customers don't even have the Internet," he says.

That may seem out of step in a world where consumers go online to order everything from contact lenses to their next date. As Archer of A1 Overstock puts it, "We're a stodgy old bunch. We're talking about books; they've been around for a while. We're just slow to change."