Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Virtual Bookseller

I'm feeling quite cheerful today, particularly as I've just been hearing about what an awful Christmas most of our friends have had. As Tolstoy observed in Anna Karenina, people are miserable for a variety of reasons, however there does seem to be a consistent thread running through most of the anecdotes I've heard: 40-something parents, squeezed between demanding young children and needy, elderly parents, several of whom have become too ill to return home and are still in Lewes.

My mother-in-law attempted to spend Christmas with us, but had to abandon her journey because of the appalling weather. She got as far as Victoria Station, which was apparently full of exhausted, folorn-looking pensioners, dragging wheeled suitcases of presents. In their ap-free existence, they were blissfully unaware that the entire transport network had been shut down.

Our Christmas was rather pleasant, apart from my growing conviction that I was going to die soon.

I'm trying to convalesce, but it's difficult. When you work for a company or organisation, sick leave can feel like a minor victory against the machine. But now I'm the machine and I can't afford to take two weeks off, so I've been making short trips to work to fulfill orders and deal with enquiries.

I'm relieved that I don't run a bookshop. I entertained the idea a few years ago, but was warned off by James Heneage, the former MD of Ottakar's. I'm very glad that I listened. I would have had to borrow money, either to buy an existing business or establish a new one and would have been servicing a debt in the face of declining book sales.

Selling on the internet is easy, compared to running a shop. I don't have to start work at 9.00 and no longer have to worry about window displays, bestsellers, promotions, local parking charges, bad weather, staff sickness, health and safety audits, cashing-up, cleaning, deliveries, Christmas opening hours, signing sessions or dealing with customers. I have no 'brand'. I just sell my books for a pound or two less than the next person.

If I work full time, I know that I will be able to cover the monthly bills and food shopping. If I put my feet up and start watching too many 1970s drama series in the afternoon, I'm confident that my bank account will go into the red halfway through the month, so that's my incentive to work.

I've noticed that each country I sell to has its own quirks. German customers can be obsessed with delivery times, but are scrupulously honest. Italian buyers often seem pleasantly surprised when the book actually arrives, as if it is an unsual occurence. Americans rarely leave feedback unless they are annoyed, which distorts the seller rating.

Some of them are also very sensitive to 'odors'.

I realise that it is rather offputting if a book smells and if I detect a strong scent of tobacco or mildew, I'll either bin the book or mention it in the listing. Unfortunately, judging by the comments I receive, a small number of books slip through the net, probably because my nasal acumen has been dulled by the cowshed opposite my unit:

Perhaps I should hold each book close to my nose and have a good sniff. But I don't fancy the idea of spending several hours a day inhaling spores and dust particles. I'm not sure what the answer is.

Britain appears to be the home of pedants. My actual customers are fine, but I occasionally receive strongly-worded emails from browsers informing me that my book listing about so-and-so is woefully inaccurate and that the real first edition was published with a blue cloth cover in 1872. Sometimes, the timing (usually sent after 10.00pm) and tone suggests that the author has had a few drinks.

Of course I don't like to make mistakes, but if the only existing record for a title is in error, I have no way of telling. I welcome politely-worded corrections, but take exception to the more pompous, boorish emails.

I'm also slightly irritated by the emails I get from secondhand booksellers, particularly the ones in block capitals that read: "PLEASE ADVISE BEST PRICE INCLUDING DEALER DISCOUNT AND 2ND CLASS POST."

In a nutshell, they want to buy a book from me for around £4 and sell it on for a markup. I've no objection to that. If a seller has found customers who are prepared to pay more, then good luck to them. But when they want me to give them a 10% discount, cheaper postage and pay by cheque (which requires a time-wasting trip to the bank), I become rather grumpy and want to say "Just buy the book, like everybody else".

Fortunately, most of the people I deal with, in every country, are thoroughly decent and reasonable (they are bibliophiles, after all) and the majority of emails are from customers telling me how delighted they are with their purchase. It's particularly gratifying when someone has been reunited with a much-loved book from their youth.

Perhaps the aspect of my work that I find most satisfying is when a book that was destined for the scrapheap - literally - now has a new lease of life, bringing pleasure to another generation of readers. My business is small enough for me to care about each individual order and I enjoy finding out why Mrs X in Wyoming has spent so many years looking for the 1927 novel I've just sold to her.

The other advantage of selling on the internet is that my working hours are completely flexible, which means that I can deal with my son's various problems without having to take time off. Sometimes a whole day can be lost to medical appointments or a sudden crisis, so it is useful to be in a postion where I can catch up at the weekend.

I often go to work on Sunday, but I don't like it. The building creaks and groans, with noises that sometimes sound as if someone is standing behind me. It's very M. R. James at times.

I mention M. R. James as if I'm familiar with his works, but apart from one short story and the odd BBC drama, I'm a stranger to his oeuvre; probably because I find it hard to become engaged with something I don't believe in. I prefer the more worldly company of Anthony Trollope.

On the subject of Trollope, again, I'll end with this anecdote, which I forgot to mention in my last post:

One day, Trollope was in his club and heard two men complaining bitterly about how annoying one of his characters was, in a story that was being serialised. Trollope tapped both men on the shoulder and said: "Gentlemen, I shall have her killed within the week."


Helena said...

It occurred to me while reading this that maybe the proximity of the cowshed is causing the odour (rather than merely preventing you from detecting it). I'm also feeling guilty for never providing feedback on the books I buy!

Hope you feel stronger and fitter soon.

Steerforth said...

Helena - That's a good theory, but fortunately it's not the case. Most of my books are fine, but a small number have been kept in damp places or a room occupied by a smoker.

My rule of thumb is that if I can't smell anything at a distance that I'd normally hold a book when reading, then there's no problem.

Travellin Penguin- Pam said...

What a laugh. The stereotyping of all nationalities in receiving books. Loved the Americans. You should sell to more Australians. We're pretty easy going down here. Perhaps you could find a young child with a keen sense of smell of work for you and you could pay them in lollies. All the best

Annabel (gaskella) said...

Love that Trollope quote! Hope the recovery is going well.

Steerforth said...

Pam - I sell quite a few books to Australians, but they're not that different to the British (sorry to disappoint).

Of course, the stereotypes are the exception rather than the rule. Only a tiny minority of Americans worry about book odours and only a quarter of the Germans fret about delivery times, but these minorties are more pronounced in each country.

The issue of feedback in the USA is a real problem. I sell lots of books to America and if nobody leaves postive feedback, then one negative feedback can reduce my seller rating by 20%! I once sold a perfectly good (and accurately described) book to a woman in New York who, for some reason, left negative feedback. My overall rating dropped sharply and I probably lost several hundred pounds' worth of orders.

Steerforth said...

Annabel - Thanks. The recovery is going well - my days of lounging around reading Trollope are numbered.

Canadian Chickadee said...

It's good to hear that you're feeling more cheerful. The fact that your surgery is behind you probably helps, as does the fact that we are looking ahead towards spring. And I know how pretty the landscape is down where you and your warehouse are -- even with the mucky ol' cows!!

Take care and God bless, xoxoxo Carol

PS - the numbers for content moderating contain the two separate digits,"24" -- the number of Marshawn Lynch, one of Seattle Seahawks' best football players, and today is a HUGE game against San Francisco. If the Hawks win, they go to the Super Bowl on Feb. 2nd. I am hoping this is a good omen. Keep your fingers crossed and stay tuned for details .... xoxox

Anonymous said...

Ah, yes, I know it's dodgy to suggest stereotypes, but your characterisation of Italian customers' surprise
at deliveries actually arriving corresponds with my own experiences. I have an expat friend living in the country
who discourages me from sending anything more substantial than email owing to the unlikelihood of parcels actually making
arrival (these are CDs, and English-language DVDs) due to ... 'something wrong' with the Italian customs/Post Office equivalent.
Similarly, films I've purchased from second-party sellers on Amazon Italy don't appear to leave the country. Sorry to any Italian readers
of this blog!

As a born n' bred Channel Islander, I feel a bit less guilty suggesting the customs office on Jersey has a problem delivery parcels
to my family intact. Never had to sell a book there, however.


Canadian Chickadee said...

Well, the number 24 was a good omen after all. We won, 23-17. The Seahawks are going to the Super Bowl, Baby! xoxo

Martin Hodges said...

You're doing a job that you love, Steerforth, and you only have yourself to answer to. Stick with it. The alternatives don't bare thinking about.

A friend and former colleague left her job to set up as a bookseller. She always maintained it was the best decision of her life. And I have to say, I had never seen her so happy. Sadly, she was later diagnosed with cancer, and the business was taken on by someone else. I expressed an interest in it myself, but didn't have the experience (or courage) to give it a shot. I've often wondered if that was a lucky escape or a missed opportunity.

Steerforth said...

Carol - Yes, not long until spring - my favourite time of the year. This winter hasn't been too bad apart from a deluge of Biblocal proportions. I've only had to scrape ice off the car a few times. However, according to BBC News, a sudden reduction in sunspot activity means that we could be having frost fairs on a frozen Thames next year.

Is the Super Bowl a sort of cup final? I'm glad that Seattle's through - we rainy places have to stick together ;)

Richard - That's interesting about Italy. I wonder if it's the postal system as a whole, or whether there are marked differences between the north and south of the country. There are certain countries where I know an order will always arrive, e.g. Sweden. There are others where I'm almost tempted to cancel the order.

Martin - I think it was probably a lucky escape, as bookselling has become increasingly difficult over the last 20 years. I'm very sorry to read that your friend's time in bookselling was cut short by cancer, but at least she found happiness for a while.

Canadian Chickadee said...

Hi, Steerforth,

Yes the Super Bowl is very much like a cup final. It's the final game of the year, and involves surviving what seems like endless rounds of playoffs. I am still shaking my head at the win. But win they did, with a spectacular play in the last few seconds that sealed the deal for Seattle.

Yes, I do think we rainy places must stick together. In fact, the similarities between Seattle and England's climate may be one reason why I always feel so at home in England.

Love, Carol

Debra said...

I thought of you this weekend as I tramped between the Gare de Lyon and the Arc de Triomphe, a four hour hike in the city (at least the weather was good). I bought a book that I had been vaguely looking for at a bouquiniste's stall, and we had a nice chat for about 20 minutes.
He told me that he had left an office job that was sapping his soul, and started out bookselling by fishing books out of the trash and proposing them to other bouquinistes. (For those who do not know this, a bouquiniste is a person who sells books and memorabilia in a stall along the Seine in Paris.)
It is an entrepreneur's life, as they have a fixed place along the Seine, and come and go as they please, basically. Their places are allotted by the city of Paris, and they work as independants, so there is some red tape, but probably not a ton.
I don't know where he sleeps though, as he certainly does not turn the profit that does, and Paris is a very expensive city.
Bouquinistes are an institution in Paris.
After reading what you said about Americans, I promptly returned to... amazon, and gave some ratings. It is not very motivating though, as most booksellers are a lump in my.. book. Only a few truly stand out, through some laudable attempt to give personalized service, with sometimes even that luxury of luxury, a short PERSONAL note. THOSE... I remember.
I just finished "Women in Love", one of the twentieth century's greatest masterpieces, if I haven't already said it here... on to Dostoievsky's "Devils" in English translation.
Will you please set down a link, or something to YOUR booksite, so I can mark it ? Thanks.

Steerforth said...

Carol - I watched a bit of American Football when I was in California (only on television, I hasten to add) and was baffled by it. Stop-start, stop-start. But I'm equally baffled by Rugby. In fact, by most sports.

I'm a dab hand with a frisbee though.

Debra - Thanks for introducing me to a new word - bouquiniste - they sound like people after my own heart. I imagine that like most of the 'Londoners' you see in London, they live in a nearby town or outer suburb.

MikeP said...

Over the past couple of months I've seen a possible career in internet bookselling evaporate...ahead of a move to Australia, for at least a couple of years, and wearying of the storage costs, I've been having a clear-out of a lifetime of book collecting (and, being a publisher, book acquiring and, um, thieving). I've taken hundreds and hundreds of books to the local hospice warehouse (who have shops all over Cornwall), where they are gratefully received. Some of them are a challenge for your average charity shop, I suspect, so they may end up with you or someone like you. I did briefly toy with getting in touch, but the logistics were a bit off-putting, and the process does involve a lot of pondering - it's easier just to fill the car up one load at a time (7 so far, and it's not over). I'm not giving them all away - some I'm keeping (especially the old Penguins I bought 50 years ago), and some I'm putting on eBay anyway. I'm saving up for business class tickets to Oz!

I tend to agree about US feedback. I once sold an old magazine that contained a few Sylvia Plath poems to a woman in the US, taking great care with the description of contents and condition. Her feedback was, "So few poems, such a sad life," as if it was my fault! Only negative feedback I've ever had in 12 years.

Steerforth said...

Mike - I thought you lived in Sussex. Two years in Australia sounds a splendid idea - somewhere I'd love to get to know.

As a buyer I love the feedback system; as a seller I have deep reservations. One woman in London effectively killed off an early venture of mine by giving me negative feedback for late delivery. It was irritating because she knew that there was a postal strike, but wouldn't respond to my request to change her rating.

EBay make it very difficult to sell large quantities of books, as their threshold is ridiculously high and sellers have to jump through so many hoops to maintain their account. I sell the odd book, but I wouldn't put my inventory on eBay.

MikeP said...

No, it's my mother who's in Sussex!

Know what you mean about eBay - I made a good score a few years ago, and they/PayPal forced me to open a business account, which causes all kinds of bother. But it's easier and quicker to attract attention for a one-off on eBay.

The Poet Laura-eate said...

Yes, that is a cheek asking for a 'daaler's discount or a discount on postage as if you could somehow get cheaper postage than they!

Brilliant anecdote re Trollope!

Hope you are feeling a lot better now. The flexible hours must indeed be useful, though no sick pay is a bit of a bummer. Lx

on site said...

England: the land of indigo cows.

Steerforth said...

Aren't they indigo everywhere?