Virtual Business

cameronportrait.jpg I’m embarrassed! A babe in the woods (well, the Forest of Atholl) wrote a gee-whiz piece about the wonders of looking books up on the internet. Those book-brethren or sistren who are already active on the internet forebore from tutorial responses. Perhaps a few who hadn’t tried it yet took heart – I hope so.

As a direct result of that little foray, looking for prices and bibliographic information on books about tartans, I have become an e-business. (Actually it is ‘we’ who are e-selling our books, but John delegates superbly, and has managed to keep his fingers free of computer keys, even phone or fax buttons.) So here’s my gee-whiz piece on the wonders of selling books on the internet.

Five easy steps – get software, list books, take orders, send books, get money – and only the first might be unfamiliar to anyone who already does catalogue business – but the possibilities for mishap are enormous!

The software is pretty straightforward, if you’re comfortable with your computer. You can pay £35 for Booklist, or sign up with Abebooks for $20 a month and download Homebase for free. Both are credible. Many booksellers use both. My husband was already Booklisting when I downloaded Homebase, a process which took an anxious afternoon because it didn’t want to come through in one simple wodge. Fortunately, the computer and the internet knew what to do, and I just had to sit looking at the screen like a baby-sitter, clicking maternally now and then.

Next, listing. The internet doesn’t take in your book information by telepathy. It has to be keyed, corrected and sent. John, as a bookbinder-finebooker, is a meticulous craftsman, measuring his tomes to the quarter-inch, and describing the bindings impeccably, though he doesn’t always remember to mention what’s inside. I, on the other hand, am a more boffo bookshop, delighted to capture the flavour of Lady Fortescue, but sometimes forgetting the boards are green (is that cloth, buckram or ‘board’?). My flying fingers and his tidy bits of paper combined to input several hundred books. As listing gets easier and people buy, you do more, which will ultimately cost a bit more.

Taking orders is a charming process, full of e-messages with 84 Charing Cross Road overtones.

When you have finally settled the price, (advised on family history resources or cranberry sauce recipes…) acquired the Visa number and made out your invoice, you still have to physically send the book (or books) to the lovely customer. I was born with genetic envelope-aversion, but John is fabulous with prawn crackers and bubble-wrap. I wrapped four lots for a Florida customer a few months ago, gaily put them in the post, and everything that could go wrong went wrong: I didn’t insure, and one parcel never arrived. I had three notices from the Post Office that there wasn’t enough postage (I didn’t grass on the local sub-postoffice), and had to send largish cheques. One arrived seriously damaged, and I hadn’t packed it well enough. After all the e-mails, I had to find a refund slip and make good on my bad job.

If the book is a two-volume Registrum Brechinensus going to Hong Kong, it can cost nearly £20, even slow freight. The private sector may be a help here; one delivery man happily gave me price info, so next time a UK customer wants all 48 volumes of my lovely large-paper Border Edition of Sir Walter, I’ll save pots of money at £14 for 10 kilos. At the moment the only nibble is from abroad, so more research is called for.

I would like the luxury of not charging until they tell me the books have arrived, but that demands more system than I have yet. Visa or Mastercard are the normal way of doing e-business. Some trusting souls send all the details with the first enquiry. Many of us settle the transaction by e-mail but fax the card details. Feels safer. Occasionally a phone call with numbers clinches the deal, which is nice.

In our household, e-business does not save time and energy. In addition to making almost every mistake in the not-yet-written book, I am growing slim(mer) running up and down stairs. The computer is upstairs. The book is downstairs. The wrapping station is out in the book barn. Whoops, the other book is down in the shop (two miles, one of them vertical). The invoice was just packed with the books, and now I have to run upstairs and rev up the computer again to get the address. Gradually a system is evolving, but it isn’t here yet.

And a system is going to be necessary!

E-business, at least for us, has been full of pitfalls, but it is inexorably growing, and seems to be bolstering our small but well-loved businesses.

Copyright Nancy Foy Cameron 2005


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