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Saturday, December 06, 2008

Bits and Pieces

If I were a Woolworth's department I'd be Pick and Mix. If I were a kind of meal - I'd be a buffet. If I were a piece of pond life (!) - I'd be one of those insects that hovers over the surface with just their toes clinging on for dear life. You see my mind is full of interesting, but fairly useless and superficial pieces of information, which do me no favours, unless you wanted me on your pub quiz team or as your "phone a friend". I could do Mastermind, but only the general knowledge bit, my specialist subject would have to be "things you didn't know you would find interesting, that won't ever help you in life but might fool people into thinking you were a knowledgable person as long as they don't actually talk to you for too long".

Let me explain. During the course of a normal working week (which by all accounts is usually about 14 hours a day, 7 days a week) I come into contact with lots of people buying books upon their given area of interest. Being a naturally nosey person, or as it would say on my cv if I had one (and I hope I never do) - "a people person", I tend to fall into conversation about that which they know lots and I know nothing. Sponge-like, my brain then absorbs these little gems for me to call upon randomly when I'm watching University Challenge (I quite like the idea of being Queens College, Cambridge to Tony's Kingston Polytechnic).

So for example this week I learnt that Brian Cook who did the famous watercolour dustwrappers for Batsford publishers (including the Little Guides) was actually Sir Brian Caldwell Cook Batsford (1910-1991) who as well as running the family firm, became a Conservative Member of Parliament for Ealing South from 1958 to 1974 but strangely there is no entry on him in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

On telling another customer that I am to domestic chores what Delia Smith is to brain-surgery he pointed out to me that it's ok just to be brilliantly outrageous (obviously this is the aura I portray), after all George Sand (the French novellist who scandalised society by dressing as a man and smoking huge cigars in public) made Chopin miserable by cooking him soggy toast. Tony nodded his head sagely when I passed on that gem.

I know that Sir Walter Scott deplored the belief in demonology and witchcraft, and James I was certain of their reality. And whilst we're on the subject of James I - in Isaac Disraeli's "Curiosities of Literature" there's an article which says:- "It was usual, in the reign of James the First, when they compared it with the preceding glorious one, to distinguish him with the title Queen James, and his illustrious predecessor by that of King Elizabeth!"

One of my customers explained to me that in old maths text books that different editors put different slants on the same material, that some editors were far more easy to follow than others and also yes, standards in maths are much less rigorous now then when he was a boy.

Everyone knows Quentin Crisps attitude towards dust, but I know that Quentin Crisp once said (on American TV) that his only ambition had always been to be a chronic invalid. Another customer told me that you should never watch a dubbed Ava Gardner movie becuase she had one of the most distinctive voices in movie history (sexy, very feminine and whispery), and another, that whilst other writers may - Shakespeare never, ever disappoints.

I may not know much, but there's definitely enough stuffed in my grey cells to make me an interesting party guest. Vol au Vent anyone?

Monday, December 01, 2008

Glory, Glory, Hallelujah!

It's a momentous day. Today, Monday 1st December 2008 is the day we reached our target of 20,000 books online. It's taken six years and its been a long, hard slog , but it's the only business plan we've ever had. To get there we have had to enter 38,000 books and sold 18,000 of them. Many, many times I have thought we were never going to do it, but we have. What an achievement. I am a very happy bunny.
Book No. 20,000 online was this one Hydrostatics and Mechanics - how fascinating does that sound? ;)
No sooner did we have 20,000 online than we sold four books in one fell swoop and had to rush to get back there all over again, but no matter. I am now officially allowed to get a life, go out in the daytime, enjoy myself and stop working so bloody hard.
Glory, Glory Hallelujah! I am in bookseller heaven.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Mixed Feelings

I have certain books I become really attached too. I know that sounds like I'm a bit of a moon-howler, but it's true. Usually I delay putting these up for sale because I like to look at them and they give me a sense of inner calm (even I admit that it sounds a bit crazy but if you love books I think you'll understand what I mean.) Eventually I get a little stack of them and Tony gently tells me that it's time for them to be put up for sale - he's quite indulgent of my weakness though and says that I should offer them for a price that I will be happy with when they do sell, but without fail, with my special books, I alway have a feeling of loss when one gets sold.

Now you might think that these books are always really expensive, or rare, but that's not always the case, and I don't think that's my motive. Often, it's because the particular book gave me a real insight into its previous owner. When you buy a library of somebody's books, it often gives you an impression of the character, an overview of the person and their life. Booklovers tend to accumulate books over their entire lifetime and when they shuffle off to that great old bookshop in the sky, you can trace their life history, often from childhood to old age by the books that they owned. You can see their lives develop through their library. Shakespeare of course got it right - "one man in his time plays many parts" and it's this I think that fascinates me.

Last year we bought such a collection. The gentleman in question was passionate to the point of obsession, about the life of T.E. Lawrence - Lawrence of Arabia. Not only did he have hundreds of books about his hero, but he also had books on Lawrence's interests - including a large selection of medieval history books - which Lawrence studied at university. As well as books he had film posters, stills and this one huge book about The Making of David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia. Inside the book he had kept all sorts of newspaper articles, cuttings and photos about Lawrence, which he had collected over many years. I like it when people put articles like this in books, it doesn't particularly add to their value, but to me, it makes the book more interesting.
Anyway we sold the book today and though that should make me happy, tonight I feel a bit sad - nostalgic I suppose, for my poor old gentleman and his lifetime's collection which is now being scattered to other collectors all over the world.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A bit of good karma

This morning I received an impassioned e-mail from a lady in Canada, who was trying to trace the one and only photograph of her paternal Grandmother. She believed it was in the book Arlesford in Old Photographs, but had drawn a blank in finding it, as no first editions are available anywhere, and she had been led to believe it wasn't in the second impression. Well I got our second impression copy out, had a look and low and behold there is the lady in question, on exactly the page she said it would be. I let her know, sending her a copy of the picture just to be sure and here's the e-mail I received back

Dear Sara, You have succeeded! Bravo! The lady who is my grandmother is the one behind what looks like a sawhorse, in the dark dress with the light-coloured straw hat.
The person who sent me the original information regarding the picture stated that her picture was not in the 1976 edition, but that the picture of the full-sized carousel was.
So much for the search. Seeing the pictures helped a great deal.
Thank you for taking the time to begin the search. I truly appreciate your getting caught up in the mystery of the search.
Have a great day,

So I've gone from villain to hero in one day.

Oh and on the subject of yesterday's kvetch - the lady in question has removed her feedback on Amazon (she didn't realise what misery it would cause me!), she said that she had not read the description properly and we came to an agreement so that she could keep the book and we weren't out of pocket. Over-react - Moi!!! Never!!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Amazon Feedback again...

<Begins rant> Some mad woman gave us a 1 out of 5 on Amazon today. It's my fault as I think I dared the Book Gods the other day when I mentioned that it doesn't happen very often. The thing is this women obviously can't read, so why oh why, did she have to buy a book from me?
The book in question was called " What Most Women Want, What Few Women Find" - I'm thinking that she wants a good kick up the arse.
Here's her feedback:-
1 out of 5: "I think this book was originally described as acceptabe - it certainly wasn't acceptable to me at £8.00. It was far too shabby to give to someone without apology for the state of it. I am very disappointed." Date: 2008/11/24
The poor woman is obviously beside herself with rage and misery. But what can I do? We clearly described it as a reading copy only, and went on to note that the covers were creased but internally the text block was clean. Now to me that description does not shout out "BUY ME AS A GIFT". We listed the book at Amazon's lowest grading which is as she correctly points out Acceptable (which is a horrible meaningless term don't you think?) but in this case one person's acceptable is another person's completely unacceptable. And to top it all our book, at the extortionate price of £8, was a whole £15 cheaper than the next available copy - which again I think should say to the buyer that it's not going to be a book for laying down and keeping for future generations.
Anyway I have e-mailed her via Amazon and offered her a refund, but she's not replied and Nanny Amazon won't allow us to have the buyer's e-mail direct to see if the e-mail address actually works. Our feedback rating has dropped 3% points, (one negative feedback in the last 6 months and we lose 3% - I told you Amazon were swingeing in their feedback) and I am very, very fed up.
Why don't people contact you before they do this? When you go to leave feedback on Amazon it specifically says that if you have a problem you should contact the seller first and see if it can be resolved. But it's so much less confrontational to just click 1 out of 5 and anonymously have your say. The thing is though I'm reasonable, and conscientious. I don't want unhappy customers and I can accept that maybe she didn't notice the description said reading copy or didn't understand what that meant, and I would have sorted it out before it came to this.
And to cap it all I can't even have a glass of wine to calm down.
Woe is me
<end of rant>

Friday, November 21, 2008

Hasn't he heard of the Credit Crunch?

This morning I received an e-mail from a customer asking if he could send us a cheque for this book - Viz The Fish Supper and what the total would be inclusive of p&p. I said yes, of course and told him that the total would be £7.75 inclusive. This was his reply:-

"I’ll send £8 if I may; I hate writing fiddly cheques and my arm hurts a bit this morning anyway."

Now that's my kind of man!
This is the first time ever, that somebody has offered to pay more for a book than the price we quoted. Although I did hear a story once that Michael Winner bought a book for £30 and sent the bookseller a cheque for £100 but that might just be a booksellers' urban myth.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Who's the parent?

We've had a particularly irritating day today, full of lots of little niggles and queries. This kind of thing

"Does the book have any pictures?" The description clearly states that it is illustrated with b&w photographs.

"Octavo? What does that mean? Can you tell me the exact size of the book?" Actually this one I wouldn't have minded, I honestly don't expect everyone to know what octavo means but it was a Wilbur Smith hardback and they just come in the one size - if you've bought one - you know what it is.

"My book hasn't arrived yet - where is it? Are you scamming me?" No I'm not - you are in the United States, I am in England, you ordered the book on Monday and it's now Wednesday, and Concorde doesn't operate anymore.

And this was my favourite "Can I collect this book to save on postage?" Well yes, of course you can, but you might find that the round-trip from Australia to Dunstable will be a little more costly than the £4 postage I would charge you.

Anyway - that's been the general form of the day so we decided to go to the pub to wind down. It can be a lonely existence being an online bookseller, and its good sometimes to remember that there is a world out there. So off we trot, telling Kirsty to turn the oven off when it beeps in 40 minutes and we'll be back in about an hour to feed her. Just as we were finishing our drinks - me a glass of sparkling water (I'm off booze) and Tony a well-earned pint, our friends, Rose & Ian walked in. Well it would have been rude to have just said Hello/Goodbye, so we stayed for another and we lost track of time.

We arrived home about an hour and a half later to receive the kind of bollocking from Kirsty that your mother would have given you, if you'd arrived home at 2 in the morning smelling of dope. "Where've you been? I was worried about you! Dinner's ruined! I laid the table, lit the candles and had to blow them out again! If I'd have treated you like this you would have grounded me for a month (true!), You treat me so badly!" On and on it went, she stropped all the way through dinner, and is as we speak, playing her guitar very loudly in protest at our total lack of respect for her.

I have apologised. I did say she could have called us if she was that worried - but she pointedly informed me that she's got no credit (dig, dig). I have now given up. Hell hath no fury like a hungry teenage daughter.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Spare a thought for the poor writer

You would think, wouldn't you, that authors would have unlimited supplies of their own books, but this is just not so. Every now and again we get an author contacting us to buy a copy of their own book. I had just such a call today, from the author Stuart Stirling. Yesterday he bought online, a copy of his book The Last Conquistador, he received it this morning and was ringing to see if we had any more copies. Unfortunately we don't but I put him onto another website where I thought he might strike lucky. The point is that authors are usually only allocated a few copies by their publishers and once they have distributed them to assorted proud family members and friends, they find themselves in a position where they have to buy any extras they require. It seems wrong somehow to charge an author for his own book, but they are usually, on the whole, jolly nice about it. I know I'd be extremely peeved if it were me.

The book tells the story of the last of the Spanish conquistador to die aged seventy-eight leaving a unique and famous apology for the conquest in his will.. During his lifetime he played a central part in the conquest of the Incas, survived imprisonment and torture, took an Inca princess as a lover, abandoned his wife for the gaming tables of Lima and spent the rest of his life in Peru.
It sounds fab - no?

Monday, November 10, 2008

We buy books but...

I do not want to buy your very lovely modern set of Encyclopaedia Britannica, or your nice leatherette Heron books which look so pretty on your shelf with their ornate gold coloured decoration and jewel-coloured covers. I'm not interested in your complete set of Dickens that look old. I have no need for any Mills and Boon romances. Spare me the embarrassment of saying no to your Book Club Editions, which may look like the real thing but whose paper browns quicker than an old leathery sun-worshipper. Reader's Digest Condensed - oh give me a break. If it's in really good condition except for the fact that the covers aren't attached, chances are I'm not bothered. I don't much like childrens' books which are covered in crayon scribble, or old books which are damp stained and mildewy. Just because a book is old, does not mean it's worth a fortune -they used to make lots of them you know, in the old days, before Eastenders, and mainly they aren't saleable.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

To quote the immortal words of MeatLoaf

Two out of Three ain't bad....but let me tell you Four out of Five is really damned irritating.

Let me fill you in. As well as eeking out a meagre living by selling books on our own site, we also sell on various other online sites, one of which is the mighty Amazon. Now Amazon believe in feedback. It is the heart of their Marketplace system - helping the buyer to sort the good from the bad. Survival of the fittest and all that. Whilst you'll hear a lot of sellers kvetching about this, on the whole I'm not all that bothered - we work hard, we ship quickly we get lots of 5's. But - and this is a big emboldened BUT I absolutely do have a problem with people who say everything was excellent and then give us 4 out of 5. Below are actual pieces of feedback we've received

4 out of 5:
"Perfect seller!"

4 out of 5:
"I'm very pleased"

4 out of 5:

4 out of 5:
"Very happy"

4 out of 5:
"Book arrived in excellent condition"

4 out of 5:
"Order arrived on time. Accurate description. I would recommend to a friend."

I have to say that my problem isn't so much with the people who gave us 4 - though quite why they couldn't click the 5 button is an unfathomable mystery sometimes. Usually though they were happy, we were happy they were happy, everything was hunky-dory. But the point is, and bear with me I am getting to it, Amazon weren't happy. Every time somebody gives us 4 out of 5 for a transaction they were genuinely happy with, Amazon penalize us and drop our rating a bit. Unfortunately they don't make that clear to the feedback leaver (feedbackee?) who carries on in total oblivion, thinking that in leaving us a 4 they think they were doing us a favour, whereas in fact a 4 is a great big poisoned chalice, might as well just go the whole hog and say we were pants and give us a 1.

So when leaving feedback in future dear buyer, be generous, let your heart rule your head, give yourself a pat on the back, good karma yourself up, think big and leave sellers 5 out of 5 (unless they were pants of course).

And to all you teachers out there (for you seem to be the guilty ones more often than not) who love to give 4's in the hope that you can inspire us into trying a bit harder - do me a favour and go buy your books from some great big Mega Lister who can cope with the ratings loss. We little independents need all the help can get.